'I'd do it all again': Despite concussions, NFL stars say to play the sports you love, just play them wisely

By Kristy Bleizeffer Jan 8, 2015

Joe Jurevicius

Joe Jurevicius signs an autograph before a 2004 game when he was a wide receiver for Tampa Bay. Despite suffering anxiety and depression, caused in part by several concussions sustained in his football career, Jurevicius says the benefits of the sport outweigh the negatives.  (U.S. Air Force photo by 1st Lt. Elizabeth Kreft)

Joe Jurevicius knew it wasn't normal, crying in the middle of Sunday brunch at the Cheesecake Factory with his wife and two daughters. Or watching news about the stock market and feeling like he would die and leave his family with no one to take care of them. Or hugging himself during a thunderstorm because he was certain lightning would strike him through his walls.

Part of it was his 11-year career in the NFL coming to end, losing the comradery and strict regimen the sport requires. Part of it was not having the time to grieve over the death of his first son at 3-months-old. Part of it, he's sure, were the long-term effects of multiple concussions, sustained at a time when coaches and players thought "getting your bell rung" was just part of the game.

"To answer your question, I would do it all over again," he said. "I would just say, you have to take concussions seriously and be smart about them. The gladiator aspect to football - knowing that I could catch a ball, take a hit and lose my marbles, while still holding on - was great. But the reality is the depression that comes along with it over time, it’s not a fun thing to deal with."

Safety John Howell played with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers from 2001 to 2004 and won the Superbowl in 2002.

Safety John Howell played with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers from 2001 to 2004 and won the Superbowl in 2002.

Jurevicius was a wide receiver in the NFL, playing for the New York Giants, Seattle Seahawks and Cleveland Browns. He won a Superbowl ring with the 2002 Tampa Bay Buccaneers along with his teammate and friend, safety John Howell. On Jan. 19, he and Howell come to Casper for “Whole lotta Shakin’ Going On: Changing the culture around concussion for athletes of all sports.” In the free talk, Neurosurgeon Dr. Don Penney and orthopedic surgeon Dr. Clayton Turner will outline the signs and symptoms of concussion and the guidelines for returning to play. The take-away message: Play the sports you love, but play smart.

"I just want to do everything I can to help educate parents, players and coaches about concussions. Not to turn anybody away from the sport, but because I think we are scared of things we don’t understand," said Howell, founder and president of the Northern Colorado Pop Warner Association, a youth football club. "I’m responsible for about 200 kids in our program, age 5 to 14. If we can get a better understanding of concussion, than maybe I’m doing a small part to help kids to continue to play the game."

Like Jurevicius, Howell suffered multiple concussions through college and in the NFL. Below, the friends talk about the changing culture of concussions and why they'd still encourage their own sons to play football.

On concussions' long-term effects
Jurevicius: I had five different concussions when I played. A couple of them were knockouts. On one, I blacked out for about 3 to 4 hours after getting hit. I remember the first quarter, with a minute or so to go, I caught a ball, I got upended and landed on my head while getting hit by a second person. The next thing I knew, I had doctors standing next to me on the sideline, and there were only 3 seconds left in the game. I just kind of snapped out of it. I can tell you that I played six days later.

I suffered a lot of anxiety, depression, not wanting to face the world and sleeping 20 hours day. I was going to the University of Michigan Depression Center once a month, where I got on medication and learned better tools to deal with it. They did a great job.

On concussion culture in the NFL
Jurevicius: Let’s be honest, when you play in the NFL, it’s not for very long. The NFL stands for Not For Long. If you’re injured, you are no good to a team and there is also no such thing as a paycheck. When you have that short window to make astronomical amounts of money, you do what you have to do to play. We all know that football is a gladiator sport.

Howell: Towards the tail end of my career, they were just starting to acknowledge it. They weren’t letting you return to play if you showed signs of a concussion. Most of my career, basically if you were acting fine, they would let you go back out.

On changing the culture
Howell: What I think the most dangerous part of a concussion is how you handle the return to play. It’s not usually the first concussion, it’s coming back too soon that can create some major issues. That’s where I think the awareness and education pieces can really help. It’s helping kids understand it’s about being smart and not trying to tough it out if you have symptoms of a concussion. In the heat of the moment, in the game, the kids always want to go back in and play.

It’s helping educate coaches that when your star quarterback goes down, if you put him back in too soon, then you might lose him for the whole season or, worse yet, he could suffer some major health concerns. It’s helping parents recognize the signs and symptoms, and to get their kids checked out by a medical professional. 

On doing it again
Jurevicius: When it comes to kids at the high school and college level, there are more people who get concussions by falling on the steps and slamming their head against the wall than they do in the game of football.  In the NFL, when you are paid to play, you've got to find that happy medium between being smart and knowing that you can fight through something.

I would absolutely do it all again. Would I do some things differently? For sure. There is no way I would go back now and play six days after blacking out for four hours.

On letting his sons play football
Howell: I have three children -- a 15-year-old daughter and 12- and 9-year-old boys, both of whom play football.

I’ve played the sport for a long time. I know all the opportunities, the experiences that it offered me, the relationships, everything that it did to enhance my life. I know how much my sons love the game and how much they want to play it. With the knowledge about concussions, the studies, the advances in equipment, the return-to-play guidelines, everything is a lot better than when I started playing.

I do hear about parents who don’t want their children to play football until they are in high school. If you say ‘no’ now, you might as well say ‘no’ forever. To me, it’s better for kids to learn the technique and fundamentals at an early age before the collisions get so much more intense, before the speed is that much greater. Throwing kids out on the field when they are inexperienced freshman, playing against bigger, faster and stronger kids, that’s when real injuries happen.

 If you go …

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