In the NFL, it isn’t every day that a 34-year-old player commands headlines by signing a single-year contract at league minimum wage, but then again, not every player is the posterboy for the concussion crisis that’s been threatening the very foundation of the sport.
Meet Wes Welker, one of the NFL’s most famous undrafted rookies, a paltry 5 foot 9 inch 185-pound receiver who’s been a dominant force in the league for the past ten years. Through no fault of his own, because of his comparably small size, Welker became the archetypal, “grind it out” and, “sacrifice the body at all costs” breed of football player that feeds the narrative of tough people buckling down to take on the toughest game on the planet.
Despite his diminutive stature, as his career progressed, Welker quickly gained a reputation throughout the league for embracing a fearless approach to his position, often forsaking his own personal safety to catch passes in areas of the field teeming with big-hitting defensive backs just salivating at the opportunity to knock his head off his shoulders. He embodied the credo of pay the price, make the catch.
And over the past decade, oh, what a price he paid.
After posting some of the most statistically efficient seasons in league history at his position on three separate teams, including the 2013 season he spent on a Denver Broncos team that revised pretty much every scoring record the league keeps track of, Welker ‘s career took a dramatic turn when he suffered a series of serious head injuries that severely limited not only his production, but also dealt a significant blow to his employability throughout the league.
In the 2014 season, only months removed from participating in the Super Bowl, after sustaining 3 concussions in the short span of 9 months, not to mention a litany of other concussions he suffered throughout his career that likely went unreported or undiagnosed, Welker was forced into an extended leave of absence from the sport that once considered him to be one of its most fearless competitors. Ushered to the sidelines, Welker quickly drew attention as the figurehead for the growing threat that concussions and head injuries posed to the continued viability of American football.
For the first 7 weeks of the 2015 NFL season, Welker was delegated not only to the sidelines, but also blacklisted from the league that he’d spent the last decade of his life famously sacrificing his body for. With that being said, the exodus was hardly self-imposed. Teams simply refused to sign him. Despite his continued assurances that he was finally healthy and once again ready to contribute to the game of football at an elite level, both media, fans, and league officials alike were skeptical of his continued place in the NFL. Suddenly the hard-nosed, “never say die” approach to the game that earned him a spot in the league in the first place became the very thing keeping him out of it.
Former teammates called for his retirement. The media scrutinized his concern for his future health. Fans wondered aloud, what, if anything, he had left to prove.
Simply put, Welker, once lauded as the pound-for-pound toughest player in the NFL, lost his place in the game. Where his courage was once commended, now it’s vilified. By refusing to fade into the sunset and die an honorable football death, Welker found himself torn between desperately clinging to the sport he loves and simultaneously being deprived of it by its regulators.
The game of football, more than most sports, is particularly cruel to those unable to let go of it. Play too long and you risk suffering degenerative head injuries such as chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE) that results in long-term dementia-like cognitive impairment, play too short and you find yourself struggling to acclimatize to a life without football, your life-blood.
Although the exact reason for keeping him out of football remained disparate and the topic of hotly contentious debate, the concern for Welker was all rooted in the same fear: Do we really want to be the ones responsible for killing him?
Of the many things football fans expect to see on any given Sunday, death certainly isn’t one of them. Thankfully, no NFL player has ever died on field, but unfortunately, the amateur ranks haven’t been quite so lucky. Significant football injuries occur every weekend of play, but it’s only a matter of time before things take a dark turn for the worse.
As our understanding of concussions and the dangers they pose to long-term health continues to evolve, as a society, we’ve placed a premium on assuring the continued safety of our athletes. Within the past few years, the NFL, like any responsible league, has made significant effort to ensure just that.
Yet, in spite of all this hoopla about head injuries, last week, Wes Welker’s extended exodus from the league finally ended when he signed a single year, league minimum contract with the St. Louis Rams.
So what happened? What suddenly caused the league to change it’s mind, to embrace a player that was once blacklisted as the sport’s greatest liability? Did Welker finally gain some form of medical clearance that he previously hadn’t?
Unfortunately, that’s not the case.
The Rams, plagued by an onslaught of untimely injuries, were forced to reach out and replenish their depth chart by taking a flyer on one of the most controversial NFL head-cases in recent memory.
Welker, once cast aside by the game he loved, is finally getting another shot.
In physical combat sports such as UFC, when a fighter obviously loses their ability to properly protect themselves and fight back, does the fight still go on?
Of course not. The referee steps in, interferes, and the fight is over.
Should the NFL be any different? Should there be a policy in place for those similar to Welker? For the ones who refuse to give up the fight, whose sickness is football, who find themselves incapable of letting go of the game, and whose only medicine is to take more punishment? Only time will tell.
But for now, Wes, welcome back to the meat grinder. I hope you enjoy your stay
For Further Readings:
Center for Disease Control on spotting and recognizing the danger of concussions in football: http://www.cdc.gov/concussion/HeadsUp/pdf/Football_Fact_Sheet_Coaches-a.pdf
A Frontline Documentary, League of Denial: The NFL’s Concussion Crisis: http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/frontline/film/league-of-denial/
No one wants Wes Welker, the anti-Chris Borland: http://nypost.com/2015/03/18/no-one-wants-wes-welker-the-anti-chris-borland/
Breech, John. “Broncos WR Wes Welker Diagnosed with Third Concussion in 10 Months.” CBSSports.com. N.p., 24 Aug. 2014. Web. 23 Nov. 2015.
Ford, Dana. “High School Football Player Andre Smith Dies in Illinois – CNN.com.” CNN. Cable News Network, 26 Oct. 2015. Web. 23 Nov. 2015.
Freeman, Mike. “Is Wes Welker Being Blackballed from the NFL Because of Concussions?” Bleacher Report. N.p., 12 June 2015. Web. 23 Nov. 2015.
“New Rules for the 2015-16 Season.” New Rules for the 2015-16 Season. NFL, n.d. Web. 23 Nov. 2015.
Sessler, Mark. “Wes Welker Signs One-year Deal with St. Louis Rams.” NFL.com. N.p., 9 Nov. 2015. Web. 23 Nov. 2015.
Stone, Avery. “Champ Bailey Wants Wes Welker to Retire and Stop Risking Concussions.” For The Win. N.p., 24 July 2015. Web. 23 Nov. 2015.
“Study: 87 of 91 Deceased NFL Players Had CTE.” SI.com. N.p., 18 Sept. 2015. Web. 23 Nov. 2015.
Van Vulkenberg, Kevin. “Wes Welker Will Not Be Denied.” ESPN. ESPN Internet Ventures, 18 Dec. 2014. Web. 23 Nov. 2015.
“Welker: Toughness, Smarts Make up for Size.” Comcast Sportsnet. N.p., 18 Jan. 2013. Web.