Football is back.
Are you excited?
My first NFL training camp in 2008 with the Pittsburgh Steelers was easily one of the most challenging experiences of my athletic career. Granted, I only participated in the first few weeks of training camp due to an ankle injury, but it was still incredibly difficult.
My name is Ryan Mundy, and I played Safety for eight years in the National Football League. Those eight years flew by, and were filled with highs (Super Bowl XLIII Win) and lows (Super Bowl XLV Loss).
My job as a safety was to hit people, hard. The frequency of hits vary game to game but the intent was always the same, hit hard.
Easy mission statement for a young 6th round draft pick trying to earn a spot on his hometown team.
But now as a 32 yr. old, I reflect on those days and sometimes wonder “How in the hell did I use to do that?”
Over the past few days there have been two 30+ yr. old NFL athletes that have walked away from the game at the start of their teams respective training camps; Rob Nicovich, New England Patriots and Brendan Albert, Jacksonville Jaguars.
With the increasing controversy around player health and safety, the question of “Are they (Rob & Brendan) concerned about their future health prospects?” must be considered.
It’s a strong possibility.
However, I can say with certainty that this concern factored into my decision to retire in July of 2016.
I had back surgery in 2015 and missed the entire season. I watched the games on my couch and for the first time in my life thought, “Damn, that looks like it hurts.”
“That” = running into grown men at full speed.
At that point I knew it was time to move on, and so I did. Was my body done? Maybe, maybe not (although my back still hurts). But mentally I was not prepared to continue to put my body and brain at risk.
Early in my career I subscribed to a few words of wisdom from Mike Tomlin who said on a number of occasions, “Football is not who you are, but rather what you do.”
That resonated deeply with me, and I began to believe that I had more to offer the world (and myself) outside of playing football.
Football is an incredible game. Period. The joy that the sport provides of competing against self and others on a daily basis is unmatched.
It’s also REALLY dangerous, too.
I became normalized to the violent nature of the sport at an early age, I started playing when I was seven. Knocking people down (and occasionally getting knocked down) became fun and second nature to me. From then on I never viewed the sport as “high risk.”
My athletic ability continued to develop, and throughout high school I became singularly focused on football. I went on to play four seasons at The University of Michigan and spent a graduate year at West Virginia University.
During this time concussions or C.T.E was hardly ever mentioned.
My earliest recollection of what concussions were, was around the time that I was drafted in 2008. I remember seeing guys receive crushing blows on the field, and laying out afterwards like zombies with their hands in the air. The visuals were too much, a dialogue had to be started.
Throughout my professional career I’ve delivered numerous hits that have resulted with guys on the receiving end laying on the field motionless for a period of time. All of them I have been fined for.
Did I intend to injure those guys on purpose? Absolutely not.
Moving at high rates of speed and aiming at a moving target is not an exact science. I’ve hit plenty of people hard legally, but there have been times where flags have been thrown.
I get asked the same three questions quite a bit. The first two; “Have you seen the movie ‘“Concussion?”” “Have you ever had a concussion?
Yes, I’ve seen the movie.
No, I’ve never been “diagnosed” with a concussion but there have been numerous occasions where my faculties were abnormal following a violent collision.
Generally, I’d be able to shake it off and get ready for the next play, but there have been times where I’ve had to pull myself out of the game.
For instance, while I was a member of the Chicago Bears during the 2014 preseason game against the Seattle Seahawks I had to remove myself from play. I had a violent collision with their fullback that resulted in concussion like symptoms and a forehead laceration that required 17 stitches.
Yep, in addition to having my “bell rung” I needed 17 stitches above my right eyebrow. No bueno.
The last question in the trio is “What are your thoughts about C.T.E?”
Answer: C.T.E is very real and very scary.
For the uninformed; Chronic traumatic encephalopathy (C.T.E) is a progressive degenerative disease which afflicts the brain of people who have suffered repeated concussions and/ or repetitive head trauma.
C.T.E is real because I’ve seen the real life effects on my fallen football brethren and their families.
C.T.E scary because…. well look at the symptoms decide for yourself:
- Difficulty thinking (cognitive impairment)
- Impulsive behavior.
- Depression or apathy.
- Short-term memory loss.
- Difficulty planning and carrying out tasks (executive function)
- Emotional instability.
- Substance abuse.
- Suicidal thoughts or behavior.
Additionally, it can only be diagnosed postmortem!
Currently, I don’t feel as though I am suffering from any significant symptoms from C.T.E. but I’d be naive to think that after 8 years of professional football I’m not at risk.
Which leaves the question of “C.T…ME?” with a TBD stamp next to it. That’s concerning.
Should symptoms occur, my hope is that I receive a proper diagnosis and treatment will be available before I die.
And speaking of dying….
The New York Jets Rookie Safety, Jamal Adams, recently sat on a fan forum panel with NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell. The topic of player safety/ C.T.E came up, and here was Adams response:
“I’m all about making the game safer, but as a defensive player, I’m not a big fan of it. But I get it. I can speak for a lot of guys that play the game. We live and breathe [football]. This is what we’re so passionate about.”
“Literally, if I had a perfect place to die, I would die on the field. And that’s not a lie. There’s so much sacrifice that we go through as a team, and just connecting as one and winning ball games. There’s nothing like playing the game of football. But again, I’m all about making the game safer.”
Young guy excited about his first season in the NFL, I get that. But the football field being a perfect place to die?!?! Essentially meaning, football is worth dying for!
As my good friend Martellus Bennett eloquently wrote on Twitter: “Look football is great, but I ain’t dying for this shit.”
Me either, Martellus.
The game of football loves you for only as long as you’re an athlete. The average career length in the NFL is 3.3 years. Even if an athlete plays eight or ten years that is still a “retirement’ age in the early 30’s. That’s a lot of life to live post football!
But what if a promising career is cut short due to injury? Literally, you are one play away from your career trajectory taking a drastic turn. Is the love of the game worth that risk?
In the NFL there is no room for damaged goods. The league is high performance, results-based, and operated on the mantra of “What have you done for me lately?”
The New York Times recently posted an article regarding C.T.E discovery in the brains of 110 out of 111 deceased NFL athletes.
FYI…that is 99% that tested positive for C.T.E.
30% would be substantial. 50% would be extremely alarming. 99% is horrifying.
It is also worth noting that researchers also examined brains from the Canadian Football League, semi-professional players, college players and high school players. Overall, there were 202 brains studied. Of the 202 brains, 87% were found to have C.T.E. (still horrifying).
So what does all this mean?
Does it mean football won’t be around in 25 years? I don’t know.
Does it mean that the sport incorporates a less violent style of play (i.e. flag football)? Maybe.
Will there be a drop-off in the quality of players due to parents not allowing their sons to play football? Very well could be.
Honestly, I don’t see much of that happening any time soon.
Every year there is a new crop of 22 & 23 yr. olds via the NFL Draft willing to take on the inherent risks of playing the game at its highest level.
I don’t blame or judge them, because I was once that guy. So I understand that mindset. At that age I felt invincible; that ‘C.T.E stuff’ is for older guys to worry about. Why worry about being 50 and the residual effects of football, at the age of 21 in peak physical condition?
The funny thing about life is, we all age.
21 yr. old Ryan Mundy thinks much differently than 32 yr. old Ryan Mundy. But my 32 yr. old self benefits (and sometimes does not benefit) from decisions I made as a younger version of myself.
As time moves forward that cycle will continue on. I am who I am today because of what I did yesterday. My hope is that my future today’s are free of C.T.E.