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Most every pro football prospect out there has dreamed of playing in the NFL since he first put on cleats and a helmet. Along the way he has been told that he'll have an opportunity to turn that dream into reality if he continues to work hard. But will he? More to the point, should he? For pro prospects with a history of major concussions that's a potentially life-altering and even life-threatening question. It's also one that all teams are facing on the eve of this week's draft. And while teams may base their answers on self-interest, their seemingly unfair exclusion of players may actually point to a beneficial course of action that could one day become policy.
Chris Owusu was Stanford's No. 1 wide receiver and top kick returner when his senior season was cut short on Nov. 5. On that day he was taken from Stanford Stadium by ambulance after sustaining his second concussion in three weeks and third in 13 months. He wasn't medically cleared by team doctors to play in the Fiesta Bowl or the Senior Bowl, but he has since received two clean bills of health—from his own physician at UC San Francisco and from NFL doctors at the league's annual scouting combine in February. At 6-feet and 196 pounds, Owusu has a bodybuilder's physique and a sprinter's speed: His time of 4.36 seconds tied for the fastest for his position at the combine.
Still, teams are wary because of the concussions. One general manager says that Owusu has third-round talent but gave him a seventh-round grade. Another says, "He's off our board. It wouldn't matter if he was RG3, he'd still be off our board. With that kind of history it's not worth the risk of his being seriously injured, especially with all the attention you're going to receive. If you draft him you're going to be under the microscope the whole time. Every time he gets hit, it's going to be magnified tenfold."
Because every brain injury is different and scientific research is limited, doctors say they're unable to draw a straight line from past concussions to increased susceptibility for future ones. The risk depends on factors such as severity of the blow, recovery time and frequency of incidence. The NFL, which along with the players' association was called to Capitol Hill in 2009 to address the issue, is so concerned about brain trauma that it has talked about doing away with three-point stances and kickoffs. Such moves would decrease violent collisions and limit the league's exposure to future lawsuits. Currently more than 1,000 former and current players are plaintiffs against the NFL, claiming the league failed to adequately treat concussions and educate players about potential long-term consequences of brain trauma. (The lead plaintiff in that case, former Falcons safety Ray Easterling, shot himself to death last Saturday at age 62, after years of battling depression and dementia.)
Which raises the question: Are we approaching the time when commissioner Roger Goodell, under the "best interest of the game" and "player safety" umbrellas, closes the league's doors to any college prospect with a history of concussions? He showed in 2010 that he will act to protect players against themselves when, after a particularly violent Sunday which featured at least six chilling head collisions, he served notice that enhanced player safety rules would be strictly enforced and any player who violated them would be subject to immediate ejection, a fine and possible suspension.
Similar preemptive measures to keep concussed players out of the NFL, says Dr. Robert Cantu, who cochairs the league's head, neck and spine committee, "definitely could be something in the future, but it's very important to understand that the concrete data isn't there right now [to warrant] something like that.
"What's going to help in the future is that we'll not only be able to look at [a player's] history of concussions, but we'll be able to see structural changes on imaging studies that aren't available now. Or there will be bio markers in the blood or spinal fluid that will allow us to identify individuals who have already had brain injuries that we can't detect right now. These things will greatly aid making those judgment calls."
That day can't come fast enough, because twentysomething men aren't going to willingly turn their backs on the game they love and the potential financial rewards it brings. For instance, in 2009 running back Jahvid Best was held out of Cal's final four games after sustaining two concussions in as many weeks. He had no reported symptoms the next year after being drafted 30th overall by the Lions; however, last season he missed time in training camp and was lost for the season in Week 6 because of complications from separate concussions.
Owusu, 22, is engaging and bright. He will graduate with a degree in human biology and has laid the foundation for becoming a doctor. Why risk his health when so much awaits him outside football? He answers with unblinking eyes and a smile. First, he has those doctors' clearances. Second, he loves the game.
"I love the camaraderie and the competition," he says. "Maybe I'll change some things about the way I get tackled or try to be smarter and go out-of-bounds."