Faith, Fear and Football


What’s so fascinating about a deer that freezes in headlights is that its greatest strength — its excellent vision — is actually what leads to its sudden death. Moments before a deer ends up as roadkill it experiences something called “flash blindness,” which lasts just long enough to keep it from seeking survival.

So my question is, what’s making NFL players freeze in their tracks?

Suicidal thoughts, memory loss, depression, confusion, aggression, anxiety and progressive dementia.

Would you go to work every day if those were the possible side effects of doing your job?

I did.

Well, me, and the rest of the elite group of athletes that comprise the National Football League. The list above includes just a few of the possible side effects of Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy (CTE), a disease triggered in part by repeated blunt trauma to the head. The thing is, delivering blunt force is the name of the game in the NFL. That’s what gets you paid.

Players aren’t stupid. We know all the warning signs. Many even know people who exhibit some of them.

I first met Adrian Robinson in August 2013. I had joined the Philadelphia Eagles four months earlier via a trade from the Cleveland Browns. Adrian came to Philly in late August, through a trade with the Pittsburgh Steelers. Anyone familiar with the NFL knows just how stressful it is to join a team that late in training camp. The week he joined the Eagles happened to coincide with the final preseason game — the last job interview you get before you find out whether you’ve been hired or cut. Adrian and I were both second-year players, and even though he was a humble guy, I’ll admit that I hadn’t been all that friendly to him initially. I just viewed him as another threat to my job security. But as we practiced together, it became clear just how much we had in common. I realized that we were going to be playing side by side during the most pivotal game of our lives to date. I needed him to survive. We were both just two young guys looking to keep our dreams alive. After that game, we went our separate ways — I stayed with the Eagles. Adrian got released and then signed with the Denver Broncos.

Jack Dempsey/AP Images

In April 2015, I was in the training room watching ESPN when a breaking-news report popped up. It was about Adrian. He had committed suicide. He was only 25.

The autopsy revealed that he had CTE.

Sadly, this isn’t an unusual story. Many guys playing in the NFL know somebody who displays many of the symptoms of CTE. So even though this is a very real concern for just about every player, what keeps us going? Why does it still seem worth it?

Is it the money, the fame, the pride or simply the love of the game?

Truth is, it’s all of the above.

Let’s be real.

You’re in your early twenties, in the best shape of your life and have signed a contract to receive millions of dollars in exchange for taking a ball from one painted white line to another. For many players, all this comes after having grown up in project housing. You don’t have car keys when you live in the projects; you have a bus pass. And even though you’re making millions, much of your family still lives in poverty and they’re looking to you to get them out. (I grew up in Dallas, but many of my relatives still live in impoverished villages in Nigeria.) You’ve also been primed to believe in this notion that “quitting is for cowards.” There’s no chance you would have made it this far without a fear of failure. And the reality is that you’ve loved football your whole life. It’s what people are proud of you for. It’s how you’ve shaped your legacy. Would you let that go? Could you just walk away?

The NFL recently acknowledged that there is a link between football and CTE. This has only further complicated the troubling dilemma that professional football players are forced to confront every day, every snap and every hit.

I’m finishing up my masters in sports psychology this off-season. In my readings, I’ve reacquainted myself with Maslow’s hierarchy of needs. You might have stumbled across it in Psych 101. The theory, proposed in the 1940s by psychologist Abraham Maslow, models human needs from the most basic to the most complex, from physiological, to safety, to love, to esteem and finally to self-actualization.

Breaking it down, what I’ve found is that for many professional athletes, our chosen sports at least partially fulfill our needs on every level. Many of us took to sports when we were really young; they were the first things we fell in love with. And that love eventually becomes dependence because of how much the games provide for us. They become our financial provision for food and shelter. They are also a great source of love and adoration. From a young age, we connect good athletic performance with praise. That association is deeply ingrained in us. For football players, even though our game is a brutal sport, it makes us feel safe in the present, because it offers us so many comforts in life that might otherwise be unavailable. We learn to love the contact during games, and we crave it when it’s gone.

An athlete’s sense of self-worth is measured in awards, contracts and trophies, which symbolize whether we have maximized our potential. A great example of this could be seen in the reaction of Ronda Rousey after her UFC title loss to Holly Holm. “What am I anymore if I’m not this?” she said a few months after the defeat. “I was literally sitting there and like, thinking about killing myself.”

When NFL athletes are stripped of their identity, the loss often manifests itself in three ways: bankruptcy, divorce or suicide. Sometimes one leads to another.

So it seems clear now more than ever before that there’s an unfortunate destiny that awaits nearly all NFL players. A study conducted by the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs and Boston University tested the brains of 91 deceased NFL players for CTE. They found that 87 tested positive.

Among the 87 are icons like Junior Seau and guys like Adrian Robinson (who only played football for a few years). If you’re associated with this game long enough, it’s only a matter of time until CTE takes ownership of someone you love. Just ask Keana McMahon, the ex-wife of Justin Strzelczyk. The former Steelers offensive lineman — who died in 2004 in a head-on collision after having led police on a high-speed car chase — was one of the first NFL players to be diagnosed post-mortem with CTE. McMahon says she doesn’t even watch football anymore because she feels like she’s “making people rich, and watching people die.”

Chris Szagola/Cal Sport Media/ZUMAPRESS.

Remember the deer: Their large pupils and the multitude of rods found within their eyes are what give them night vision. Their ability to see at night, which many humans would regard as a superpower, leads to oversaturation of the retina in the presence of bright light — in layman’s terms, blindness.

Like the deer, NFL players possess an overarching superpower, the innate übercompetitiveness that pushes us to brutalize our bodies. It’s that competitiveness that not only provides us fame and fortune, but which also compels us to participate in modern-day gladiator combat, even while still recovering from painful injuries. It’s that competitiveness that blinds us to our diminishing skill sets, as we attempt to play far beyond our primes, until courage turns into foolishness.

Everyone’s motivation for playing is different.

I’m a middle-class kid, from a middle-class family. I didn’t need the money and I don’t care too much about fame. But there are some things that are nearly impossible to surrender: the game I love, and the platform that comes with it. The type of platform that allows you to change a fan’s life by going to their prom, or better yet, change a whole village in Nigeria by building a hospital.

The truth is, every NFL player is gambling with his future, betting that the return on his investment will far surpass the risks and sacrifices to his body and mind.

I still don’t know how my bet will turn out, but at least I understand why I made it.