In a game against the Cincinnati Bengals late in the 2017 season, Pittsburgh Steelers linebacker Ryan Shazier went in for a tackle, going head first and ending up crumpled on the turf, one hand in the middle of his spine. He would leave the game and undergo spinal stabilization surgery, putting the rest of his career, and his quality of life, in jeopardy.
Jumping ahead four to five months, Shazier walked on the stage, supported by his fiancee, to deliver the Steelers pick at No. 28 overall. This moment was the pinnacle of months of physical therapy, outpatient care and the works.
While he will not play in 2018, Shazier is working his way back to be an impact player in 2019 in order to prove that when the athlete has the right mentality, injuries and age are all in the mind and should not define a career (look at James Harrison, who played out of his mind in his late 30s as a linebacker, a physically demanding position). He would not be alone in this pursuit, with the likes of Tom Brady (knee), Peyton Manning (neck) and Adrian Peterson (knee) all bouncing back after gruesome injuries. Does the infamous Posey Rule, rules preventing collisions at home plate, named for San Francisco Giants catcher Buster Posey, ring a bell? And of course, who could forget the 2008 U.S. Open, when Tiger Woods won with a double stress fracture in the fibula in his left leg?
While injuries happen in all sports, it is hard to ignore the overall physical nature of football and the fact that on quite a few lists, many of the athletes who had their careers decimated were football players. In fact, based on data analysis by the Wall Street Journal, between 2008 and 2014, the average career of an NFL player has dropped from 4.99 years to 2.66 years, with running backs and wide receivers taking the brunt. The average career of a wide receiver is a paltry 26.5 months, based on the data.
Suicide rates, while no higher among former players in comparison to the general population, continue to climb as scientists begin to understand the effects of chronic trauma encephalopathy, or CTE. The problem is that this condition can only be diagnosed post-mortem. In a recent study of 202 brains of American football players, both college and professional, 87 percent were found to have the condition. The percentage among the brains of the players that reached the NFL (111 in total) where CTE was detected skyrocketed to 99 percent. In fact, only one brain did not show any signs of the condition
These former players know the risk of playing the game. Many would take those risks again. However, there are others, such as former quarterback Kurt Warner, who would never let their children play in a million years. Unless the league takes drastic measures to ensure player safety, and prevent the lawsuits from piling up on Roger Goodell’s desk, the league may not survive.