Everything goes dark. Then the lights come on. You pull yourself up off the turf and head back to the sideline and silently take a seat on the bench. Your mind starts moving a million miles a minute... "Should I say anything to anyone? What if I lose my job? I have to be strong for my teammates. We have to win this game." You have a choice: speak up and risk losing your job or stay silent.
At one point, Brian Jennings was the longest-tenured 49er on a team that went to Super Bowl 47. He was one of the best at his position and never missed a game in his 13-year career.
I had a chance to ask some questions of the former Pro Bowler on his playing days and about concussions that have impacted his personal life leading to his great work with the Concussion Care Center in his home state of Arizona. Here's how our conversation went:
ZN: How many concussions have you had diagnosed in your career?
Brian Jennings: (Laughs) Actually, there are two questions at work here. There's how many concussions have I had playing football and how many concussions have I been diagnosed with.
ZN: Let's go with how many concussions have you for sure had, and then we'll go with how many concussions have you had diagnosed?
BJ: So, I for sure have had dozens of concussions, some worse than others. Chronologically, I would go back to crashing my bike or riding my skateboard as a kid and now that I know what concussions are, I had some back then. As far as my football career, I for sure had a concussion my senior year of college. I would say during my pro career, from 2000-2008 when I did all the tight end stuff, I for sure had concussions every training camp.
In 2009, I probably had my worst concussion of my life where I broke my helmet trying to make a tackle in a game against the Falcons.
ZN: How many times did you think you had a concussion but still remained in the game?
BJ: With all my injuries, I tried to avoid reporting all my injuries to the team, so I never missed a game, never missed a snap, never missed a rep during my career.
ZN: I want to help the readers understand what the athlete goes through to put a human element on this. From an athlete's perspective, what goes through your mind when you have a concussion diagnosis (i.e. do you think of your family, your personal health, personal pride, the fear of losing your spot, etc)?
BJ: For sure, all of that. We only have one long snapper and if I don't play, then there's a chance that we may lose the game. If I report an injury, I get stuck in their protocol, which has nothing to do with my injury or career. I don't think the team's rehab protocols are the best in the world by any means. I don't want to get stuck in their rehab program when I can go rehab on my own and get better faster.
(Regarding other factors) I don't want my team to know that I'm injured because it could affect my next contract. I don't want my teammates to know that I'm injured because they might look at me differently. I don't want my coaches to have any doubts of my ability to play. So basically, you want to seem invincible at all times to everybody - your opponents, your coaches, your teammates, the front office (where you're negotiating your contract).
There's really no incentive to reporting your injuries, especially when it comes to concussions because there's really no rehab, it's rest and pharmaceutical management so now I really don't want to report that injury.
ZN: Do you feel like the league's emphasis on player safety is sufficient at his point? If not, what do you feel should be changed?
BJ: I'll take this opportunity to clarify; I consider football a fight game - like MMA and boxing. I feel like adult men and women (over 18 and paid to participate) that want to fight for a living have a right to put themselves in harm's way. I feel like the NFL is going about it the wrong way by not recognizing they're a fight game and not acknowledging that injuries are part of the game. You can't take injuries out of football, much like you can't take punching out of boxing.
There should be more of an emphasis on keeping the game as it is - it's a physical, violent game where you take the ball, move it across the field and the other team tries to stop you.
I don't think football is for everybody, I don't think MMA is for everybody, I don't think boxing is for everybody. But for people that needed football, and I needed football because football saved me in high school, so football is absolutely vital. I don't think football not being for everybody will affect it being played at a high level in high school or college, the affect will come at less competitive levels so the NFL is really focusing in the wrong areas.
ZN: Given the NFL's stance on player safety, it seems contradictory for them to suggest an 18 game season, or make teams play on a Thursday Night after playing on a Sunday...
BJ: When I got to the NFL, the league would always say "our job is to protect the shield", meaning grow the game by means of what you see today: betting and fantasy football. Their emphasis is to grow and expand the game, which I'm all for. I love to be an ambassador of the NFL and I love football. There's no mistaking that...but I don't think it's for everyone so I can hold both positions but love football.
In my opinion, what the NFL is doing is that they have their attorneys and PR guiding the ship, and I think that's a mistake. The NFL is concerned that parents are going to prevent their kids from playing football and that's true, but instead of saying that it's true, the NFL is focused on growing the game instead so it's sort of a mixed message.
ZN: A lot of people don't realize how much time and preparation goes into playing the game. They don't see the work done behind the scenes to recover from injuries and prepare for every game and just how much is at stake and how quickly it's all taken away when your playing days are over...
