Bulger: Concussions part of the game

To some, the NFL can't survive if decisions are made to soften the game

Originally Published: May 9, 2012
By Anna McDonald | Special to ESPN.com

ST. LOUIS -- Former NFL quarterback Marc Bulger remembers his dad telling him he had to try football for one year in high school.

Just one year and he could walk away.

However, that wasn't the case. Just one year turned into a career for Bulger, during which there was never a time when he was unaware of the physical dangers associated with football.

"Always in practice -- high school, college, and [the NFL] -- you see a kid lying there," Bulger said. "So you knew [a concussion] was a possibility."

That's why Bulger finds it so hard to believe that the former NFL players who recently filed the federal lawsuit against the NFL were unaware of the dangers. He doesn't doubt many former NFL players struggle with severe effects of concussions, such as dementia and chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE), but their struggles aren't the NFL's fault.

"I may have it," Bulger said of CTE. "I've had 10 to 15 concussions. I played in the NFL 11 years. There were six or seven years where I was the most sacked quarterback for that span. So, this could affect me.

"I'm just saying there's a slippery slope. If we go that route, is it the college coaches as well? Do we blame the high school coaches? I think it is going to have a negative impact on the sport. "

Bulger believes the NFL will not survive if decisions are made to soften the physical aspects of the game.

"It's not soft now," he said of football. "If it gets to a point where it's only tackling below the waist, no one wants to see that."

And he would not want to play football if it lacked the toughness.

"You learn from getting hit," Bulger said. "That's how you learn about your guys -- who the tough guys are and who the tough guys aren't."

For Bulger, football players sign up voluntarily. No one is forcing them to play. They know what they're getting into.

"There are a lot of guys I know that could play in the NFL and be Pro Bowlers if there wasn't the tough part of the game." Bulger said. "But that's a big part of the game. It's like boxing; do you have a glass chin? Some guys can take it, some guys can't."

More importantly for Bulger, he thinks football players should be able to make decisions for themselves. But it's a risk they take on willingly.

"Like I said, I might already be there, doomed in 10 years and have this dementia, but in my mind I already live nice enough," Bulger said. "I may have already done my damage, but am I going to sit there and go back and blame someone, or say that I wouldn't do it again? I'd do it again 10 times."

Bulger has been contacted by several NFL teams this year, but he made the decision to stick to retirement.

[+] EnlargeShawn Springs
Jeff Fishbein/Icon SMIMarc Bulger, despite all the hits he's taken, believes concussions are a part of the game.
"I could have played last year for over $4 million to not play one down, or to back up [the starting quarterback] and maybe play a down," Bulger said. "I just thought, you know what, I've rolled the dice long enough. If I have to play, maybe it is two more concussions that throw me over the edge."

Injuries and the healing process with concussions are varied between each individual. When the proper decisions are made with concussions, the problems associated with them are manageable.

The problem is that no two concussions are alike.

"You're never going to be able to say three concussions are too many," said Dr. Michael Collins, assistant director for the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center's Sports Medicine Concussion Program. "You're never going to be able to have an ability to compartmentalize this injury -- to pigeonhole it or corner it. It is really all about assessment."

Dr. Collins believes concussions are a manageable injury. There are ways to properly assess concussions and to know where the problems are coming from.

"We're getting much better in our treatments and our assessments of this injury," Collins said. "We've learned a tremendous amount. ... It's an individual assessment and it needs to be managed that way. There's no way you can ever get to a point where you can say X amount of concussions are too many."

First and foremost, concussions need to be evaluated properly on an individual basis by a trained clinician who is able to help the athlete, Collins said. The key is that the clinician is someone who is willing to have the athlete sit out -- no matter how long it takes -- to be completely recovered.

Bulger said that with his three diagnosed concussions in the NFL, only one time did he receive pressure to return too early.

"I knew I wasn't ready yet, and it wasn't fun because you are fighting some bigger powers," Bulger said. He didn't want to be labeled as injury-prone, but he knew the risks associated with coming back too early.

"I don't want to sit here and blame someone or a league or a high school coach for a decision they made not knowing. There isn't some vault where we have all the answers right now. I just think some of these class-action lawsuits -- they are coming in, and lawyers are coming in, for money."