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The days have melted away since Miami quarterback Tua Tagovailoa left Paycor Stadium on a stretcher and was taken to ambulance to a Cincinnati hospital.
It’s been nearly two weeks since he slammed his head against the turf after being shoved to the ground while throwing, went to the locker room and came back out to play in the second half of a win over the Buffalo Bills. It’s been a week since he was slung to the ground in Cincinnati, once again hitting his head, and leaving on a stretcher. There are many questions about why he was allowed to return to the field against the Bills and play again just four days later.
“If that was the safety, who was the 51st man on the roster, are we putting him back in?” former NFL wide receiver Kevin Drake said. “He’s not the one taking a snap every play. Are we really putting him back in? We can play without him, we can’t play without this guy. Hopefully, that’s something that gets taken a lot more serious. Someone’s got to step in and do something. Maybe it will take something like this. You don’t wish will ill on anybody, certainly not a kid like Tua, because he’s just good as gold. It happened, so what do we do moving forward?”
There is no clear answer when Tagovailoa will return to the field. In some ways, the NFL has moved on. The memory of that frightening sequence, however, probably won’t ever melt away.
“I got chills, to be honest with you,” Drake said. “That kind of took me back to the whole world when I was playing. There is more awareness, but it’s sad, to be honest with you. I cringed. It took me back to every concussion I ever had and how things changed for you at that moment. You don’t know what’s going on. It was scary.”
Drake, a former quarterback and wide receiver at UAB, played for four NFL organizations, as well as in NFL Europe and the Canadian Football League. He started playing football at the age of 5 and continued for more than 20 years. Drake said he had about 10 documented concussions during his playing days. He estimates that his list of undocumented concussions stretched to “upward of 30.”
His first thought, with each one, was how do I get back on the field?
“That’s the way we were trained, the way we were taught,” Drake outlined. “It’s what we did, it’s what we thought we were supposed to do. Be tough, suck it up, your head’s clear. That’s the biggest problem with a CVI, it’s an invisible injury. If I tear my ACL or partially tear my MCL in my knee, I’m going to know about it because I can’t perform. With a concussion, it’s how many fingers am I holding up? What’s the date? Where you at? OK, let’s get him back in the game. We were just taught that from an early age, that’s all I ever knew.”
He watched the whole situation with Tua play out while watching the games from his couch. It not only took him back to his playing days but also took him back to when he was part of the education and research being done on concussions. For more than four years, from January 2012 to October 2016, he was the Director of Programs for Wise Up Initiative, which, according to the organization’s mission statement, was “organized to bring awareness and education to the public on the various dangers and issues surrounding concussions, as well as raising research funding for the advancement in concussion research.”
Drake also worked closely with Dr. Robert Cantu, Dr. Anne McKee, Dr. Robert Stern and Chris Nowinski, who are among the national leaders in concussion research and education.
“I know more than most, just because of the studies I was blessed to be around and be in association with,” Drake said. “As a player, I don’t want to know about it. I don’t know that I have a concussion, I don’t want to know about these long-term effects, which we know now and all the players know. You’re living under a rock if you don’t know. Everybody knows what can happen. And what can happen is CTE.”
Drake said the research backs that up.
“They’ve been collecting brains well over six years now, 96 percent of the brains that come in through the NFL have CTE,” Drake said. “Now, that’s just the ones that have been voluntarily submitted. That’s a select group and I get that. That doesn’t mean 96 percent of football players have CTE in some form and when they all die, we’ll collect their brains, and that’s what it’s going to show. Could it? I don’t know, but it’s a high number, I can promise you that. I firmly believe it’s a high number, regardless of whether you’ve had one or two concussions or you’ve had 30 or 40 concussions. It’s still the way your brain responds and it’s still damage to your brain.”
Undoubtedly, the NFL, as well as football at every level, has taken major steps forward in concussion awareness and player safety. Drake said the researchers, as well as himself, love the sport and are “not out to doom the sport, not out to bash football.” At times, though, events like this seem to erase many of the positive steps.
“I think the education element to me is the most important thing for the player’s safety,” Drake stated. “To me, that just boils down to this is safety for myself. This is not about my teammates, this is not about the coaching staff. This is not about the money I make or, to be honest with you, as rude as it sounds, it’s not about the family I go home to every night. It’s about me and me being able to function later in life, when football ends, because it’s going to end, quicker for some than others. But, it’s going to end for everybody and can I function, later in life, after that? Can I live where I don’t have the damage, because I didn’t try to tough it out and play through something. If we understand that as a community and a football community, a lot of it won’t be looked down upon like it has for decades.”
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