Hoge's condition is a grim reminder of the steep price exacted by the NFL's fearsome collisions. A concussion is, literally, a bruise of the brain. While trainers around the league say there has been no apparent increase in the number of concussions, Pittsburgh neurosurgeons Julian Bailes and Joseph Maroon have recently begun testing the fine-motor and short-term memory skills of Steelers, as they begin their careers, to give doctors a basis from which to compare the effect of concussions on those players who incur them.
There are some players who think that suffering a concussion is a badge of toughness. "It's pride," says safety Andre Waters of Arizona. "What I usually do is get a lot of ammonia and sniff it. It probably takes about 20 minutes for my head to clear." When he quarterbacked the Saints, Bobby Hebert suffered a concussion in the first half of a game against the Bucs in 1989 on a hit that also cost him three front teeth. But when backup John Fourcade had to leave the game with an injury late in the first half, and the Saints didn't have a third quarterback, Hebert, memory lapses and all, finished the game, which New Orleans lost.
"It was a foolish thing to do," Hebert, now with the Falcons, said last week. "I was delirious in the huddle. My equilibrium was all screwed up when I dropped back to pass. On the way back to New Orleans after the game, I was throwing up on the plane, and I had a terrible headache. But it's one of those things when you play football. I figure the team's counting on me, and I've got to be a hard-nosed guy."
This, obviously, is where the medical staff must step in and say No m�s. Doctors say their concern is heightened if one concussion is followed quickly by another, which was the case with Hoge. Six weeks before the game with the Bills, in a preseason game at Kansas City, Hoge suffered a concussion that prompted the following sidelines exchange with a Bear trainer.
"Where are you?" asked the trainer.
"In Tampa Bay," Hoge replied.
"How do you know that?"
"I can hear the ocean."
That, of course, was the ringing in Hoge's ears. Hoge was given the O.K. to open the season, and when he broke his hand against the Jets on Sept. 25, Hoge told the Bears he didn't want to wear a cast; the pain wasn't so bad, he said, and he would just play with it wrapped. The severe concussion came the next week. Hoge did not lose consciousness on the play, but he never felt doctors stitching his chin or setting the bone in his hand when they decided to place a cast on the break that night.
Last week Hoge spoke with players and trainers who have had severe concussions. His talk with former Jet receiver Al Toon, who had to retire in 1992 after suffering the effects of several concussions, was the most compelling. "He shed light on some things I really didn't want to believe," Hoge says. "He had so many of the same things happen to him that have happened to me."