"Concussions are part of the profession, an occupational risk," says Elliot J. Pellman, the Jets' team doctor. A football player, he says, is "like a steelworker who goes up 100 stories, or a soldier."
Not only soldiers but also several field generals have been leveled in the 1994 NFL season, in which concussion has been a contagion. Quarterbacks Troy Aikman, Dave Brown, Chris Chandler, Jeff Hostetler, David Klingler, Chris Miller (page 48), Vinny Testaverde and Jack Trudeau have been sidelined by concussions. Tackle Steve Wallace, defensive end Jeff Lageman, defensive backs Ronnie Lott and Mark Collins and receivers Don Beebe, Tom Waddle, Raghib Ismail and Rob Moore are other prominent players who, in euphemistic gridspeak, have had their bells rung. A disoriented Merril Hoge, a fullback for the Chicago Bears, quit on Oct. 17 after suffering two concussions in six weeks.
League spokesman Greg Aiello says preliminary numbers for 1994 are in line with statistics on concussions for the past five years. According to data supplied by the 28 teams, 445 concussions were suffered by 341 players between 1989 and 1993. That is about four concussions per weekend, or 2.5 concussions for every 1,000 plays. On Dec. 9, Pellman, Dr. Andy Tucker of the Cleveland Browns and Dr. Ira Casson, a New York neurologist, met with league officials, including commissioner Paul Tagliabue, to discuss concussions and suggest ways to cut down on their frequency. No concrete proposals were adopted.
"Concussions are a hot topic because of the high-profile cases," says Jeffrey T. Barth, a University of Virginia neuropsychologist. "If Aikman had a knee injury before the Super Bowl, we'd be talking knees like crazy."
But, says Kelly, while damaged knees can be repaired, "the brain is the body's computer, the organ of the psyche. The evidence is clear that repeated insults will do neuropsychological damage."
Indeed, there is disturbing statistical and anecdotal evidence that concussions are the silent epidemic of football:
•Of the 1.5 million high school football players in the U.S., 250,000 suffer a concussion in any given season, according to a survey conducted for The American Journal of Public Health.
•A player who has already suffered a concussion is four times more likely to get one than a player who has been concussion-free. Quarterbacks, running backs, receivers and defensive backs are most vulnerable, although Barth's study of 10 college teams from 1982 to '86 revealed that special teams players were at the highest risk per minute spent on the field.
•Concussions are underreported at all levels of football. This is partly because of the subtlety of a mild concussion (unless a player is as woozy as a wino, the injury might go undetected by a busy trainer or coach) but primarily because players have bought into football's rub-dirt-on-it ethos. "If we get knocked in the head, it's embarrassing to come to the sideline and say, 'Hey, my head's feeling funny,' " says San Francisco 49er quarterback Steve Young, who has suffered at least a half dozen concussions. "So I'm sure we're denying it."
•Football's guidelines for players returning after concussions are sometimes more lenient than boxing's. The New Jersey Boxing Commission requires a fighter who is knocked out to wait 60 days and submit to an electroencephalogram (EEG) before being allowed back into the ring. On Nov. 21, the New York Giants' Brown was knocked out for 30 seconds when he was helmeted on the chin by Houston Oiler linebacker Lamar Lathon, but he started the following Sunday against the Washington Redskins.