When Brett Favre sees little kids playing football, 'I cringe.'
Sometime on Saturday morning, Brett Favre will do a small favor for an old friend and former backup, stepping up to deliver a pep talk to Doug Pederson's Eagles before Super Bowl LII.
But it's the dangerous side of football that preoccupies Favre the most these days. "I cringe," he said, "when I see video, or I'm driving and I see little kids out playing, and they're all decked out in their football gear and the helmet looks like it's three times bigger than they are. It's kind of funny, but it's not as funny now as it was years ago, because of what we know now. I just cringe seeing a fragile little boy get tackled and the people ooh and ahh and they just don't know. Or they don't care. It's just so scary."
The Hall of Fame quarterback, known for a high-risk and freewheeling style during his 20-year playing career, worries about concussions, traumatic brain injuries and chronic traumatic encephalopathy. He also worries about what he calls "the whiplash effect" he sustained every time his head hit the ground, even after less dramatic hits. In a recent conversation with The Washington Post, Favre guessed that he saw stars or felt ringing in his ears "at least once a game," and said that while he can't complain about his current health, he remains worried about his medical future.
"I took my share of hits," he said. "I'm reluctant to pat myself on the back at all because tomorrow it could be totally different. I think that's what we're seeing with concussions. All of a sudden someone comes to the forefront, and talks about how they can't remember where they live, what their wife's name is, how to get home. They're having serious headaches and dizziness. So I'm always on edge wondering what the next day will bring."
Such concerns, Favre said, led to his relationship with Brock, a company that manufactures shock absorbing padding that goes under turf fields. Brock pays him a fee for attending events and speaking on behalf of the company. Favre also had a role as an executive producer of "Shocked: A Hidden Factor in the Sports Concussion Crisis," a short documentary film that aired last month on Stadium.com.
Favre thinks the only way football head injuries will decline "is if the guys get smaller, slower and weaker, and that's not going to happen." But he said he believes "a more detailed focus on the turf and the underlying surface" is the logical next step for people concerned about the game's safety.
A recent study from Boston University found further evidence linking the onset of CTE to hits to the head rather than concussions, differentiating between concussions and traumatic brain injuries. And the Concussion Legacy Foundation - whose founder, Chris Nowinski, appears in the documentary - cites a study of high school concussions published in the American Journal of Sports Medicine that found one in five concussions were caused by the ground.
Those findings, Favre said, surprised him.
"I'll be honest with you, the talk in regards to the turf never crossed my mind," he said. "In saying that, I've had too many concussions to count, but [only] two major ones where I was actually was out for [more than five or 10] seconds . . . and both times were when my head hit the turf. I never thought twice about it, but when all the concussion talk started and one in five concussions happen when your head hits the turf - it was kind of like 'Oh, yeah.' Kind of an 'aha' moment."
Playing on frozen fields in Green Bay "just added to the effect," Favre said, adding that there were also "so many times when my head hit the turf and I was not out."
"For lack of a better term, my bell was rung," Favre said. "I was seeing stars or there was ringing in my ears. Again, that was turf-related, and I continued to play. I played in 321 straight games without missing [any] and there's no telling how many times there was head ringing, seeing stars. If I had to guess, I would say that was at least once a game, and most of those were when my head hit the turf, the whiplash effect, if that makes sense."
"When I first started playing on artificial surfaces - I don't know if you're familiar with the old Vet in Philly and the amount of injuries that occurred - I played on that field," Favre said. "I played in the Astrodome, I played in the Superdome [where he had a concussion against the Saints] when it was turf that they rolled out the day before. It was about a quarter of an inch thick and concrete was the only thing that was underneath.
"We've come a long way in the shock absorption or whatever you want to call it, but there's still a long way yet to go," Favre said, adding that the NFL is beginning to look at "the field or the underlying surface as a piece of equipment, just like a football player wears a helmet or thigh pads or whatever."
"It's so important to look at the surface and the undersurface as no different than the helmet you're wearing," he said.
At least one expert doubts that extra padding on or under the playing surface could help prevent head injuries. Dr. Lee Goldstein, an associate professor at Boston University School of Medicine and College of Engineering, and a corresponding author of the recent study, said this week that "the only real way to mitigate the damage is to not put someone in harm's way."
"The issue is the change in acceleration [of the brain within the skull], and there's no way padding will change that fundamental fact," Goldstein said. "Whether the padding is on the helmet or on the ground, it's the same for physics."
Padding under turf would help with "catastrophic injuries, of the sort you see in boxing, where there's a brain bleed," Goldstein said. "It's probably not a bad idea to protect ligaments, hips, backs, and muscles."
Favre's concerns are not new. He has spoken often about the toll football takes, saying in 2013 that "in some respects I'm almost glad I don't have a son" because of the pressures and physical damage the game could inflict.
"I've talked to several doctors, asking them about symptoms, and one of them is not being able to finish a sentence,'' Favre said in that interview, "or not remembering a word - a specific word. I've noticed lately, if there's any symptom at all, that one being the one that shows the most.''
The quarterback famously worked as a volunteer high school coach after his retirement following the 2010 season; he's since stepped away from coaching so that he can attend his younger daughter's volleyball games in the fall. But he's still a Hall of Fame quarterback, and people want to talk to him about the sport - and about the dangers of concussions.
"The kids don't really ask a lot of questions about anything. [While coaching] I was usually just chewing their butts most of the time," he said. "I've said this a lot and I mean it: As far as the youth today and mainly my grandsons, if they chose to play football, I would support them, but I'm not going to encourage them to play because I know what's out there and it's dangerous . . .
"When asked - usually it's not by the kids [but by] parents and just people in general with regard to concussions - I try not to sugarcoat it. I say that make sure your child, your teen, the area, the city is doing all they possibly can do to give your child the safest environment possible. Usually we have a tendency to cut corners. 'Well, I don't have enough padding.' 'You'll be okay in this game.' It's just so crazy and we're only seeing glimpses of what's to come with regard to how bad these concussions are. You don't have to have 500 to have permanent brain damage. One can be enough. That's the scary thing about it.
"It never repairs itself. These are things I've learned in the last couple of years. You do damage to the brain, that's it. It's not like a bruised toe that gets better."
Physically, Favre says he is doing well and "can't complain," joking "I probably should, but no one listens."
"I'm able to function to do things that I enjoy doing. In saying that, I'll be the first to tell you I don't know what normal feels like," he said. "I'm 48 and played 20 years and played a lot of games and took a lot of hits. I'm able to jog when I want. I'm able to go out and ride a bike 30 miles if I want. We go on hikes. We travel and do a lot of things. I'm very fortunate and blessed. There's a lot of people out there who played a lot less than I did who are in a lot worse shape."