Walker: Everybody blames concussions

(Seventh in a series)

Mike Tomlin said that the people who believed in football and benefited from their involvement with it needed to stand up and make their opinions heard. Larry Foote and Ike Taylor and Jeff Hartings talked about why they allow their sons to play, even though those boys won't need football to get a chance at a college education. Tunch Ilkin told his personal story about a life in football, both as a player and as an executive of the NFLPA. Scott Hallenbeck explained how USA Football strives to be part of the solution.

Over the last few months, many people have done exactly what Tomlin suggested, and the list continues to grow.

One of the most recent to offer an opinion was Herschel Walker, former Heisman Trophy winner, former All-Pro, a man who played football professionally for 15 years as a running back, a running back who carried the ball 4,091 times during his college and professional careers and believes concussions have become a too convenient cause for too many problems facing former players.

"Everybody blames everything on concussions," Walker told USA Today recently. "The NFL has a problem. It has to determine the difference between (the effects of) concussions and depression. If players lose their money, or wife, or children because of what they're doing, they'll act different. But you can't throw everything on concussions."

Walker currently works with the U.S. military in efforts to treat soldiers who had concussions, and he has written a memoir titled, "Breaking Free," in which he revealed his own dissociative identity disorder, formerly known as multiple personality disorder.

At a time when the NFL and the medical community currently are trying to discern the cumulative effect of concussions, at a time when some 3,500 former players have joined a class-action suit against the league because they contend it did not protect them from long-term damage, Walker is saying that other factors need to be considered, such as mental illness, drug and alcohol abuse, things unrelated to the sport of football.

"You can't just throw everything on concussions," said Walker. "We're all crazy in some sense, and everybody tries to throw solutions at things. But what if it's just that you're bad?"

Walker believes that it's not always possible to find a simple, singular cause for unusual behavior. Other former players have hinted anonymously at drug and/or alcohol abuse as being a cause for the struggles of some players after they left the game, but Walker is one who has attached his name to it. Walker says he doesn't even take any over-the-counter drugs, and that performance-enhancing drug use in sports "absolutely insults me."

Walker recently was part of a delegation lobbying on Capitol Hill for a continuation of federal funding for grants to schools for physical education, and he has been active in supporting that cause since 2000.

"P.E. was my life in school," said Walker. "Without it, I wouldn't be standing here. It gave me confidence when I was an overweight kid with a speech impediment."

The following people also have spoken publicly about the sport of football and what they see as its future.

* Baltimore Ravens Coach John Harbaugh: "Football is a great game, and anybody who's played the game knows what a great game it is. What it provides for young people, what it provides for people like me is an opportunity to grow as a person. It's challenging, it's tough, it's hard. There's no game like football. It's the type of sport that brings out the best in you, it kind of shows you who you are. It's a huge part of our educational system in this country, and it's going to be around for a long time."

* Tedy Bruschi, who played 14 seasons at linebacker for the New England Patriots: "Where I stand is where my mother stood, and my mother didn't want me to play football until I was 14 years old. I believe that. My oldest is 11. He talks about playing football, and I'm teaching him fundamentals of football. He hasn't put a helmet on his head yet – except for one of my old ones from the Patriots and things like that – but I believe in letting my kids develop a little bit before they play. That's the way it was with me. I'm pretty sure I'm OK. Hopefully, it works out for them that way, also. But football, I would want them to be a part of it. It's a great sport."

* Matt Birk, a Harvard alumnus who played center over 15 seasons for two different NFL teams: "I have three sons and I think anyone who is a parent can relate to (President Barack Obama expressing doubt over whether he would allow his sons to play the sport of he had sons). Certainly it's a dangerous game, and we're finding out more and more, every day, the long-term effects that this game can have. I think it's a joint effort with the Commissioner, with coaches, with players, with everybody, everybody who wants to make this game as safe as it can be. I think we're making strides in that. Football's a great game. Obviously it's a great game for NFL players, it's how we make a living, but most kids who play football aren't going to make it to the NFL. It's such a great game because it teaches you about life and lessons, and there's so much to be gained by participating in football. It has served us all well to continue to have this conversation and continue to talk about it and just do whatever we can to make it safer, whether it be through rule change or research."

* Tony Boselli, the inaugural draft pick of the Jacksonville Jaguars who allowed his boys to play even though his own career was cut short by injury: "It bothers me a lot, because there are a lot of things that are dangerous in this world. I understand football is dangerous, and we need to make it safe. I think we can go too far on that and change the game too much. But we've also allowed the perception of the general media to be slanted in a view that football, somehow, is barbaric, dangerous, and an out-of-control game, and that all other activities for kids or anyone else are safe. I've researched this. If you go on to the American (Neurological) Association website, riding a bike is more dangerous than playing football. It concerns me, because I think football is a great game, and I think it provides so many positive things for young people who play it."

* LaVar Arrington, who played seven NFL seasons at linebacker for two different teams and is a father of three: "I will not go through my life scared, and I don't want my children to go through life scared. I started playing football when I was 8 years old and I would never not want to give that same opportunity to my children."


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