Everyone saw that — but anyone who continued to watch Heap saw something much scarier.
The 10-year NFL verteran lay on the turf for several minutes as the Ravens’ training staff tended to him. He was then helped to the sidelines, clearly dazed by the hit. Ninety-nine percent of human beings would have walked to the locker room and perhaps headed to the hospital. Heap, along with so many NFL players, is in the 1 percent that wants to get back on the field as soon as possible.
The reasons are plenty, but not all of them are good. As was made very clear in Malcolm Gladwell‘s story last year on concussions in the NFL (a must-read with the sudden storm of head injury talk), head injuries are a common occurrence at all levels of football. As is made even clearer by former Patriots linebacker Ted Johnson, players are routinely taught to try to ignore those injuries.
“Officially, I’ve probably only been listed as having three or four concussions in my career, but the real number is closer to 30, maybe even more,” Johnson admitted to The Boston Globe in 2007. “I’ve been dinged so many times I’ve lost count.”
Johnson said that he didn’t report most of his concussions to the team over the course of his 10-year career, for fear of earning the reputation of being an injury-prone player.
Which brings the story back to Sunday in Foxboro.
Heap sat on the bench with the trainers standing near him. The communication seemed minimal. After a few minutes of hanging his head, a trainer helped Heap stretch out his neck. After the delay of several minutes when Heap was prone on the field, it was widely assumed that Heap’s day was done.
Still, Heap remained on the sidelines rather than heading to the locker room. A trainer had Heap grip his hand and pull it toward him in a rowing motion, but Heap was never given the standard finger-to-nose test that is so often seen on football sidelines. He was never given anything close to a comprehensive concussion test.
Minutes later, Heap was back in the Baltimore huddle, colliding yet again at full speed with linemen and linebackers.
Ultimately, a brutal head-to-head hit that sent a mouthpiece flying 10 yards in the air only kept Heap off the field for a few plays. That in itself is more frightening than any of the numerous helmet-to-helmet hits that took place over the weekend.
Despite what looked to be a much worse hit than those to Jay Cutler and Kevin Kolb that forced those quarterbacks to miss time with concussions this year (watch Cutler’s hit here and watch Kolb’s here), Heap was back on the field within minutes. In the following days, no reports have surfaced saying Heap has any injury. That could mean he’s OK; it could also mean he’s telling people that he’s OK. Those are two vastly different realities.
That’s not to condemn the Ravens or any other team. Rather, it’s an observation that the “I’m fine” culture is still a problem in the NFL.
While most of the discussions following Sunday’s hits (which include two by Pittsburgh’s James Harrison and a high-speed collision between Atlanta’s Dunta Robinson and Philadelphia’s DeSean Jackson) have revolved around rules, fines and suspensions, none of those potential changes will remove the culture that exists in the league.
It is that problem that is infinitely harder to control. The players have a lot to lose by missing time, especially in a league with little guaranteed salary. The coaches don’t want to force their players to sit out, as the difference between them having jobs or being unemployed can sometimes be determined with one play. It puts trainers and team doctors — the people with the least power in this struggle — to have to tell both player and coach that an injury is too much for a player to bear.
Earlier this season, Cowboys tight end Jason Witten was told by the medical staff that he couldn’t return to a game. That trainer was doing his job, but as a result, he got screamed at by an enraged Witten (the same Jason Witten who once ran down an NFL field without a helmet on his head). Most trainers would rather not draw the ire of a 6-foot-3, 240-pound man just for doing what’s right.
As a result, the more often outcome is a player telling the trainer he’s good to go, and the coach sending the player right back into the game. It’s the type of routine that can lead to problems that Johnson deals with, such as depression, dizziness, poor concentration and memory loss. It’s the type of routine that led to former offensive tackle Kyle Turley passing out cold while out with friends.
For Heap, maybe (and hopefully) it’s not the case. But after seeing the hit over and over again, and after seeing Heap return to the field in a matter of minutes, it’s hard to see it as anything else.
Clearly, the NFL’s problem of helmet-to-helmet hits is much more complicated than it may seem on the surface.
Will suspending players for helmet-to-helmet hits solve the violent problems in the NFL, or is the problem much worse than that? Share your thoughts below.
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