Tuesday, December 29, 2015

I Played In The NFL, And Here's Why You Need To Go See 'Concussion'

'Concussion' Provides Reality Check, Inspiration For A Sounder Football Future


BY BRENDON AYANBADEJO




I absolutely love football. It's a game that taught me so much about life.
Playing football taught me about teamwork, sacrifice, and the fact that nothing lasts forever. It taught me about leadership and the importance of always living your truth no matter what the consequences.
And because of this, I've spent my entire life playing football.

From playing as a kid in the Lathrop housing projects on the North Side of Chicago to playing 13 professional seasons -- 10 in the NFL with the Miami Dolphins, the Chicago Bears and ultimately winning a Super Bowl championship with the Baltimore Ravens in 2013.
As an NFL player, I had the honor of serving as a players union representative, an NFL Play 60 ambassador and utilized (and continue to utilize) my influence on and off the field to speak out on issues of equality and justice.

I've dedicated my career to doing everything I can to protect my fellow players who gave so much to the game that has given so much to us.
For years, we put our body in harm's way, and for many of my current and former NFL colleagues, the physical damage done in pursuit of winning a championship is often permanent and can be life threatening.

Unfortunately, my NFL fraternity brothers and I didn't know this information until it became public in the last five years or so.

It was with this understanding and this experience that I went to see "Concussion," the Will Smith movie about the incredible courage and resiliency of Dr. Bennet Omalu, who just like my own father, immigrated from Nigeria to the United States to start a new life.

Dr. Omalu was the scientist who put his life's work on the line to take on the NFL after he uncovered chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE), a progressive degenerative disease of the brain found in athletes with a long history of repeated brain trauma.

As someone who gave my life to the game of football, this movie was not only a wake-up call, but also a disturbing walk down memory lane.

I remember feeling dizzy after tackling an opposing player and never leaving the field. Every player has seen stars, experienced vision going all black or white and kept on keeping on. These no-concussion type of hits are some of the most dangerous ones. Repetitive blows to the head are in fact the ones that do us in.

The NFL has changed the way it teaches players how to hit. In years past we were taught to use the screws on the front of our helmets right above our brow line, hit the opposing player hat-to-hat, and drive through them like an arrow through snow.

These teachings and techniques permeate all the way down to college, high school, and Pop Warner. Players are taught as much as they can to initiate contact with their shoulder pads. Equipment needs to continue to improve, as well as staunch rules preventing players from going after each other with their helmets as we recently saw when the Carolina Panthers played the New York Giants.

I remember having my heart broken as I learned about Junior Seau, a former teammate and one of the greatest people to have played football, committing suicide in 2012 because of what was later found to be CTE. Would things be different if Junior played a lifetime of football with today's equipment and rules? We can only hope so.

As I sat in the movie theater, I had mixed emotions as the film showed the hypocrisy of the NFL and how the league cared more about making billions of dollars, rather than caring about the physical health and well-being of myself and my teammates. A former teammate of mine, Bernard Pollard, believes the NFL is not sustainable and it's only a matter of time before the league attrits. 
To me, my teammates were, and will always be, my family.

And as family, we have a responsibility to stand up for each other and do everything we can to protect not only ourselves, but also the game that brought us together.
Research and awareness surrounding brain injuries is growing and "Concussion" is helping to make the issue of CTE more accessible and well known to the general public.

This will make the game better and hopefully help ensure that no family has to go through what the families of legendary Steelers players Mike Webster, Justin Strzelczyk and Terry Long, and so many others, went through.

I'm glad that the NFL has been taking the steps to make the game safer. The NFL also needs to admit it turned a blind eye after being presented with Dr. Omalu's findings.

I personally have four close friends, all NFL alums, with ALS, including my dear friend Fred McNeil who left us too soon in November of this year. OJ Brigance, Steve Gleason, and Tim Shaw all suffer from ALS, a disease that only affects two out of every 100,000 people. At any given time there are 2,000 players in the NFL -- there is a disproportionate risk of ALS in football players versus the general population.

The NFL must take responsibility for its lack of action and do more to make the game better and safer for everyone. Coming generations need to be protected when they are young, contact must be scaled back on the level of high school and older children.

The NFL can also do more for those that it's too late for. I don't want to see another teammate die too soon and I don't want to see another child lose out on the lessons that football teaches.

And that's why I'm urging parents, players and coaches from Pop Warner to the NFL to go watch "Concussion."

It's an inspiring movie about the players and for the players. It's a film that teaches us that together we can make a difference.
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