It IS SHOCKING to hear player after player talk on film to Dorsey Levens, former Green Bay Packers running back turned movie maker, about the number of concussions they had while playing pro football, and the subsequent headaches, mood swings, loss of memory, and fear that they were losing their minds. What is striking is that the players were not from the distant past of grainy black-and-white NFL films. They are in their 30s and 40s.
Many of them, with the exception of former star running back Jamal Lewis, were never household names in the National Football League. But one is still playing this season, defensive lineman Vonnie Holliday of the Arizona Cardinals. In his 15th season, Holliday, 36, told Levens, “Hell, if I’d known, I probably would’ve worked a little harder pitching that damn baseball, working on my my fastball, my curveball, and that changeup.”
Levens is one of 3,500 retired players who have signed on to lawsuits saying the National Football League did not do enough — and is still not doing enough — to inform players about brain injuries. Evidence has exploded in recent years of the long-term damage of repeated head blows, with many retired players dying of premature dementia or committing suicide, including former Patriots linebacker Junior Seau.
This season continues to raise questions on the NFL’s attention to brain injuries. Washington’s star rookie quarterback Robert Griffin III recently suffered a concussion but refused to call it that, saying, “I had temporary memory loss.” His team played him the next week. The top player on the Detroit Lions, receiver Calvin Johnson, said he returned to a game after suffering a concussion. The team denied that Johnson was medically diagnosed with such an injury, but the receiver told a radio station, “It’s part of football. You get concussed, you gotta keep on playing.”
Levens came to Northeastern University this week to screen his 50-minute documentary “Bell Rung,” which highlights the health issues facing football players. Compared to many of his film’s subjects, Levens, 42, said he is a picture of health. But sleeplessness, irritability, and memory loss made him go to the doctor to see if his symptoms were caused by football. While he had only one official concussion in college, there is more to his story:
“I got my bell rung four or five times a game, easy,” Levens said. “Sometimes I laid down on the sidelines, then went back in. It’s much worse with other players. Linemen hit their head on every play. I’d say linemen, linebackers, and fullbacks get 8 to 10 dingers a game. You’re probably talking a minimum of 100, maybe 200 dingers per team, every game.”
In his film, players talk graphically about why they endured those “dings” as well as feeling discarded by coaches and owners. The most striking aspect was the accounts of relatively unknown “fringe” pro players who tried to make rosters by hitting other players as hard as they could in practice. Such ferocity left Jon Abbate, who never played a game in the NFL over three seasons, as a man today in his late 20s with headaches so painful that he says suicide “runs through my mind.”
Levens said his goal in making the film was not to deter people from playing. He still takes part in team-related fan and charity events in Wisconsin. He said he wants the NFL to be honest with players and provide better post-career medical coverage, as well as life insurance. He wants players to stop trying to hide head injuries and youth coaches to be certified in teaching the sport.
“When you bring up concussions, you often get, ‘Well, you guys make a lot of money and you signed up for this.’ Well, we did and we didn’t,” Levens said. “So much remains unknown about brain injuries. I just want people to know there’s a human being under the helmet. They’re not robots.”
More to the point, the lens of Levens captures the pain of players who thought they were immortal, but instead played themselves into mortality.
Derrick Z. Jackson can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.