BJ: I look at every game like a cumulative final exam or its own season. You want to play well enough every "season" that you get to play the next week. They say athletes are the only people that die twice. Your identity becomes so ingrained into who you are as an athlete that when you stop playing you have to reinvent yourself because you've been an athlete and that's who you are, but then that stops.
While you're playing, you want to preserve that sports career and play another game or another season. The things that would stop you from playing would be you're not playing well enough or you're not healthy. It's a battle to play as many games as possible, as many years as possible to keep your athletic dream alive - you're fighting for your survival to continue your career.
ZN: I saw the movie Concussion and have to say that, at the very least, it's extremely thought provoking. What are your thoughts on it? Would you say that it paints an accurate picture?
BJ: I was really impressed with the movie. I feel like it's a way to help families, civilians and fans to create a picture of what they're actually talking about (concussions). The movie takes a niche sort of subject and makes it mainstream, which is great because there are a lot of families that are making the decision on whether their kids should be playing football or not.
For me, that movie sends a powerful message to those families: if there's a plan B (football or something else like tennis or music), take it right now.
Most people play two hand touch football or flag football recreationally because football hurts, it's a violent game. It's not played with a light-heartedness.
ZN: You're doing some great work with the Concussion Care Center. Can you give a brief description of what you guys do down there as the treatment and research is not just limited to athletes, you also help Alzheimer's patients, war veterans, etc. What got you initially involved with the Care Center?
BJ: Football helped me build my life. When playing football, the first thing that you need to be able to do is play good football and the second thing you need to do is stay healthy. After football, my passion is healthcare, fitness and injury recovery because it's what I spent most of my time and
money on for the last 15 years.
When I had my first diagnosed concussion in 2005 and went to my private team of doctors. I learned how to recover from injuries from them and learned that many times, guys will have secondary injuries as a result of the lack of coordination, brain fog, or lack of contact courage that comes from having a concussion. I told them to go see my private team that I was working with and that's sort of how I got my start. First I did it for myself, then I did it for my teammates and then when I retired I decided to start a clinic. I had a dream about how we could make concussion care more affordable and fixing concussions.
I'll be the first to say that football and sports have played a huge role in my life. I am a firm believer in the idea that sports builds some of the most vital skills that are needed to succeed in life. However, with more athletes diagnosed with brain trauma, it's important to know the risks of what one is getting themselves into when it comes to sports, and specifically, football. Athletes deserve to have these issues brought to light so that we know just how much they're putting on the line. They deserve treatment for their injuries that they have sustained as a result of playing a game. Most of all, they deserve our respect.
I respect the men and women who put their bodies on the line to make a living through sports. I respect the work that they put in that the outside world doesn't see. What many out there don't realize is the bulk of what we see happens behind the scenes. We see our favorite players on the field, but that's really only the tip of the iceberg.
We hear about an athlete tearing a shoulder ligament or a thumb ligament and needing surgery. We think of it as such a minor injury because they'll be back in a few months. However, we're not on that journey to recovery with them, we don't see the daily pain and struggle that they go through just to get back to the level they were performing at before they got injured. Anyone who has had a significant injury can attest to this - it's not easy to get back to where you were before you got injured, no matter what walk of life you come from. We think about this and say to ourselves that "they're making millions of dollars to play sports". Well, sometimes they have no choice but to play a sport to get out of a bad situation.
Brian mentioned the the NFL is a money-driven entity and the focus is on growing the game by keeping its biggest stars on the field for as long as possible. I agree with that sentiment, as no one really wants to see Tom Brady or Adrian Peterson's backups. Fans come to see Tom Brady and Adrian Peterson. As long as those guys are on the field, they'll draw attention to their games and increase viewership. It's not really about player safety when games are being played on Thursday nights after a Sunday game (a four day turnaround). As Brian says, the league doesn't acknowledge this and while it's great as fans to see so much football, we also should be aware of the aftermath of playing such a violent sport. I love football, I love watching it and I loved playing it when I did, but I agree that it's not for everyone.
It's important to remember that the athletes themselves have a decision making process that they go through not only with concussions, but with any injury they sustain. To hear first-hand some of the things that athletes go through to stay on the field opens up another world in which fans don't get a glimpse of. We don't see the extra practice reps, the offseason workouts or the recovery procedures that they go through. We assume they're invincible because that's what we see them as - we see athletes as modern day super heroes. Through all of that, there's a human side that gets lost behind the bright lights.
Special thanks to Brian Jennings for his contributions to this article. If you would like to learn more about concussions and head trauma, please visit Concussion Care Center.