Sunday, December 20, 2009

Time to Hang 'Em Up, Ben

Pittsburgh quarterback Ben Roethlisberger's career ended on June 12, 2006. That was the day "the youngest quarterback to lead a team to the Super Bowl championship," full of youth, hubris, and foolishness five months after said Super Bowl championship rode his motorcycle, helmet-less, into an oncoming vehicle, busting up his knee, breaking his jaw and nose and, way too apparently (even soon after the accident), busting up his noggin pretty good.

I know it sounds pretty ridiculous to say that a quarterback who has thrown for over 13,000 yards, 86 touchdowns, and 60 interceptions and has led his team to yet another Super Bowl victory since that incident ended his career three and a half years ago. And yet ...

No, wait. Strike that. What was really ridiculous was the day that really ended Roethlisberger's career: August 11, 2006. That was the day that Steeler head coach, Bill Cowher, knowing full well that Big Ben had suffered a serious head injury, declared Roethlisberger would start the first pre-season game: "He will play for a short period of time, and I will leave it at that. Everyone else will play a series or two."

Ben promptly sprained a thumb ligament on his throwing hand in that game. So, he had the busted-up knee, jaw, and nose, the messed-up thumb, and, oh yeah! the concussion!

He was still scheduled to start the 2006-07 season opener until he was rushed to the hospital for an emergency appendectomy. He actually missed the season opener (Charlie Batch started in his place) but was back for the second game--just two weeks after doctors cut into his stomach. He was 17 of 32 passing for 141 yards while throwing two interceptions and was sacked twice--a story we rarely heard his first two seasons before his accident but one we've heard damned near every game since the accident.

So, if you're still keeping count, before Ben even started that season he had the busted-up knee, jaw, nose, and thumb; the abdominal surgery (which I've heard takes something like six months to recover from); and, oh yeah! the motherfucking concussion!!!

For us fans it was a frustrating experience, as the Steelers stumbled onto an 8-8 record and completely missed the playoffs. The "experts" and pundits blamed lack of intensity on Pittsburgh's lackluster performance. Personally, I blamed that motorcycle accident and, most importantly, Bill Cowher.

Without getting too much into it, I've seen a bit of what a serious head injury can do to a person. How it can diminish them. Turn a very intelligent person into someone who can barely retain the strains of a conversation--let alone a job. How a usually mild-mannered person can turn into a tempest of emotion with violent, depressive mood swings.

I also talked to my mother-in-law, who's a doctor in nursing, about the Roethlisberger accident. She'd told me that someone with that serious of a head injury would not be allowed to be very active for an entire year after the incident--let alone play football!!!--because having a concussion makes one more susceptible to getting more concussions. Head injuries generally take a year to heal, and it is really hard to detect the extent of damage the brain has received until months after the incident.

In other words, there was absolutely no way that Big Ben should've been playing that season. No medical professional (outside of the sports industry) would've allowed him to jog on a treadmill (to say nothing of playing football) for months after his head went through that windshield. It was simply too dangerous for him to be on the field. They were risking further damage to the man's brain and, for all they knew, his life.

And the infuriating thing is, they had to have known. Yet, they kept Ben out there.

On October 26, in a game against the Atlanta Falcons, Roethlisberger was carted off the field with yet another concussion. The Steelers were 2-4 after that game. And yet, the next week, with two concussions in four months, he played against the Oakland Raiders.

He played one of the worst games of his life against one of the worst teams in the league--fumbling the ball once and throwing four interceptions. Something was obviously wrong. And, though I was well aware of the supermachismo that rules football, I was still furious. Roethlisberger shouldn't have been out there, and, if I knew it and my mother-in-law knew it, then Bill Cowher had to know it, too. After that Oakland loss, the Steelers were 2-5--their season effectively over. There was absolutely no reason to have Ben continue the season.

But his determination to start Ben seemed personal. There were times in Cowher's reign when things seemed to get personal with him. Like his benching Kordell Stewart just three games after he led the Steelers to the AFC Championship game--though the two losses were to the far superior New England Patriots (Super Bowl champs) and the Oakland Raiders. Then the millions the Steelers were paying to have a healthy Duce Staley sit on the sidelines.

It seemed like he was punishing Roethlisberger for being stupid enough to ride a motorcycle without a helmet. He probably didn't want the boy to ride a motorcycle period, and he was going to show Roethlisberger the error of his ways. It didn't matter what happened to the Steelers' season--which was ruined by this decision. Nor did it matter how dinged up the boy got--he ... would ... learn.

But I think what we're all learning is that Cowher's decision has probably prematurely ended Roethlisberger's career. 'Cause one of the many things that last Thursday's game against Cleveland showed me is that, once again, something ain't right with Big Ben. After coming back way too soon from yet another concussion, he just didn't look himself or particularly aware of what was going on around him as he was sacked eight times against one of the worst defenses in the league.

I know that the NFL is now playing lip service to taking concussions seriously. If that were really true, I don't know how they let Roethlisberger play another down after his latest concussion suffered during the Kansas City game. As I've stated, having one concussion makes you more susceptible to receiving others. Since Ben's accident three and a half years ago, he's had four head concussions and one spinal cord concussion (whatever that is).

Now that the league has been forced to acknowledge that these head injuries can lead to a shortened life of depression, suicide, and tragically violent outbursts, it's time that they acknowledge that four concussions is simply too much for one person to suffer, to acknowledge that they have more than likely caused irreparable damage, and that it is football that caused it.

Personally, I wish Bill Cowher would get on the air and explain why he did it. Why, on August 11, 2006, he decided that a seriously injured Ben Roethlisberger was going to be his starting quarterback. Was it machismo, some form of punishment, actual ignorance, or was it the short-term costs of having your million-dollar starting QB out a season that drove his decision to shorten Ben Roethlisberger's career and possibly his life?

Because the former is most definitely shortened. The League may not be as serious as they're acting right now. However, folks are becoming more and more aware of the damage that concussions do. And we can be fairly certain that Big Ben, "one of the toughest quarterbacks in the league," will continue to suffer them. And there will come a point--probably not next season but probably the season after that--when he'll have suffered so many concussions that there will be a public outcry (though, apparently Hines Ward will be calling him a "pussy") for him to hang up the cleats.

I hate to say it--because I love the way the man plays and I love the way he keeps winning Super Bowls for us--but I think that time is now. He is not only one blow to the head away from ending his career--but possibly, just possibly, one away from ever possibly having a normal life again.


Alissa said...

that's really sad.

Cujo359 said...

It's worse than sad. I remember reading an article several years ago about concussions and they way they've shortened many careers. Once you've had several serious ones, this article said, brain damage was inevitable. In particular, it mentioned the Philadelphia Flyers' Eric Lindros, whose promising career was cut short thanks to multiple concussions.

Competitive athletes nearly always want to play again after an injury before they're ready. Their coaches should listen to doctors more. If Bill Cowher made a player return against the advice of doctors when such serious consequences could result, he should never be allowed to coach again.

boukman70 said...


I doubt if Cowher went against any doctors' recommendations. I think sports doctors generally downplay the severity of any given injury--having adopted the team's need to pay attention to the bottom line. I blame the entire sports apparatus. I think that when players are injured, they need to go outside that apparatus, not listen to "team doctors," and seek independent treatment from independent medical professionals. But that, of course, is just my humble opinion.