Sean Morey’s commitment to do so, though, was done with now in mind.
The Cardinals’ wide receiver and Pro Bowl special teamer became one of three active NFL players – along with Baltimore center Matt Birk and Seattle linebacker Lofa Tatupu – to announce this week they would allow their brains to be studied when they die. The purpose is to learn about head injuries for NFL players and how concussions can lead to problems later in life.
To say something now, however, when Morey is 33 years old and playing in the league, is to make people sit up and pay attention to the issue. To focus on creating ways to minimize risks, even as players work in what will always be a violent environment. He wants to start inside the locker room, so the players themselves fully understand the subject.
“I’m not trying to change the game,” Morey said. “I don’t think anybody is.”
Morey knows concussions. He suffered one against Carolina in 2007 and was hoping to play the next week in Washington. His symptoms were intense enough the night before the game that Morey, who has played through his share of injuries, simply couldn’t go.
So when he repeats some of the statistics -- that research has shown athletes with three or more concussions are three times more likely to suffer clinical depression, or five times more likely to suffer mild cognitive impairment at age 50 and sometimes is even linked to early onset Alzheimer’s or dementia – it’s easy to see where it would be personal.
Asked how many concussions he’s suffered, Morey says “more than I would have liked to admit.” He’ll acknowledge it’s tough to not project possible problems on his own life sometime down the road.
But that’s not why Morey is giving up his brain, or why he worked feverishly on the subject in the offseason through the NFL Players Association as a member of their Player Safety and Welfare Committee.
The subject has become a passion of Morey’s. When he first delved into the subject, he read about former teammate Ted Johnson, who believes many of his life problems stem from repeated concussions. Morey, a husband and father of three, thinks about the families affected with divorce and other issues that could in part come from changes to players with brain damage.
Mostly, Morey wants to protect players as best he can, to find a way where they can be tough like the sport asks but also give themselves enough recovery time if they do suffer a head injury. He wants to protect players from situations like Cardinals quarterbacks coach Chris Miller, who was forced to retire from the NFL because of concussions.
“I’d be lying if I said it wasn’t in the back of my mind,” Miller said of his own possible long-term effects from the estimated eight to 10 concussions he suffered while playing. Two were “really bad” and one “got my attention” to drive him into retirement for good.
“You worry about the cumulative effect,” said Miller, who tries to keep his brain occupied by doing crossword puzzles and helping it by taking “brain” food like ginkgo.
As a player, it was more difficult to understand what he was going through. In 1995 Miller had a hot start before suffering a head injury against the Bears. His play deteriorated and Miller wondered why since he was seeing things so well.
But the game was too fast and mentally he slowed down and “you don’t want to admit it,” Miller said.
“It’s a macho factor,” Miller said. “How do you determine as a player that I just got my bell rung as opposed to did I jack my brain up? And ultimately, you are hurting the team.”
That’s one of the situations Morey would like to avoid. He sees possibilities like a special exemption to the 53-man roster for those concussed, or a 15-day injured reserve, just so those with concussions aren’t feeling pressure to return and so coaches can be given room to maneuver.
The Super Bowl provided Morey the doorway to his quest. At a party a few days before the game, he was re-introduced to Chris Nowinski, co-director of The Sports Legacy Institute and a one-time Harvard football player who had once met Morey – who attended Brown University – on a recruiting trip.
Nowinski, who wrestled in World Wrestling Entertainment after college before concussions forced his retirement, convinced Morey to help him raise awareness. And to donate his brain.
“Having three active players of their caliber is huge in creating awareness and lending credibility to the issue,” Nowinski said.
Nowinski is looking for three things to come from the NFL players’ involvement: To cut down on the number of players who suffer from long-term problems, to aid in treatment for those with problems and finally to prevent problems with young athletes. Nowinski said there is legislation that has been passed or that hopefully will pass in many states either requiring certain medical guidelines for concussed athletes or at least requiring education about concussions for coaches.
“This is an important step in the process,” Nowinski said. “Sean and the other guys can create change from within.”
Announcing that you’ll give your brain to science definitely catches one’s attention.
“A little creepy is how I would describe agreeing to donate your brain,” Birk told the Minneapolis Star-Tribune. “But there is a bigger picture here.”
That big picture is all Morey can think about.
“I thought,” Morey said, “this was part of my duty.”