Brandi Winans: The Unsung Hero Fighting for NFL Players

Brandi Winans’ Efforts in NFL Player Safety are Heroic

For so many of America’s elite football players, the National Football League provides a chance at celebrity, wealth and immortality. Aided by a glorified warrior mentality, the NFL hooks so many of it’s fans: inspired to emulate the passion and intensity of their favorite players.

The reality is that most NFL careers last less than four years— if at all.

Many fans are unaware of what NFL players go through after their careers end. This is largely because the NFL controls much of it’s ‘inside access’ to players through the media. Thus, fans rarely get to see the effects of NFL game play on the human body. And, because NFL stars rise and fall so rapidly, few pay attention to what becomes of these young men once their careers end.

Unfortunately, more aspiring NFL players end up living lives comparable to Shakespearean tragedies rather than the gladiators of Ancient Rome.

In the decade I have spent around the game of football, no one personifies that more than former NFL offensive lineman Jeff Winans. I first became aware of Jeff Winans’ amazing story through his incredible wife, Brandi Winans.

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Winans began his career at Modesto Junior College in California. Winans, at 6’5” 260+ pounds, was a man amongst boys in junior college. He transferred to USC and joined Coach John McKay’s Trojans in 1972. After going undefeated and winning the National Championship with USC in 1973, Winans declared for the NFL Draft.

After being selected in the second round of the NFL Draft by the Buffalo Bills, Winans’ career would be marred by injury and position changes. Winans was traded multiple times over the course of his career, most importantly to the Tampa Bay Buccaneers in 1977. In Tampa, Winans was reunited with his former coach (John McKay) and introduced to the future love of his live, Brandi Winans. She recalls:

“Jeff was 6’5″, well built, and extremely handsome, reminding me of a Greek God with his curly black hair, deep brown eyes and a sculpted black beard.”

At this point in his career, Winans was no stranger to the heavy price NFL players pay physically. He suffered a torn ACL well before advances in medicine made them easily reparable, over eleven known Concussions (back then, Concussions were informally called/diagnosed as ‘getting your bell rung’), a “crushed ankle” which would ultimately end his career and incapacitate him, and devastatingly debilitating back injuries. So many of his injuries led to chronic pain, which resulted in periods of drug use.

Sadly, Jeff Winans would succumb his to his injuries. After his death in 2012, Winans was diagnosed as having had Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy (CTE).

Brandi Winans carries Jeff’s legacy through her advocacy, never forgetting the man who’s “smile and laugh were infectious and would brighten up any room.”

Much of Jeff Winans’ career, in terms of longevity and personal satisfaction, mirrors what fans know about former NFL players. I believe the argument that some suggest is “they signed up for football, assumed the risk, and knew what they were getting into.” What is truly transformational about Jeff Winans’ story is, what his wife calls, the “Flip Side of Glory.”

Brandi Winans wrote a memoir about her life with Jeff Winans; a life spent caring for an ex-NFL player emaciated by his injuries.

The Flip Side of Glory, was one of the most revealing books about professional football that I have ever read.

Through heartbreaking anecdotes and small rays of hope, Brandi Winans’ memoir tells about a different side of the NFL. The Flip Side of Glory is about the experience of being the wife of a former player struggling to adapt to life after football.

In her book, Winans describes how she struggled for years trying to advocate on behalf of her husband.

She personally took on the NFL after the league denied Jeff’s medical benefits even though he spent eight years sacrificing his body for four different NFL franchises. In an age before Will Smith acted in movies about football’s issues with neurological injuries, Winans spoke up about the dangers of Concussions and the NFL’s aversion to fair medical research. Decades before the NFL’s issues with painkillers was exposed, Winans saw first hand the cyclical effect of player injury and a necessitation of medication to be able to play. In so many ways, Brandi Winans is one of the biggest advocates in player health and safety. I would be remiss to say she isn’t a hero of mine.

Immediately, Brandi Winans makes it clear: 

“I love football, we’re there to make the game better.”

Which is exactly what she has done. Winans now advises players attempting to adjust to life after their careers in the arena: whether that means finding physiological, psychological or neurological help, or simply trying to work through interview anxiety. Winans, who works out of South Florida, also gives presentations to auditoriums filled with athletic directors and coaches on the dangers of concussions.

Today, Winans talks openly about a time when retired NFL players weren’t treated as well as they are today.

“Thank God this is out in the open and people can open up their hearts… There’s no shame here.” She continues, “[Concussions] were taboo… they weren’t to be discussed.” In terms getting disability benefits for injuries, “[the NFL] would send you to a neutral physician who would say that you aren’t disabled anymore.”

For years, Jeff and Brandi Winans were frustrated by the NFL’s denial of disability benefits; their family needed Jeff’s disability checks in order to pay his costly medical bills. Winans was a party to one of the major NFL concussion cases litigated until last December.

As for the future, Winans calls attention to an unlikely source: football players themselves. She believes the best way to combat Concussions is to engage players. Players need to police their teammates when they exhibit signs of a Concussion during gameplay. She also believes that football players need to do a better job of creating an identity for themselves off of the field.

“My goal is to keep these family units together; expectations [on NFL players] are brutal. The loss of identity, especially after football ends, is devastating for players and the family unit… I really focus [when working with players] on the ‘who are you?’”

For anyone interested in Brandi’s incredible story and her work, I highly recommend reading The Flip Side of Glory. Winans continues to remain active in the NFL’s Alumni association and hopes to write another book soon about her work.

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