Concussions have been on my mind more than usual in recent days, after former Redskins star Santana Moss offered a harrowing take on his injury history in an interview with The Undefeated. Like every football fan, I’ve watched the parade of ex-NFL players discuss their declining health and deepest fears with sympathy and sadness. But hearing this sort of stuff from Moss — a man who endeared himself to this town, whose career I covered, and who is still two years shy of 40 — was especially jarring.
He said in the interview that he worries he’s already suffering from memory loss. He said he worries whether it will get worse. He said he sees older players committing suicide and thinks, “I’m not ready to go.” And he said he played through countless episodes that now sound terrifying in retrospect.
Like the time in Atlanta when he took a hit, then cursed out teammate Ladell Betts for not helping him up promptly. Moss didn’t realize until later that he had been knocked out, and that Betts didn’t want to touch him. He returned to the game.
“When I watched that film, I went home and watched that film, I was disgusted,” Moss said.
Or the time he got leveled by Seattle’s Kam Chancellor, a hit that the Seahawks safety often has described as one of the best of his career.
“I remember getting up, and I remember not seeing or hearing nothing,” Moss said. “Everything was silent, and it was blurry. And I remember getting in the huddle, and everybody looking at me, just hitting me, and I was numb. Because I didn’t feel it. I mean, I guess my bell was rung again.”
Moss finished that game, too. And the reason he kept playing through blows like that, injuries that left his world silent and blurry?
“Because you considered yourself as tough, going through that,” Moss explained. “And you know, you can call us stupid or crazy as players, but that’s what we know. That’s all we know.”
We gawk at that toughness, just as we gawked at Redskins linebacker Mason Foster making a game-winning interception after popping his dislocated shoulder back in place. Football players might not always be superheroes, but they sure seem superhuman. Moss was often one of the smallest players on the field, and he never backed down, never showed fear. “He has courage and toughness” his college coach said early in Moss’s pro career, and that was before the 5-foot-10 wide receiver caught more than 700 balls for more than 10,000 yards.
But there’s a difference between head trauma and a dislocated shoulder. Moss, like so many former players — and like some current Redskins — was unable to say exactly how many concussions he had in his career. He was tough. He played through them.
“You know, I’ve had concussions,” he said. “Before they even diagnosed them as concussions, I’ve had concussions. Played with them. Didn’t think nothing else. Thought you got your bell rung. When we was young, when you hear that little bzzzzzzz, that’s your bell rung. You know, you got your bell rung. You tough if you can fight through it. That’s what I thought. So every time I heard that bell, if I could still see you — and you might be blurry — guess what, I ain’t getting off that field. Because I ain’t gonna let you as a man feel like you got the best of me. And that’s just how I grew up, you know?”
The world has changed since then. We’ve seen the ex-players struggling, seen the suicides, read the academic studies, such as the one this summer that found chronic traumatic encephalopathy in 99 percent of the brains donated by families of former NFL players. Football is haltingly, imperfectly and slowly trying to catch up. The sport is our brilliant weekend spectacle, and we’re all trying to figure out whether it can remain so without damaging the brains of its participants.
Maybe it’s impossible to fix. But it’s harder and harder to love football without feeling guilt, and I know that I’m willing to put up with some changes if it would mean fewer horrors. Moss is one of the toughest people I’ve ever met; his sport needs to redefine “tough” so that it doesn’t include playing through blurred vision.
“For anybody to call the game soft or players soft considering what they’re putting on the line I think is ill-informed and dangerous and flat stupid,” said Domonique Foxworth, the former NFLPA president, who conducted the interview with Moss. “That’s the mind-set I think that we as players recognize is harmful, that even the league is trying to move everyone away from.”
But many people are still locked into that mind-set. They think nods to safety are softening the game, that taking away certain hits are ruining the sport. We’ve all wondered about too-cautious refereeing, and erratic enforcement, and the subjectivity of punishment.
Still, you’d hope for some maturity and empathy. You’d hope for leaders who could tell elite athletes that playing through head injuries is not toughness, and that trying to make this sport safer will not doom the republic. You’d hope for more from, say, the president.
“You know, today if you hit too hard: 15 yards!” President Trump complained during his Friday night rally, in comments far less publicized than his complaints about Colin Kaepernick. Trump mocked football officials, said players “want to hit,” and implied that nods to safety are “ruining the game” and “hurting the game.”
Clearly that works as an applause line, but the brains put on the line every week don’t belong to the people applauding. We need to take our cues less from sports-radio callers — and, apparently, the president — and more from folks such as Foxworth, who actually lived that violence.
“I don’t know how you can look at guys killing themselves and guys falling into deep depression and concern yourself with ‘ruining the game,’ ” Foxworth said this week. “Concern yourself with protecting men. I just think the game should come secondary.”
Listen to Antwaan Randle El, who told the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette that he regretted choosing football over baseball, and that he wouldn’t be surprised if football isn’t around in 20 or 25 years. Listen to Hall of Famer Cris Carter, who talked last week of the fears that haunt ex-players. Listen to Moss, too. He was on the wrong end of plenty of those hits, and then stumbled back to the huddle as we all moved on to the next play. Those of us who moved on — and those cheering at the rallies — aren’t the ones who pay the price, because it’s not our brains that need protecting. “We have issues, man,” Moss told Foxworth, “and it’s gonna probably get worse.”
I don’t know how to fix any of this. But I’m pretty sure cheap applause lines at rallies won’t help.
Jerry Brewer: The NFL beat Trump. Soundly.