Oliver Luck on concussion in American football: ‘It’s a cloud. I’m not sure how dark it is’

I’ve written in the past about Super Bowl winner Greg Jennings’s glow of health, and former 49er Terrell Owens’ impressive wing span, while NCAA official Oliver Luck was persuasive on the appeal of college sport in the States compared to the pro game, a sales pitch you’ll read here soon.

But when we met recently the three men also discussed concussions, the hot topic in American football in recent years.

Jennings was frank: “Concussion, first, it’s definitely a concern. It’s a reality you live in with a contact sport, a collision sport.

“Is the league doing enough? I think they’re doing what it takes to cover themselves, and I mean that in the most respectful way. There’s nothing more, really, they can do. You make a decision as a player, whether it’s rugby or American football, that these are possibilities, that you can get a head injury or concussion. What we as players and competitors don’t take into consideration are the repercussions that may come from those injuries because we live in the present so much.

“We can think about the future, but we’re here, living in the now. You may think: ‘Hey, I feel great, I feel fine’ but I’ve learned that once you have one head trauma or concussion, no matter who you are, then the next one will be more severe and last longer. And the next one after that more severe and longer again, and harder to recover from.”

Terrell Owens discussed what he misses about the professional game: “I miss the competition. For a lot of people who followed my career, they’ll know I never really envisaged playing professionally, playing beyond the collegiate level. I’m a very competitive person, a very driven person, and when I look back on my career and try to sum it up, I use those three Ds — desire, dedication, and discipline.”

And the single C?

“I had maybe one or two concussions when I was playing,” says Owens. “To be light about it, the reason I didn’t have too many, given I played a skill position and was exposed to a lot of hits, was that I was out there running scared. It’s definitely something that needs to be taken seriously. Safety needs to be created for players and we need to pay attention to ensuring they have longevity in their lives after they finish playing professionally. Is technology the answer? I don’t know, but I’m sure people are working on it. A friend of mine, Robert Griffith of the Minnesota Vikings, was doing some work with helmets to try to limit the impact on players.

“I’m not sure what they can do because there’s no doubt that the game has become faster, that the players have become much faster and stronger. I know they’re trying to make the game safer with rule changes. But can they?”

Oliver Luck was the one former player who’d discuss a concussion he’d had in his time as a quarterback with the then-Houston Oilers.

“It’s a serious issue for American football at all levels, but given the NCAA sponsors 23 sports, it’s an issue in other sports also,” he says.

“Rugby isn’t part of our bailiwick but we have ice hockey and other sports. It’s an issue in any collision sport. As a former football player and the parent of a current football player, I’d say that the NFL, the high school federations, the NCAA — they’ve all done a pretty good job of taking the issue seriously, of spending money on research and trying to figure out what can be done within the rules of the game to limit the number of concussions as much as possible.

“You’re never going to eliminate it totally. It’s a cloud. I’m not sure how dark it is. Ultimately I feel the responsible organisations are taking it seriously, as are the organisations in other sports — how do you make the the sport as safe as possible and still attract players and fans?”

In terms of specifics, his own concussions? “Yeah, I think anyone who plays the game for any length of time will pick up a concussion or two or three. I did. One time... You know what it was? We ran the old ‘end around’ against the (Detroit) Lions, where the quarterback takes the snap, hands off to the running back who goes that way...

“What does the quarter-back do after handing off? He runs to the perimeter and blocks. Or tries to block.

“I tried to throw a block at the cornerback but his knee got me right on the temple. I remember thinking, ‘boom’.”

Luck continued to play, but his team-mates picked up on the aftermath. “I went back in the huddle to call the next play and the tight end looked at me and said: ‘Something’s wrong with you, you’re messed up’, though ‘messed up’ may not have been the way he put it.

“He called the next few plays — I didn’t want to come out of the game.”

That was three decades ago. It’s an outlook that hasn’t changed since.


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