As a quarterback in the NFL, Mark Rypien knew well that he put himself at risk of serious injury every time he stepped on the field. He’d seen players suffer broken bones, muscle tears and sprains.
But if you asked Rypien about concussions during his 11-season playing career — six of which he spent with the Washington Redskins, including a Super Bowl MVP campaign in 1991-92 — Rypien would have struggled.
“I didn’t know what they were,” said Rypien, 49. “I knew what the massive ones were . . . the ones that were very, very traumatic, with head bleeding and where you kind of black out. . . . But the ones you shake off and get back in there, and a little later, you have a little confusion . . . and after the off days, where you think you’re feeling better and you tee it up again — I didn’t know what those were.”
That lack of awareness of the risks he faced simply by shaking his head clear after “getting his bell rung” and the long-term effects Rypien has experienced are the reasons he agreed to become the lead plaintiff in a 126-player class-action lawsuit against the NFL.
In the suit, filed March 23, Rypien and fellow players contend that the NFL failed to educate them for decades on the risks associated with suffering repetitive tramatic brain injuries and concussions, and instead ignored and concealed the information. Fourteen other former Redskins are part of the lawsuit.
“Our thing is that we make the game safer. Not change the game, but players are faster and stronger, and if we can do certain things to protect [against] head trauma, why not implement those and put them in place?” Rypien said. “And for those that have received that, in this litigation, why not look into making their quality of life better?”
A league spokesman did not immediately respond to a request to comment Thursday.
The NFL, which faces similar lawsuits from perhaps 1,000 players, has taken action in the past two seasons to reduce players’ risk of concussion. It has tightened enforcement of rules that prohibit blows to the head and hits on defenseless players. Teams’ medical staffs now follow procedures designed to ensure that players are removed from games if they show symptoms of concussion and are fully healed before they return.
But none of that existed when Rypien played for the Redskins from 1988 to 1993. He recalls a play during a postseason game against the Minnesota Vikings in January 1992, when he suffered what he believes was a concussion. At the time, he had no idea.
“Somehow, I got flushed out of the pocket, and I picked up about eight yards,” Rypien said. “During the contact, I kind of got up, and shook my head, and felt ‘Oh, something’s not right.’ We called a timeout. . . . I went to Joe Gibbs, and he said, ‘Okay, here’s what we’re going to run; we want to get the ball to the left hash.’ And I said, ‘Coach, we don’t have a play for that.’ He said, ‘What?’ Here we are, getting ready to run the ‘50 Gut,’ that we’ve run about a thousand times. Just our normal off-tackle running play. And I said, ‘Coach, we don’t have it.’ I don’t know if I was thinking back to college or whatever.
“They were concerned, and he had [trainer] Bubba Tyer come over and they were concerned, and throughout that, I suddenly came to. We ran ‘50 Gut’ and kicked the field goal. . . . I was back at practice on Wednesday. If you’re a player, and you’re going to be playing in the NFC championship game, and you’re asked, are you going to play, you’re going to say, ‘Yeah, I feel great!’ ”
Rypien said he now suffers frequent memory loss and often has to write things down or record conversations. He believes that if he had been kept out of games after blows to the head or forced to sit out practices until his symptoms fully cleared, he might not be facing such problems.
Rypien acknowledges it’s too late to reverse that. But he hopes the NFL will assist former players in finding treatment, which his attorney contends is not occurring.
“Every former NFL player should have the ability to get checked out cognitively and then, if they need treatment, they should receive health benefits from the league,” said Rypien’s attorney, Craig Mitnick. “Because communities around this country are covering former NFL players when the league has the resources to have done it. . . . The cost of health care for a former NFL player, the cost is exorbitant.”