Akbar Gbajabiamila, an analyst on "NFL Fantasy Live," played defensive end for three NFL teams from 2003 to 2007. In his weekly "Inside Out" column, he offers a player's perspective on topical events around the league.
Last year, I was at a private gathering with Wolf Blitzer, host of CNN's "The Situation Room," and he asked me a challenging question:
"Knowing what you know now, would you still play the game of football?"
I reached out to seven former NFL players before I sat down and wrote this column, asking them the same question Mr. Blitzer asked me. All seven said they'd do it all over again knowing what they know now, which is even more than what we all knew when the week began.
Every time I prepared to play the game of football, especially once I got to San Diego State and then the NFL, I understood I was putting myself at risk. The magnitude of the risk is difficult to gauge, but I estimate that playing one game in the NFL is equivalent to being in several train wrecks. The repetitive trauma to the head and body takes a serious toll on a player's health.
I remember former St. Louis Rams wide receiver Az-Zahir Hakim telling me that for every season a player plays in the NFL his body ages about three years. You feel that deterioration a couple of years after you're done playing. A few years removed from the game, I remember feeling pain in my knees and ankles comparable to being stunned with a taser. This happens because the pain receptors in the body start to adapt to normality. It's like being human again.
Would I do it over again? I certainly would have played the game differently and taken better care of my body. By that I mean not listening to the coaches when they would say, "Play the game with no regards for personal safety."
That's easy for me to say now, though. As an undrafted player, I was on the fringe of every NFL roster I belonged to. Star players can afford to tell their coach they're not healthy enough to play. I never could, and neither can the majority of NFL players who are one injury from being Wally Pipp'd and out on the street for good.
Players who aren't a cap risk are expendable and see injury integrity as a threat to their ability to earn a living. The average player is making league minimum with no guarantees. That's a very insecure position to be in.
The way some contracts are drawn up, players have full season splits, which means if you get hurt you earn a reduced salary. This split incentivizes players to not properly report their injuries because of fear of reduced pay or losing a job altogether. I believe that if splits were taken out of contracts and guaranteed contracts were put in place, like they are in the NBA and Major League Baseball, players would be motivated to be honest about their physical condition.
But most NFL players believe guaranteed contracts are a pipe dream, something they'll never see in their lifetime. And without them, the lying will continue.
Take concussions, for example. Prior to the start of every season, players take a baseline test to give doctors a sense of how an athlete functions cognitively under normal conditions in order to compare the results to a similar exam when the player has a suspected concussion.
But the baseline test is oftentimes manipulated by players motivated to stay on the field at all times. These players purposely score lower to give themselves wiggle room for when they actually do suffer a concussion. It's an insurance policy from losing a job, which is exactly what happened to San Francisco 49ers QB Alex Smith earlier this season after he suffered a concussion. He was replaced permanently by Colin Kaepernick, who will start San Francisco's opening playoff game Saturday night against Green Bay.
I never played in a playoff game, but there was nothing I found in my life that gave me a bigger thrill than playing on Sundays. The adrenaline rush was addictive. I miss that, along with everything else the NFL provided me, including a sense of self-worth. That comes from thriving in the intensity of danger and is dangerous enough to make you feel invincible.
So you ask, Mr. Blitzer, if I would do it all over again. Of course I would.
Even knowing what I know now.