Knowing when to retire is one of the most difficult decisions professional athletes face. In many cases, they are told they are no longer good enough, and the decision is made for them.
But, when an athlete is in the prime of his career and feels healthy, one of the few reasons to consider retirement is the long-term effects of concussions. Pro football players who have sustained multiple concussions are faced with that dilemma more and more as medical research uncovers the damage concussions can cause to brain tissue.
The concussion issue was front and center in the NFL again last week after Denver Broncos star receiver Wes Welker sustained his third concussion in the past 10 months. All signs point to Welker returning to the game when he is cleared by doctors.
A lesser-known player for the Steelers dealt with a similar decision earlier this month. Receiver Darrius Heyward-Bey sustained his fifth documented concussion in a training camp practice at Saint Vincent College and had to sit out more than a week. During that time, he contemplated retirement.
“I’ve had a heavy dose,” Heyward-Bey said. “You think about things. You think should I still play? But I love this game, and it’s done some great things for me. As long as I’m healthy enough to play, I’m going to play.”
Heyward-Bey, 27, was the No. 7 overall pick in the 2009 draft. He is attempting to salvage what to this point has been a disappointing pro career. The Steelers became his third team in six NFL seasons when they signed him to a one-year contract in the spring.
Unlike Welker, who knew he had a roster spot secured, Heyward-Bey had no such guarantee. He was fighting for a spot and knew the practice time he missed hindered his chances to make the team.
But, as someone who has suffered head trauma on multiple occasions, he also knew that if he came back too soon, his brain could be damaged beyond repair.
Heyward-Bey had the unfortunate experience of being knocked unconscious in a game against the Steelers two years ago. When Heyward-Bey played for the Raiders in 2012, he stretched out attempting to catch a pass in the end zone in a game at Oakland.
Former Steelers safety Ryan Mundy and Heyward-Bey had a violent head-to-head collision.
Heyward-Bey was out before he hit the ground and had to be taken off the field on a stretcher. He does not remember anything about the hit.
His concussion history gave him a unique perspective as he battled for a roster spot this summer.
“It definitely was tough, but you have to look at your health,” Heyward-Bey said of missing those valuable training-camp practices. “I’m 27 years old. I have a long life to live after this. The Steelers understood that. And they understood I wanted to make this team. When I came back, they gave me a lot of opportunities to ease back in.”
Heyward-Bey made a late push to earn a spot on the Steelers’ 53-man roster on the strength of his play in the final two preseason games, when he caught nine passes for 98 yards and a touchdown. He was the team’s leading receiver in the preseason despite missing the first game.
Players who get concussed for the first time don’t always realize doctors are protecting their best interests when they are told to miss practices. Nose tackle Steve McLendon sustained his first documented concussion in a training-camp practice in August and also missed about a week.
“It really wasn’t my call, because if it was my call, I would have played,” McLendon said. “I would have practiced. I felt fine. But they most definitely handled it the way they thought they should with my best interests in mind. I don’t know too much about [concussions] because it was my first one. I know they did what was in my best interests, and I’m glad they did.”
The NFL has a strict return-to-play protocol for head injuries. Players undergo extensive testing after a concussion and must be cleared by two doctors before they work their way back to full-contact practices.
The league’s protocol for dealing with head injuries remains the same after it settled a class-action lawsuit with several thousand retired players who sued for damages. The settlement provided an end to a drawn-out legal battle, but concussions remain one of the biggest issues in the game despite evidence the league has lowered the incidences of concussions in recent years.
NFL players sustained 228 concussions in the 2013 preseason and regular season. The NFL does not release its injury data until after every season, but the unofficial number of concussions suffered this preseason, as tracked by the @NFLConcussions Twitter feed, is 67. The NFL’s data from the 2013 preseason documented 77.
Around the league, almost every team has a player who has sustained multiple concussions. Those players enter the season knowing their NFL shelf life is shorter than others.
Heyward-Bey is one of those players. He knows if he sustains another concussion, he’ll be faced with another difficult decision.
“I hope I never come across that,” he said. “It’s tough. Having a head injury … your knees are fine, your ankles are fine, your arms are fine. It’s your brain.
“I’ve had a history of them. The Steelers did a great job with making sure I saw the proper doctors and made sure I was good. They gave me a good week to get myself together. The difficult thing about concussions, with each person, they’re different. It’s hard to know sometimes.”
Ray Fittipaldo: firstname.lastname@example.org and Twitter @rayfitt1.