Quarterbacks speak so matter-of-factly about getting their blocks knocked off. Take Chris Miller, the battle-scarred 29-year-old Los Angeles Ram. Last week, while sitting in a meeting room at the team's practice facility in Anaheim, Miller considered an especially brutal shot he had taken from some San Diego Chargers on Nov. 27. "You get so focused on the receiver that you don't see the rush coming," Miller said, his voice devoid of emotion. "On this play I tried to get rid of the rock as soon as I could, or these dudes would have blown me up. I turned my body just as I threw it and bam! I got crunched. Four dudes landed on me."
Long pause. "You know," Miller said, "you're not going to get up every time."
Miller knows that as well as any quarterback in the NFL. He emerged unscathed from the Charger assault, but on two other occasions this season he has not been as fortunate. With two concussions, in addition to bruised ribs and a pinched nerve in his neck, he is the 1994 poster child for abused quarterbacks. Since suffering his first concussion, on Oct. 23 against the New Orleans Saints, he has forgotten how to drive home, forgotten what day it is and has heard a doctor tell him that there is a spot on his brain.
Against the Saints, Miller was slammed in the chest after releasing a pass, and he fell hard against the artificial turf in the Superdome, his head whiplashing on the hard surface. Miller's head throbbed, but he played on. Later on the sidelines during that first half he asked a Ram doctor for something to ease his pain. "Hey. Doc," he said. "I've got a hell of a headache. Can I have a couple Tylenol?"
Miller played the rest of the half, struggling at times to remember plays and slurring some words in the huddle. "You sound slow," guard Tom Newberry told him at one point. At halftime Miller's head was pounding, and he complained to the doctors that he was experiencing tunnel vision. "Is there anything you can give me?" he asked them. Upon further examination, Dr. Craig Milhouse, a team physician, decided that Miller needed more than a couple of painkillers. He was sent by ambulance to New Orleans's Southern Baptist Hospital.
After undergoing a CAT scan, Miller received a visit from a grim-looking doctor. "We've found a little spot on the front of your brain," the doctor said. Miller barely heard the rest. Internal alarms went off. A spot on the brain! They're talking about my brain! I've got a son and another child on the way, and they're talking about my brain!
Miller stayed in the hospital overnight. The CAT scan had revealed a significant bruise on his frontal lobe caused by his brain colliding with the inside of his skull when his head hit the turf. Miller's concern was heightened when, watching ESPN from his hospital bed that night, he saw a story about the long-term effects of concussions. On the broadcast former New York Giant linebacker Harry Carson, who retired in 1988, said that he still feels a bit foggy and that he believes concussions suffered during his playing days are the cause. The bruise on Miller's brain subsided enough for Miller to return to Los Angeles the next day.
The Rams had a bye the next weekend and were to face the Denver Broncos on Nov. 6 in Anaheim. On Saturday, Oct. 29, Miller and his wife, Jennifer, were in Eugene to watch Miller's alma mater, Oregon, play Arizona. He was still fuzzy, and Jennifer noticed it. "My wife said, 'You're talking strange. You're not making sense,' " he says.
Miller stood on the Oregon sidelines with a buddy, rooting for the Ducks. "Man," said Miller at one point, suddenly anxious, "I've got to get back to L.A. pretty soon. We play Denver tomorrow." His friend reminded him that this was the Rams' bye week, and thus they had no game the next day. Miller couldn't believe he had forgotten that.
The fog didn't lift the following week either. "It was like the morning after you've drunk a bottle of tequila," he says. The Rams started Miller's backup, Chris Chandler, against Denver. But Chandler was knocked out with a concussion of his own in the fourth quarter, and Miller was inserted for the last two series of the game. Says Miller, "The docs told me, 'You think you're nervous. We're just praying you don't get hit in the head.' "