Sometimes, it takes more courage not to play
MINNEAPOLIS — Just days before his official retirement from football, Minnesota offensive lineman Jimmy Gjere's concussion symptoms returned. He acted quickly, consulting his parents and coaches, and by Monday, Gjere's decision to leave the program was official.
It's a sad story, one of reality taking hold too soon and dreams disappearing, but it's also a small victory for concussion education and awareness.
Gjere chose to do this.
Gjere recognized the issues and reported them to coaches. Gjere, who started the first five games of his Gophers career last season before he was sidelined for the season with a concussion, stopped at the point where so many others chose to ignore and go on.
At 20, Gjere has likely been inundated with education about concussions and brain injuries in sports. It's an issue that's become ever more prominent in the past five years, and student athletes are learning earlier in their careers about the risks. They're seeing famous possible links to brain injury at its worst, from Junior Seau to Dave Duerson to Derek Boogaard, who all took their own lives after careers of hard hits on the field.
Gjere's decision to report his problems and then to retire represents the success of that push toward awareness and education. It's the worst kind of success, when a player gives up his sport, but success nonetheless. Education is working. Players know about the dangers of concussions. Coaches know how to spot the signs of them. Parents know to watch their children for indications, as do friends and teammates.
But Gjere is one player on one team in one sport, a speck on the landscape of this problem. And as much as education has improved, it's far from perfect.
Gophers quarterback MarQueis Gray is a 22-year-old senior. He's a veteran on coach Jerry Kill's team, and he's evolved into one of its most public voices. Gray had been learning about concussions and their dangers for years -- as a quarterback, he's particularly susceptible to the kind of hits that might lead to head trauma, and he talks a good game.
"I think the problem is like when players get concussions and they're too scared to say something to the coaches because it might affect their playing time," Gray said. "When you get an injury like that, you've got to take the extra precaution and go see the trainer. You never know if that last hit will be your last hit."
Sounds like he knows the protocol. But wait.
"To be honest, I've actually gotten hit a few times and just played with it because I was able to gain my consciousness back before the next snap," Gray said. "If I had problems, I would have made sure to go out and talk to the trainers."
And therein lies the gap that education must work to close: Gray knows what he should do, but he can still rationalize his own decisions to stay in games. That's not to say Gray has played through concussions, only that he's played within what offensive coordinator Matt Limegrover calls the "grey area" -- no pun intended.
Concussion education hinges upon players knowing both the dangers of the injuries and their symptoms, but it must go further than that to be successful. It must educate players and coaches about concussions' consequences so that players will go so far as to report even their most minor worries.
A concussion isn't something that's immediately obvious. There's no way to differentiate a non-concussive hit from a concussive one, and players can easily hide their symptoms, especially as they're recovering from the initial injury. Testing for concussions is in many cases subjective, and brain imaging isn't used to assess every injury, only the most severe. So much is left to players' own reporting and coaches' vigilance, which in many cases goes against the culture of football.
"Football's about toughness, and some of those kids there, they know if they have their opportunity that they're going to have to fight through those things," Limegrover said. "So you have to be diligent as a coach and talk to kids and make sure that you're not going to let something slip through because a kid's trying to be tough."
Perhaps football must redefine toughness. Perhaps toughness must now include self-preservation and the notion that, yes, these injuries can have long-standing consequences. But really, there's more to reconsider beyond just football's machismo. Players, both current and former, must realize the toll these injuries can take outweighs even the benefits of playing at the highest level. There's no cost-benefit analysis of brain injury, and even a storied NFL career can't outweigh the consequences.
Look at Duerson. Until Feb. 17, 2011, he was known as a talented safety and a Chicago Bears icon. Since he took his life that day, though, his legacy has not only changed -- in many ways, it's been erased. Research on Duerson's brain revealed that he suffered from a neurodegenerative disease linked to concussions, and he will now forever be known foremost as a casualty of brain injury rather than as a talented athlete.
Last summer, I assisted Sports Illustrated's Peter King on a story about the 1986 Bengals and their health concerns 25 years after that season. In talking to nearly all of the players on that team, our conversations revealed an interesting contrast: Nearly every player said that he'd do it all again -- the NFL career and the injuries -- if he had the chance, but several said that they'd rather their sons not participate in football at a high level (or at all).
Thirty-seven of the 39 players to which we spoke for the story said they had concussions during their careers, and 44 percent of players surveyed said that they experience memory loss today. But somehow, despite the pain and the lingering injuries, it was worth it -- likely because now, on the other end, they know they made it to the sport's highest level. For their sons, though, for whom such an outcome is far from guaranteed, the risks might seem amplified. Why go through those injuries and face a future like their fathers' if they're never going to make it?
Despite the former players' realizations that these injuries are real and should be avoided, they still cling to the notion they might be worth it. For sport to truly get a grip on its brain injury problem, those attitudes must change. These injuries and their outcomes are never worth it. No matter what.
So kudos to Jimmy Gjere. No matter how much he might have dreamed of an NFL career, the consequences must have outweighed the rewards. No matter how much his instincts might have said to tough it out and keep on playing, he had the courage and resolve to report his problems.
For all the headaches and mental strain, Gjere worked through his questions and reached the healthy conclusion. He's a visible example of how to best handle a largely invisible, internal problem, and for that, we should remember his story.
Follow Joan Niesen on Twitter.