NFL safeties bring the pain now, pay for it later

INDIANAPOLIS — Shortly after introducing himself to Florida safety Ahmad Black here at the scouting combine, former NFL safety Victor Green, an 11-year veteran, was discussing the perils of the position and what he thought Black might be feeling 10 years from now.

“He’s going to be broke down,” Green said. “He’s going to have problems. There’s not other way to look at it as a safety.”

As Black and others college safeties ready to embark on their NFL careers, they do so under the dark cloud that hangs over the position. In the past 10 years, we’ve had two former NFL safeties commit suicide, including Dave Duerson this month. Both men reportedly suffered from head-trauma issues. The other to commit suicide was former Philadelphia Eagles safety Andre Waters in 2006.

These were two men in the prime of their lives, two seemingly normal men, who decided living wasn’t worth it. There is no direct proof that the head injuries were the cause of their suicides, but in talking to several former NFL safeties they have no doubt.

Ex-Packers safety LeRoy Butler knows how dangerous it is to play the position. 'You're body just can't take it.' (Getty Images)
Ex-Packers safety LeRoy Butler knows how dangerous it is to play the position. ‘You’re body just can’t take it.’ (Getty Images)

Duerson even asked for his brain to be examined for signs of chronic traumatic encephalopathy, a degenerative brain disease. Waters’ brain was studied and it was said to have the same characteristics of an 85-year old man.

Safety, you see, is the NFL’s most-dangerous position.

“I think in the next couple of years you’re going to see a lot of safeties having problems,” former Green Bay Packers safety LeRoy Butler said. “Seeing those guys have problems and then commit suicide shouldn’t be surprising. There’s going to be more and more of it. Deep down, we all expect it. We know the problems are coming. But the tradeoff is the $30 million signing bonus, the big mansion, driving the Bentley and all the stuff that comes with it. That’s why guys do it. You know the problems will come someday, but you do it because you love the game and the things that come with it.”

The sheer physics of the position make it problematic. Safeties can be lined up 10-12 yards off the line of scrimmage, which leads to nasty collisions with receivers, but also in the hole when tackling a running back. The collisions in the secondary with receivers are receiving the spotlight now, but run support is the hidden danger.

There are tons of head-to-head hits on safeties running full speed into big, powerful backs going full speed that never seem to warrant much attention, yet they are just as dangerous and there are more of them.

“You can’t stop a safety and a running back going head to head in the hole,” Green said. “To think you’re going to totally get rid of that isn’t going to happen. The speed we build up in that 10 to 12 yards is the impact of a car going 20-30 mile per hour. You do that 100 times a season, and that’s some pretty impactful stuff on your body.”

In addition to the tragic deaths of Duerson and Waters, the health of three of the NFL’s top safeties might offer more proof of the perils of the position. In 2007, Bob Sanders, Ed Reed and Troy Polamalu were considered the three best at the position.

In the three seasons since, Sanders has played only nine games, Reed considered retiring because of a bad hip that forced him to miss six games last season and Polamalu missed 13 games the past two seasons, and has played in all 16 only once in the past five years.

“You’re body just can’t take it,” Butler said. “It’s tough to stay on the field for some guys.”

Temple’s Jaiquawn Jarrett is one of the safeties readying for the NFL. He is considered a mid-round pick. So I asked him if the news of the deaths of Duerson and Waters concerned him as he embarked on his NFL career.

“I never think about brain injuries or getting injured during a football game,” Jarrett said. “Smart safeties know when to deliver a big blow and when you just need to get the guy on the ground. Not every time can you put a big hit on a guy. You have to find ways to get him on the ground. Tackle with your head up and in good body position and you should be fine.”

Sounds easy enough, but Butler and Green say it will be tough to do that. Both have stories of pain and suffering they’ve endured in their lives because of the many tackles they’ve made.

Butler and Green were important in run support for their respective teams, which meant they made a lot of tackles. Both weighed in the 200-pound range during their careers, which is about 20 to 25 pounds less than some of the backs they were tackling.

“When I played, I led the NFL in tackles in 1996,” Green said. “I had 209 tackles. I couldn’t sleep on my shoulder for a month that season. I had to have surgery to fix my clavicle. I had the rotator cuff shaved. I couldn’t even bench press 25 pounds on each side of the bar. That’s 100 pounds. And I played with it nine weeks of the season. That’s what we do. I averaged 160 tackles for seven years. That many times going up in the hole will take a toll.”

Green said he has trouble sleeping now. His body simply won’t let him.

“I take Ambien, all that stuff,” Green said. “Muscle relaxers. Anything to just get your body to relax and get a full night of sleep. I’m sure that happens to a lot of players. I’ve talked to a lot of them. We have trouble getting out of bed. Some of us are sensitive to light. You’re forgetful. You have all of that stuff.”

It’s been just as bad for Butler.

“You’re head throbs like a migraine,” Butler said. “You have to turn the lights out it hurts so much. If you’re driving in the car with the kids, and they’re yelling and having a good time, you’re yelling for them to be quiet, just to get through it. My kids are conditioned not to make a lot of noise. I haven’t slept a full night straight since my second year in the league. You wake up with bad dreams. You wake up with your head hurting.”

Butler had three concussions during his playing days. Green had only one.

Those are the official ones.

“When your head is ringing, it’s a concussion,” Green said. “We just shook it off, got some smelling salts and went back into the game. That’s what we did.”

“Back then we’d get a concussion, be ready to go on Wednesday and we’d practice,” Butler said. “I remember on one of my concussions I had bleeding from nose the next Saturday before the game. I read up on head trauma to see if that’s what was causing it and how concerned I should be. But I played on Sunday. That’s what we did. To be fair to the medical staffs, a lot of the time we didn’t even tell them. We want to play so we can make that $25 million bonus rather than be honest with them.”

Butler has some theories that might help eliminate more tragedies like Waters and Duerson. For one, he thinks players should get therapy after their playing careers are done.

“I think there is too much bravado for a lot of guys to seek therapy,” Butler said. “And it costs a lot. It can be a $1,000 a month. The league has to do a better job of making that available and affordable to ex-players.”

Butler’s other solution is far more radical.

“Limit depression after football by forcing players to retire of after 10 years,” Butler said. “Then they’d be young men, ready to head out into the world and they wouldn’t be as broken down. They would be better prepared for life after football. Depression wouldn’t be as bad.”

With all the problems they’ve had, and with the deaths of two of their position mates, neither Butler nor Green would trade the chance to play in the NFL for a clean bill of health.

“No, man,’ Green said. “You play because you love the game.”

Both, however, are alarmed since the death of Duerson.

“For me to say I don’t worry about it, I would be lying,” Green said. “I think about those things. I played at the same time as Andre Waters. You see these guys committing suicide and you never know the reason, but you know there are problems. For me to see that, and with the way I played, it’s bothersome.”

Said Butler: “It’s like a lottery. You never know. I don’t think it’s going to be a problem for me, but I do think you’ll see more and more safeties having these problems. I don’t think it’s a coincidence. Safety is as violent a position as there is in the NFL.”

As a young, healthy Ahmad Black walked away from Green, it was weird to think that was Green 17 years ago, coming out of college, his body yet to be damaged by the perils of the position.

“All I can tell him is to get ready for the pain,” Green said. “It’s coming. Believe me, it’s coming.”

By Pete Prisco Senior Writer

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