One day after two players had their seasons – and perhaps careers – ended by concussions, the Cleveland Browns practiced in full pads.
In the NFL, there’s no time for sentimental sendoffs.
The 1-10 Browns, banged up and crawling to the finish line, have moved on. They have no choice.
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On Thursday, players were still coming to terms with the fact that Jamal Lewis, a bruising, durable running back who may one day make the Hall of Fame, had played his last down.
Lewis was placed on injured reserve Wednesday, effectively ending his 10-year career with five games left. The 30-year-old had planned to retire after this season, but was forced out early after telling the team he was experiencing concussion-related symptoms and consulting with doctors.
“I feel bad for him based on everything that he’s gone through and the career he’s had, to go out on IR, if it is his last game, you don’t want to see a guy do that,” said quarterback Derek Anderson. “You want to see him finish the right way, and at least finish the season healthy.”
Browns coach Eric Mangini said Lewis did not complain of any symptoms until Monday, a day after what turned out to be his final game in Cincinnati. Mangini said the team began immediate tests on Lewis.
Anderson has known Lewis since they played together in Baltimore. He said his close friend told him that he visited a specialist on Tuesday.
“He told me he went, but I didn’t really get into details,” Anderson said.
It’s still not known if Lewis’ career was stopped by a single blow to the head in the Bengals game or the cumulative effects of 131 regular-season games and roughly 1,000 practices. Obviously, Lewis didn’t encounter contact on all those occasions, but his battering-ram running style made him more susceptible to concussions.
“He’s a big back, so he probably ran into a million people,” Browns running back Jerome Harrison said. “I don’t think he knows for sure what caused it.”
Browns fullback Lawrence Vickers said the loss of Lewis, who ran for more than 10,000 career yards, creates a large void on the team.
“That’s someone I’ve looked up to,” Vickers said. “We talked about his health and what he has to do. It’s a sad feeling to lose somebody I see every day. He’s a first-class type of guy and to go out that way, it’s kind of sad – not sad for him, but sad the way it happened. Jamal is always going to be OK in whatever he does.”
Along with Lewis, the Browns lost starting safety Brodney Pool to a season-ending concussion. The 25-year-old Pool has sustained at least four known concussions in his five-year career, an alarming number that has the former second-round draft pick contemplating his future.
Pool’s fragile state has some of his teammates worried.
“Every time I see Brodney get hit I get a little nervous,” Anderson said. “He and I both had concussions in New York (preseason game) and that was kind of like the blind leading the blind in the locker room. It wasn’t funny.”
The NFL’s heightened awareness of the dangers of head injuries and their long-term effects has players thinking more about their safety and long-term health. Instead of ignoring symptoms to stay on the field, the league is hoping players will tell coaches and trainers when they have symptoms.
On Wednesday, commissioner Roger Goodell sent a memo to the clubs saying a player who gets a concussion should not return to action on the same day if he shows certain symptoms.
Most players saw it as a positive step.
“At the end of the day there’s something out there more important than what we’re doing right now, there’s your family and living a good life,” Anderson said. “Guys are trying to be smarter with it. Throughout the league there’s been a lot of guys missing time and taking extra precautions with it. Guys are looking into it more than they have in the past.”
Anderson said deciding whether to tell the truth is a dilemma all players face at some point in their careers.
“Guys want to win, but at the same time you can’t put your life in jeopardy,” he said. “Guys who have had a concussion, you can go out there and get one little ding and you might have a stroke. Guys are starting to figure out you’ve got to protect your brain.
“It’s such a cutthroat business, if you’re not out there for a few weeks your job’s gone. Guys know that, this league doesn’t last very long, they want to show they can play when they’re dinged up. I guarantee everybody in here has probably had one (concussion). That’s the nature of the business.”