Two days ago I wrapped up my sixth Quazcast, with former Giants tight end Kevin Boss.
Drafted in 2007, Kevin spent six seasons in the NFL, during which time he suffered five concussions (Kevin is sitting out 2013; weighing his options and such). When I asked Kevin, point blank, whether he’d trade in his NFL career (as in, it would have never happened) in exchange for the five concussions, he noted, “That’s a great question …” because saying, “Yes, I probably would.”
This is too sensible for too many NFL players. Over and over and over again, I’ve heard active and retired pros insist that, “I wouldn’t change a thing.” From guys who can barely walk to guys who can barely remember, they all insist those six … seven … eight … nine years on the gridiron were worth the ultimate costs.
Well, I call bullshit.
Maybe it was worth it for Jimmie Giles. And Tony Dorsett. And Jim McMahon. And hundreds upon hundreds upon hundreds of other football stars who lathered in the spotlight. Maybe they view those years as rewards for what they’re now facing; maybe the women and the money and the glory were fair prices. But behind the men are—almost without exception—wives and parents and children. The ones cleaning the drool off their chins. The ones trying to yank out a faded memory. The ones handling their finances; fighting their legal battles; trying to milk as much out of endorsements and appearances as humanly possible. Those, truly, are the victims of America’s most punishing sport.
So when I heard the other day that the Denver Broncos had cleared wide receiver Wes Welker for tomorrow night’s game against the Chiefs … a mere week after he suffered a concussion, well, I wanted to vomit. First, for the team (and the league) to approve a man’s return to the field seven days after a major head injury is sickening. Second, for Welker to be so short-sighted and blind to the CTE news blowing up across the nation speaks to the selective ignorance of far too many pro athletes.
The truth is, NFL players are not—first and foremost—NFL players. They’re models for merchandise: for hats and bottles and T-shirts and wrist bands and jerseys and shoes. They’re the dangling carrots for ticket buyers: pay $250 to see the Broncos, and Wes Welker will be there. Mostly, they’re utterly and completely disposable. Before Wes Welker there was Rod Smith. And Ed McCaffrey. And Vance Johnson. And Ricky Nattiel. And Rick Upchurch. At one point or another, all of these men were convinced that they had to live and die for the team … that the upcoming game against Oakland or San Diego or Kansas City was do-or-die and the most important moment of their life and … and … and … bullshit.
Wes Welker has no business playing tomorrow. Or, I’m guessing, the next several weeks. He should be sitting at home, resting, making 100-percent certain that his brain is recovered. He should be seeking the counsel of an unaffiliated doctor with zero NFL ties. He should be thinking about his wife and kids, and what their lives may well be like a decade from now, when he’s grasping for thoughts, fighting for memories and looking like a lost child, unsure whether he’s sitting in a chair or a couch.
Worst of all, John Elway—head of the Broncos—should know better. He’s an NFL legend who has watched as his contemporaries (like McMahon and Dorsett) have crumbled apart. If anyone should pull Welker aside and say, “You’re not playing this week—sorry. You’re just not.”—well, it’s him. Elway understands athletes. He understands the mindset; the machismo; the take-it-to-the-brink thought process that results, far too often, in hollowed-out bodies.
Alas, Wes Welker will play. And he will, quite possibly, live to regret it.
If he even remembers what happened.