EDEN PRAIRIE, Minn. — Symptoms had subsided quickly for Minnesota Vikings center John Sullivan in last week’s game at Buffalo and he argued to return to the field with his team facing an important scoring opportunity in an eventual loss.
Handling another concussion was replaced by Sullivan’s commitment to his team, a dilemma all too familiar to Sullivan and other NFL players.
Minnesota’s starting center since 2009, Sullivan felt fine. The concussion symptoms were gone and he wasn’t being allowed back in. Sullivan disputed Vikings head athletic trainer Eric Sugarman, who wanted one more test for Sullivan. On the way back to the locker room, Sullivan experienced a spell of dizziness.
Sullivan sat out the rest of Sunday’s 17-16 loss.
"It’s hard because you can get caught up in the moment," Sullivan said Friday. "I wanted to go back into that game. It’s tough because you don’t want to tell a guy how to live your life, but we have a responsibility to be honest about what we’re going through with those hits and it’s really difficult to do any studies if guys aren’t being truthful about what they’re going through.
"It’s hard because you feel like you have a duty to yourself and your health and your family to tell the truth and at the same time, even though you are suffering symptoms, you feel like you are letting your teammates down because you’re not out there. I felt horrible that I wasn’t able to play the rest of the game, but I had to be honest."
Given time, Sullivan passed concussion testing this week and is probable for Sunday’s game at Tampa Bay. The anchor of Minnesota’s offensive line will be back in the middle as he’s been for 84 games the past five-plus seasons.
Sullivan hasn’t missed a game since 2011, starting 47 straight. He’s only missed three games since becoming a starter in 2009. The last time he was held out in 2011 was for another concussion. All told, Sullivan knows he’s had five concussions. Like many NFL players, the number could be more.
Sullivan, 29, doesn’t get caught up in the number.
"It’s not so much about the number specifically," Sullivan said. "If you were to have five concussions where your symptoms subside in a matter of days and you don’t even miss a game, is that as serious as one concussion that keeps you out for six months? There’s a little bit of a give and take right there and I’ve always been able to recuperate pretty quickly. I feel like my future isn’t in doubt."
There’s an emotional element to concussions.
"It’s hard, you feel like you’re letting people down," Sullivan said.
Sullivan was making a cut block in the first quarter on Sunday when he was kneed in the head on what he called a "glancing blow." The desire to return to the field was strong, but he knew he had to be honest with the team doctors.
"It’s not really that first hit that you’re concerned about, it’s the fact that if you stay in the game and, heaven forbid you catch a really big hit, now you could be pretty messed up," Sullivan said. "I could have gone back in and played the whole game and not caught another bad hit to the head and I would have been fine. But you never know and it’s really not a chance that, obviously, the NFL wants guys taking. I’m not relieved that I didn’t play, but I understand that was made."
Sullivan said he feels "normal" now and is excited to return to the field. He didn’t practice Wednesday as he was waiting to clear any final testing. He returned Thursday in a limited role and was a full participant in Friday’s practice.
The chances of getting another hit or glancing blow are still there, but Sullivan maintains he can’t change the way he plays. It’s impossible for anyone in the middle of the line to avoid collisions. But Sullivan will have to fight the urge to return quickly and will need to be honest with Sugarman, team doctors, and himself.
"Guys hit people all the time, you get a little woozy for a second, you shake it off and you’re fine but the symptoms don’t persist," Sullivan said. "If a couple minutes later you’re still feeling a hit to the head, especially because I knew I got kneed as well, you just have to listen to that and be honest."