It was a simple question for Trev Alberts. Did you ever have concussions while playing football at Nebraska?
The answer was anything but simple.
“I don't know,” Alberts said.
Don't know? Or don't remember?
“That's the confusing thing,” Alberts said. “It depends on what your definition of a concussion is.
“I remember when Lance Gray and I used to play on the kickoff team. If you didn't run down there and knock into somebody and go to black every time, you weren't doing your job. You would ring your bell pretty good a lot of times.
“I don't know if that's a concussion.”
Brenden Stai has his own definition. He used to drive home after Nebraska games and have to pull the car over to get sick. That, he later found out, is a symptom of brain trauma.
“There were many times in my career where I don't remember 15 minutes of my life,” Stai said. “I do remember getting dinged up in the UCLA game out there (1993). I'm sure I had a concussion. But I didn't let the trainer know, because I didn't want to come out of the game.
“So I stayed in. I had to ask Rob Zatechka before every play to tell me where to go, because I couldn't remember.”
These little ditties won't exactly calm the mood outside football's gates. A lot of people are asking questions about concussions, which lead to brain damage, which might lead to depression.
Some parents are taking a serious look in the mirror: Should they even let their sons play football?
Football is a simple game. Block. Tackle. Pick yourself up and do it again.
Basketball is a contact sport. Football is a collision sport. It is played by mostly boys and men who like to run into things, and the ones with an aversion to running into people often are weeded out at an early age.
But football can also be a game of mysteries. And one of the things we don't know is what this brutal sport can do to a brain over time and to what extent.
What we do know, and hear, are the red alert sirens. Junior Seau, the ultimate NFL warrior, was buried Friday in San Diego. There was no suicide note left behind, but there are big assumptions that this was depression, caused by a career of smashing into big people.
People want to connect the dots to brain trauma and back to football. But if you do that, you'd better use a pencil with an eraser.
Depression can come from any number of sources. Such as idle time. Football players are the biggest men on most any campus. For the majority of their young lives, they are pampered and revered. When that goes away, who are they?
What they should be taught is that football is what they do, not who they are.
These are complicated men, though. Most of them have addictive personalities, addicted to the limelight, the camaraderie, the reckless abandon with which they throw themselves into the coliseum every week. When that goes away? If you aren't ready, it's a long way down.
There are financial concerns, too. Recently, we have heard of Warren Sapp, and others, who squandered millions. Being young and broke can lead to depression.
But so, apparently, can head trauma. That's the opinion of some researchers, and it's certainly the opinion of more than 1,000 former NFL players who have sued the league for failing to protect them from concussions, which led to multiple health problems in retirement.
Longtime Detroit Lions center Dominic Raiola, the former Husker, recently said he wouldn't join the lawsuit parade. Raiola said he couldn't justify it because you understand when you sign up that memory loss and other health problems come with the job. Raiola said it was all “totally worth it” because he loves his job.
That was the warrior inside Raiola talking. But the warrior is silent now. I requested an interview with Raiola and Lions teammate Kyle Vanden Bosch to ask if they would allow their sons to play football. Both politely declined.
This is a hot potato of a topic, and it's not going away soon.
But this is not the time to talk about banning football.
This is the time to talk about saving it, about making it better. Healthier.
Alberts has a son, Chase, who doesn't play football. But the former Butkus Award winner at Nebraska says if his son asks to play at Omaha Creighton Prep, dad will be all in. He'll also let him know the risks. The aches and pains that dear ol' dad still carries.
Same with Stai, who played on the decorated 1994 offensive line called the “Pipeline” and had a nine-year career in the NFL. Stai's son, Bryce, 13, began playing tackle football in third grade. Stai coaches in his son's youth league.
What he prescribes for the future of the game makes an awful lot of sense.
One, teach proper tackling technique. Two, wear your chin strap tight. Sounds silly, but Stai says head trauma can be caused by the jaw rattling around. Third, don't use your head. Stai says the head is used too much in the game, at all levels.
Finally, and this comes from a man of experience, if your head took a blow, get out of the game and get checked.
“Head trauma is like an earthquake,” Stai said. “A giant earthquake. But the thing that can cause the most destruction are the aftershocks.
“That is like being attacked by small earthquakes. When you go back out and keep playing, you're doing it more harm because that is when the brain is trying to heal itself. If you continue to get hit, you're causing more duress.”
Maybe the key is having a good agent. Alberts said he suffered a concussion while playing for the Indianapolis Colts against Philadelphia. The Colts wanted him back on the field the next week, but Alberts' agent stepped in and said no.
“My agent also represented Al Toon, and Toon had had several concussions and was really struggling,” Alberts said. “I didn't play the next week.”
When there's no agent, it's up to the high school or college coach to be vigilant about these cases — and up to the kids not to hide behind the macho mask and tell them. Their long-term memory, and well-being, could depend on it.
Would you tell your son he couldn't play football? Parents' natural instinct is to protect their children. But you can't protect them from everything. There are risks out there on the football field, in life.
Maybe Junior Seau's death will help shine a floodlight on this topic.
“I think it's a knee-jerk reaction right now,” Stai said. “What we can't lose sight of are all the great things that football teaches our youth. And make sure we are doing everything we can to improve equipment and research where we can do better.”
The stories like Stai too often go untold. There are many former NFL players who came out the other side relatively healthy, physically, mentally and financially. After eight seasons with Pittsburgh, Jacksonville, Detroit and Washington, Stai “walked away” in 2003.
He said it with pride. Stai got out with just a bad ankle and back. He got out alive.
Junior Seau didn't. That shouldn't send parents into a panic. Mamas, let your babies grow up to be football players. Just keep a close eye on them.
Contact the writer: