KARL HOLMES JR., 22, wide receiver with Arizona State, 2011-12, and Grand Valley State, 2015, has retired from football because of multiple concussions, persistent post-concussion symptoms, and fear of contracting CTE. “The doctor said I was at risk of developing a brain disease called chronic traumatic encephalopathy.” It was all just part of the game, or so Holmes thought, until he started developing severe headaches after returning home to Pasadena for summer break in May. Then came the memory loss and it was obvious something was really wrong. There was the shot he took during a hitting drill just before his senior year at Muir HS (CA). There was the time he got rocked during an Arizona State practice by his then-teammate Vontaze Burfict, now in the NFL with the Cincinnati Bengals. There was the car accident. And then there was the last one, which came this past spring at Grand Valley State. Holmes doesn’t remember it at all. “I noticed for a certain period of time that I remembered people asking me to do things, but at the time I just couldn’t remember what they asked. I would go back three or four days later and sit back like, ‘He really did ask me that.’ I told my mom that I thought I was starting to forget things.” Headaches, some lasting as long as four days, eventually sent Holmes to the emergency room. That’s when the process of having advance brain tests began. Football was always his beacon of hope. His father, Karl Holmes Sr., is on death row for his role in the infamous 1993 Halloween murders of three young Pasadena boys in a gang retaliation shooting. Holmes isn’t bitter his career is over, several years short of what he had hoped. He holds no grudges against the sport and wants to continue to be a part of it by coaching after he finishes college. “Football just gave me a vision to see something I probably wouldn’t have seen. I’ve met a lot of people. I’ve networked. I’ve been a lot of places because of football. Football has allowed me to go to college. It was a way of repaying my family. Football has taught to me to be humble at all times because any time could be your last snap. I had no idea, no clue to even think that my last snap would be coming any time soon. Unfortunately, I’m not able to keep playing, but I want to go on and coach. I want to give something back to the game. Football is the greatest sport on the planet.”–“Concussions ended Karl Holmes Jr.’s football career at 22″, PasadenaStarNews.com 8/15/15, Aram Tolegian.
CHRIS TOLLIVER, 26, wide receiver with LSU, 2009-10, was hit while leaping high for a pass in practice, landed on his head, and was knocked out, suffering a grade III concussion, the most severe. “I don’t remember nothing from when I had it,” Tolliver said. “The trainers told me I couldn’t stay awake. I kept closing my eyes.” He rolled through his symptoms: “Memory loss. I had a little blood coming from my nose, or whatever. I was throwing up, couldn’t hardly eat. I was having headaches consistently. … Light was hurting my eyes. Sound, music, TV. I was in the hospital watching the TV on mute. Any small thing.” Eventually Tolliver was cleared, but he probably came back too soon. He suffered two more minor concussions in practice, giving him three in a year-long span. LSU coaches and medical staff intervened. Worried about potential long-term damage, they made the call: Tolliver would never play football at LSU again.–“LSU, Miles seeking solutions to the concussion problem“, TigerRag.com 8/12/13, Luke Johnson.
JOHNNY HOLLAND, 50, linebacker with Green Bay, 1987-93, was kicked in the head by Michael Irvin on a tackle, felt tingling in his extremities as his legs went numb, and lay motionless on the Texas Stadium turf in a 1993 playoff game versus Dallas. Holland, who had suffered a herniated disc in his neck and had fusion surgery the previous year, returned to the game in the second half and finished with 11 tackles in a loss. “I wanted to believe in my mind that I wasn’t hurt, that I could still play.” One wrong hit could’ve confined him to a wheelchair for life. “Oh man,” said Holland. “I was very fortunate I didn’t have a hit in that game to really damage it and, you know, become paralyzed.” For years, Holland felt “invincible.” All pro athletes do, he said, until they’re not. For those with career-ending neck injuries it’s particularly excruciating to accept. Holland spent a full weekend with his brother (and agent) to talk it through and accepted his football mortality. The transition wasn’t seamless. It took Holland a full three years to accept he was done. “It’s something you’ve done for 15-20 years. And then all of a sudden, it’s over. There’s no more football. You can’t cross those lines and play again. You can’t put that uniform on again. It’s a tough, tough moment in your life.” Holland went on to coach with several NFL teams, including Green Bay, and he’s at peace today.–“Former Packers adjust to life after neck injuries ended their NFL careers”, js.online, Milwaukee Wisconsin Journal-Sentinel, Tyler Dunne 5/31/15.
KHIRY MADDOX, senior linebacker with Eastern Kentucky, suffered a career-ending stinger in a game on 10/18/14, which was his fourth injury of that type. A stinger, also known as a burner, is a spine injury characterized by stinging pain that travels down one arm, followed by numbness and weakness, and can cause partial paralysis in the arm. “I meet with the doctors, trainers and the coaches and they told me that my spinal cord was too close to my spinal column. That could be from birth. That could be from football. But, I was at high risk for catastrophic injury.” Faced with the possibility of paralysis or death, the former walk-on realized he had to walk away from the game. Respected by his teammates as a hard-worker, Maddox remained involved in team activities for the remainder of the season.—OVC FOOTBALL: “EKU senior Khiry Maddox forced to give up football due to injuries”, RichmondRegister.com 10/29/14, Nathan Hutchinson.
KURT SCHMITZ, 22, offensive lineman with the University of Richmond (VA), 2010-12, was found dead in his apartment over the weekend of 11/28/14. Police said foul play was not suspected and there was no evidence of suicide. “My son did not want to die,” said his mother, Yvonne. He had suffered at least 4 concussions while playing for Richmond and hid the first 3 from the team training staff. On the fourth one he woke up in the hospital and, when asked by a doctor where he was, said “out in the field having fun on fun day.” His father talked to him about stopping football and a neurologist told him he had to stop, as he was medically disqualified from playing. Schmitz, gregarious and a true friend to many, became frustrated with the effects of the concussions, which hurt his academic performance (he’d been valedictorian of his eighth grade class in New Jersey, a member of the National Honor Society, and spoke German fluently). He struggled with being unable to play and cried. He became a student assistant with the team to maintain his connection to his teammates, but later told his mom he couldn’t be around the game anymore and would concentrate on his studies. “He accepted it,” his mother said. While he advocated for greater awareness of brain trauma in sports, he never sought to blame anyone for his injuries. “My son went out there willingly.” The Schmitz family donated his brain and spinal cord to the Sports Legacy Institute in Boston for examination.—“Former Don Bosco star’s brain donated for concussion research, family says”, NJ.com 12/4/14, Myles Ma. “Foul play not suspected in death of former Spider football player”, WTVR.com (CBS6) 12/1/14, Scott Wise, Jake Burns & Laura French. “Using your head: Concussions make an impact for Richmond football”, theCollegian.com 4/18/14, Lauren Shute.
ROGER STAUBACH, 72, quarterback with Dallas, 1969-79, suffered approximately 20 concussions, including one in his last game, after which he had his first CT scan. The doctor recommended he retire, so he did, despite a $750,000 per year offer for 2 years from Dallas, among the highest salaries in the league then. He also had surgeries on both shoulders and 2 fingers and his meniscus. The 2-time Super Bowl champion and MVP works out 6 days a week and feels no impact from his concussions so far. Forbes named him the highest-paid former NFL player, with $12 million earned in 2013. Of Staubach’s 15 grandchildren and one great-grandchild, only one plays tackle football, an 11-year-old grandson. Though Staubach doesn’t hold any ill will toward the league, if it were up to him his grandson would not play.—“Star of Stars”, SI 10/13/14, Greg Bishop.
DAVID WILSON, 23, running back and punt returner with the New York Giants, 2012-13, retired in August 2014 after sustaining a “burner” in practice on 7/29/14. Head down, he ran into the back of an offensive lineman, which caused numbness in his hands and lower extremities. Wilson was diagnosed with spinal stenosis (an abnormal narrowing of the spinal canal) in 2013 and missed the last 11 games of the season. He had fusion surgery in January 2014 to repair vertebrae and a herniated disk. “I don’t want anybody to feel sorry for me, or pity me…I lived my dream.” He should not require more surgery.—“Giants RB Wilson’s career over due to back injury”, AP 8/14/14.
SIDNEY RICE, 27, wide receiver with Minnesota and Seattle, 2007-13, retired because of a history of concussions. A member of Seattle’s 2013-4 Super Bowl champions, he suffered a concussion in Week 9 of the 2011 season that he re-aggravated 2 weeks later. He estimates that he had 8 to 10 concussions during his NFL career. His first concussion from football happened when he was 8 years old. (Rice also suffered shoulder, foot and knee injuries, including a torn ACL.) He’s announced he will donate his brain to science to further knowledge of brain injuries.—“Seattle Seahawks receiver Sidney Rice retiring from the NFL”, SeattlePi.com 7/23/14, Stephen Cohen. “Sidney Rice and Steve Weatherford donate brains to science”, NBCsports.com 3/4/15, Darin Gantt.
JERRY ECKWOOD, 59, running back with Tampa Bay, 1979-81, has dementia. He remembers sustaining at least 2 concussions in college (at Arkansas) and 3 in the pros, before retiring due to back and neck injuries. According to his older brother, Doug, he had no psychological issues before retiring. Shortly thereafter, he began acting erratically, was arrested for writing bad checks and fighting with a police officer, and committed to Arkansas State Hospital for 5 or 6 years. His mental state has slowly deteriorated and he has little contact with his family. Eckwood, who can no longer drive, go grocery shopping, handle his checkbook, or function on his own, lives in an assisted living facility and has qualified for the 88 Plan, and is entitled to receive annual benefits of $136,000 for the remainder of his life.—“Before Dementia Assistance, Help With N.F.L. Application”, NY Times 1/21/10, Alan Schwarz. Same “Broken Bucs” article as above.
STERLING SHARPE, 49, wide receiver with Green Bay, 1988-94, retired after a sustaining neck injuries in consecutive games at the end of the 1994 season. The 5-time Pro Bowl selection had “stingers” that caused excruciating pain, with numbness and tingling in his limbs. He needed neck fusion surgery on his first and second cervical vertebrae.—“Injury Could End Sharpe’s Career”, NY Times Health 12/29/94.