Former Running Back Brian Westbrook On Concussions, Football’s Rule Changes, And The Future Of The NFL

Brian Westbrook

PHILADELPHIA — Brian Westbrook might not remember the hit itself, but he still feels the aftermath. It was October 26, 2009, a Monday Night Football game against the Washington Redskins, when the Philadelphia Eagles’ running back banged his head against linebacker London Fletcher’s knee. Westbrook lay motionless on the field for several minutes before being helped to his feet and staggering to the locker room. It was one of two major concussions Westbrook suffered during his nine-year NFL career, and he is still dealing with the effects today.

Westbrook, now retired from the NFL at age 33, suffers headaches and short-term memory loss. He struggles to remember people he met just days before. And he worries about how concussions will affect him later in life, especially amid the suicides of former players like linebacker Junior Seau and new research linking concussions in football to long-term brain trauma and increased chances of developing degenerative diseases.

“I think about it,” Westbrook said Friday. “I think everybody has their own personal battles, own personal demons. So I think Junior was not only dealing with concussions but he was also dealing with other things. But I often wonder the long-term effects of everything — playing with the bad knee, playing with the ankle, and of course the concussion situation. I think about it all the time, every time I wake up and can’t remember the name of someone I once knew. I always think about it.”

Westbrook appeared Friday on a panel at “Concussion Conundrum,” part of the Jeffrey S. Moorad Sports Law Journal Symposium at Villanova University, with former NFL linebacker Jim Nelson, former Major League Soccer all-star Taylor Twellman, and former NHL all-star Keith Primeau, about the dangers concussions posed to athletes like themselves. All four suffered concussions during their careers.

The NFL has instituted new rules regulating helmet-to-helmet hits, drawing criticism from fans, media, and players that it is changing the game too much in an effort to make the game safer. Westbrook, however, said it is hard for current players to understand how the head injuries they suffer will affect them once they begin life away from football.

“It’s hard, because you’re talking about safety for your players, and keeping the game the way that it is. And it’s ultimately very hard to do both,” he told ThinkProgress. “So, there is a balance and I think the guys who are on the playing field have to understand that we’re doing this for your best interests. You may not realize, just like with children, you may not realize that I’m telling you not to touch this stove even though you might really want to touch it. But you don’t understand how bad this is until you actually do it. It’s the same thing with concussions. You don’t understand what’s going to happen when you’re 50 until you turn 50 and now you can’t remember (anything).”

The NFL’s rules committee this week will consider another change barring running backs like Westbrook from lowering their heads to initiate contact with the crown of their helmets. That change has drawn criticism from current and former running backs, including all-time leading rusher Emmitt Smith. But while Westbrook said such a rule would be “tough to enforce,” he also said anything aimed at promoting safety on the field was “a good thing.”

Baltimore Ravens safety Bernard Pollard made waves before Super Bowl XLVII in January by proclaiming that efforts to make football safer would lead to the league’s demise within 20 years. Westbrook wouldn’t go that far, though he thinks football will likely have to adapt from the game fans and players know today in order to sufficiently protect players.

“I think Bernard’s a little bit extreme, but at the same time it’s not going to be football as we know it today and probably not football as we knew it 10 years ago,” Westbrook said. “It’s going to be a different brand of football, and hopefully a more healthy brand, and if they do that and are successful at doing that, things will be better.”