There are still some NFL fans out there who think the game is going soft, because it’s trying to take concussions more seriously.
Hopefully some of those fans read Jamal Lewis’ story about a 2009 concussion and reconsider their way of thinking.
Lewis’ tale, as told to Bleacher Report’s Tyler Dunne, is fascinating and frightening. He admits to regular headaches, short-term memory loss and even suicidal thoughts. He was one of the most physical and successful backs of his era, helping the Baltimore Ravens to a Super Bowl title in 2000 and rushing for 10,607 career yards. He had 2,066 rushing yards in 2003, which is the third-best mark in a season in NFL history.
All of the carries took their toll, as described in Dunne’s excellent story, and one hit in particular described why the NFL’s culture concerning concussions had to change.
Knocked out, then back in after being out one play
Knowing what we know now about concussions, Lewis’ story of suffering a concussion against the Minnesota Vikings in the 2009 season opener will make you cringe. But back then, it wasn’t unusual.
Lewis, playing for the Cleveland Browns, took a run outside to the left early in the second quarter. He could have run out of bounds, but that wasn’t his style, so he lowered his head at the same time Vikings safety Cedric Griffin lowered his. The hit doesn’t look too violent on first viewing, but a slow-motion replay showed the two players had a brutal helmet-to-helmet collision. Lewis told Dunne he blacked out with his hands clenched into fists in the air. He woke up when Vikings coach Brad Childress called his name. Lewis stayed down for a while, returned to his sideline, and when Fox returned from a commercial it showed a replay of Browns coach Eric Mangini talking to Lewis and patting him on the helmet. Lewis returned to the game one play later. On Lewis’ first play back in he got the ball, and gained 5 yards and a first down on a run up the middle.
Thankfully, the NFL has put in protocols to avoid that happening again, though those protocols have failed on occasion. Lewis described how he got through the rest of that game after a concussion so bad he was knocked out.
“I was in survivor mode the whole time,” Lewis told Bleacher Report. “Listen to the play. Hold onto the ball. Find the first place to fall. Make it out of this game. That’s it.You’re all off. You’re off. Your eyes, your vision is off, everything’s just … off.”
Lewis said after that, his headaches got worse. He played in Cleveland’s next game, then missed two before returning for seven more. Lewis told Dunne that after he lost his appetite the morning of a game, he asked a trainer to undergo a concussion test and was told he’d have to wait until Monday. That would be his last NFL game, because he was put on injured reserve after it and cut following the season.
Lewis has had thoughts of suicide
Dunne’s story gets into some of the physical issues Lewis has had after his career, including concussions. Lewis estimated to Dunne that he had at least 10 concussions in his career. He also has had issues like a business failing and having to file for bankruptcy, Dunne wrote.
During his hardships, Lewis admitted he thought about suicide, though he never got to the point where he started planning it.
“You just have those thoughts about should you end it?” Lewis told Dunne. “I can only imagine with sleep apnea and heart attacks and heart disease. Who wants to go out like that? Especially when you have people upset with you—your wife upset with you, pissed off, you have to file bankruptcy, made bad decisions…”
Lewis told Dunne he still has “moments” of depression about twice a week. To combat that and other effects from concussions, he stays busy. He does so through his various business endeavors and his children, mostly. Bleacher Report said Lewis is the president of Southeast Exhibits and Metro Retail Solution, which designs, builds and services trade-show booths.
Through all of the physical issues, Lewis said he would still play football and says his sons will play football too. He made it out of a bad neighborhood near Atlanta and explained to Dunne that even with the danger of suffering brain injuries, football was better than some of his other options.
“Hell, where I grew up, you take a lot of risk,” Lewis told Bleacher Report. “You risk your kid going out hanging with the wrong crowd, selling drugs. You risk your kid hanging out with the wrong crowd, getting killed. You risk your kid hanging out with the wrong crowd, joining a gang. So, which one are you going to take? I’ll take football any day out of all of that.”
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