Al Toon has spent most of his waking hours the last four weeks sitting quietly at home. Moving about isn't easy for Toon, because his sense of balance often betrays him. Occasionally he'll watch TV or read a book, but doing cither for very long exacerbates his ever-present headache. Talking can be difficult. Normally articulate and quick-witted, Toon has trouble finding the right word to finish his thoughts. He even has some short-term-memory loss. So most of the time he sits still on his bed and does nothing.
"It's hard to concentrate," says Toon in a soft, deliberate voice. "It's hard to focus. I just think a lot. And pray a lot."
On Nov. 8, in a game against the Denver Broncos, Toon, a three-time Pro Bowl wide receiver for the New York Jets, suffered his ninth concussion in eight NFL seasons on what looked to be a routine catch and tackle. Since then he has seen an army of doctors in an effort to shake off the effects of a vaguely understood disorder known as postconcussion syndrome. Although Toon, 29, is expected to recover fully, no one is sure how long it will take. However, one thing is certain in Toon's mind: There won't be a 10th concussion. Last Friday he announced his retirement.
"The pattern seemed to be that it took less of a hit to give me a concussion, and it's taking me longer to recover," says Toon. "I know I'm going to get better. But what happens after that?"
In medical terms a concussion is a temporary aberration of brain functions, usually caused by a blow to the head. In football, concussions are a fact of life. Former Philadelphia Eagle quarterback Ron Jaworski claims to have suffered 35 concussions in his 17 years in the NFL. Although players like Jerry Rice, Warren Moon, Steve Young and Jeff Hostetler have been knocked out of games this year with concussions, more often than not players tend to shrug them off as nothing more serious than a bruise.
"One thing about the sport," says Phoenix Cardinal cornerback Robert Massey, "you have to feel good about getting a [concussion], because you know you've made contact. It's a contact sport."
Perhaps, but Toon's situation is a disturbing example of how dangerous concussions can be. So is the case of Green Bay Packer tackle Tony Mandarich, who will miss the entire season with postconcussion syndrome, the result of banging helmets with another player in a preseason game. Although there is no evidence to show that concussions can lead to permanent brain damage, most medical experts believe that repeated blows to the head can have dire consequences. "Think about boxing," says Buffalo Bill team doctor Richard Weiss. "Suffering a large number of concussions over a period of years more than likely leaves some permanent residue."
Which is what concerns Toon. He admits that since suffering his first couple of concussions, he has had difficulty concentrating on the ball and remembering plays. "Early in my career I used to leave the huddle thinking about not just what I had to do, but also what the other people had to do and how they affected my route," he says. "Lately I've been running to the line of scrimmage, thinking, What do I have to do, what do I have to do?
"There are some inherent dangers in playing football. Everybody knows that. Sore ribs, sore fingers—these are things you live with. But when you get something like this, you've got to take it more seriously. You've got to think past just, Can I play on Sunday?"