The University of Maryland hosted a sports injury symposium at Knight Hall Wednesday night titled “Sports Injuries: the Risks of Playing the Game from Kids to the Pros.” Among those in attendance were Dr. Stephen Haas, a retired physician for the Wizards, Capitals and Nationals, Sean Sansiveri, NFL Players Association Staff Council; Scott Hallenbeck, Executive Director of USA Football; Katie O’Donnell, 2009 National Field Hockey player of the Year from the University of Maryland; Mark Hyman, author of “Until it Hurts” and adjunct professor at George Washington University; and former Washington Redskins tight end and current ESPN 980 and Comcast SportsNet media personality, Rick “Doc” Walker.
Following the event, I had the chance to speak with Doc about a wide range of topics. In the first of a three-part interview series, Doc talks about his post-career injuries, the Catch-22 that NFL players face with concussions and job security, expanding NFL rosters, his dislike of the Scouting Combine, and whether the 49ers should trade for Darelle Revis.
JR: What did you take out of [the sports injury discussion]?
DW: It was a good discussion because from the youth standpoint. We had a proponent of flag football [in the discussion panel] which I am very impressed with. And also USA football, which I’m impressed with the fact that they’re getting coaches to be certified. Two fronts that I agree with. I also am happy that the National Football League Players Association is really trying to improve the game’s safety. I’ve been down on the league for caring so much about its appearance — socks but not pads. Well, pads will be implemented next year. And I’ve been a big proponent of that because I think it’s just stupid to say you’re concerned about safety and you have guys going out and playing without pads on. So that ignorance will be discontinued. Also, it’s the greatest game on earth but it needed to be governed. As a parent I’m very happy for that. But for the future of football… when President Obama made the comment that if he had a son he may not let him play is logical and it needed to be said because it will help we need to do. But the game is gonna go on and it can still be a great game and it will be great game. But it’s not for everyone and I think that’s the thing that parents have to understand. I’m one the that believes that playing in high school in a contact sense is okay. If you want to play earlier and your parents allow you to and the coaches are certified [and] you’re with a really good league. Like we have a youth grass-roots youth football league — sixth, seventh and eighth-graders. You’re gonna have trainers on the sidelines. Certification is mandatory. Then it’s okay but it’s still not for every kid. I think parents have to be very, very smart when they make those decisions. I’m a proponent of soccer, baseball, volleyball, anything for youth but I want them to play them all. And I despise video games that aren’t governed by parents because the kids just get too involved. They’re sitting on their butts instead of going outside and playing.
JR: What do you say about the Catch-22 that players face? Like Alex Smith. He had a concussion. He sat out. He lost his job. But on the other side you want to keep the players safe. How does that get solved to the point that players speak up and say “Yeah, I have a concussion.” without fearing losing their job or will that always be a risk?
DW: It’s gonna always be a risk. Alex Smith lost his job because they thought Kaepernick was going to be better in the long haul. Kaepernick’s their guy. Alex wasn’t. That s*** happens in every sport. Guys are gonna lie. That’s why you have to have doctors make them go through tests that will make sure they’re not lying. And you err on the side of caution. In the past, guys just played. I went through that era. I had multiple concussions. That won’t happen again to this group. And that’s the good news. I’m really happy that it’s happening that way. I don’t want to see the game become a non-contact game. I’m willing to say I’m interested in at least investigating youth sports from a flag football standpoint in pads. I’m willing to look at it but I’m not willing to be without contact football for a professional sport. I’m a proponent of the game of football for collegiate football, high school football — but I think that we have to requalify coaches and make sure coaches understand the safety precautions as well. The old idea of a guy yelling and screaming and forcing you to challenge your manhood is over. Even on the offensive and defensive lines you can teach aggression with technique just as well. And we have to make sure that we protect kids. I want to see the roster expand in pro football.
JR: Do you think that will happen along with widened fields?
DW: Yeah because they’re going to get 18 games. They’re going to get more games. And if they do that I hope that they have to add more bodies. I also think the practice squad ought to be active game day. You ought to have the right to suit up all your practice squad guys and you can play them. What are you holding them back for? Because if a left tackle now goes down in a game this league is hamstrung. There are very few people that can play a game with competency without their starting left tackle.
JR: I guess they partly have a practice squad because they don’t have a developmental league anymore and that’s their way of developing players.
DW: Well on game day you ought to have access to more bodies. You ought to be able to have all three quarterbacks suited up and not have to lose special teams guy or a lineman for that.
JR: Do you think that will change soon?
DW: The only way it’s going to change is when they get to 18 games. They’re going to get 18 games so just make them pay for it by making the game safer [by] adding more bodies to the game. That’s all you can do.
Listen… I got in, it was 14 [games per season]. They had just come off 12. Camp was four weeks for the first time. It used to be eight. Before that [camp] was 12 [weeks]. Everything is going to change. The draft used to be in January if I’m not mistaken. This thing is going to change. They want to get [the draft] to May. And good. I hope they do. I want to see the combine moved down. I want everything moved down so that the Super Bowl champion and the runner-up can exhale. These guys — the season’s over for them the second week in February and then you’re talking about March when [the] offseason starts? Come on.
It’s like the NBA. The teams who play the longest suffer the most. There’s enough football to go around. They can take a month off and go black for a month or so, which they’ll never do but it lets the bodies of these players heal. And I think that would be good.
JR: Do you suffer from any post-career concussions symptoms?
DW: Well, yeah. I have a difficult time sleeping. I’ve had multiple concussions, knee operations, broken arm, backs and all that. No different than anybody my age. Anybody in their mid-fifties is feeling something. Mine is subsequently being involved in multiple car wrecks. Of course what the equivalent of football is is being in multiple car crashes. So there are days you don’t feel as good but that’s why you have to exercise. You’ve got to try to be as active as possible.
JR: Do you have daily headaches like some other former players do?
DW: No, no, no, no, no. Not daily. But I do have difficulty sleeping. You need to sleep to be healthy. Everything good happens when you sleep. So when you don’t get a lot of sleep it’s not good. You have to counter that. That’s a problem.
JR: Is it because your brain won’t shut down [to ease you to sleep]? It won’t calm down enough [at bed time]?
DW: I’ve had sciatica. I’ve had lower back problems [and] neck problems from stretching ligaments in there. Just getting into a comfortable position is not easy just to sleep. You take it for granted just laying down. There’s only a couple of positions I can get in that truly I go “Okay good. I can fall asleep to this.”
JR: Did you ever go to a Sleep Number bed?
DW: Oh, I’ve got all that. Yeah, I’ve got that. It helps. I’ve always invested in good mattresses. And those things do help.
JR: Did you go to the Combine in Indy this past week?
JR: Have you followed any advancements from it?
DW: No. I may glance at it but to me the game is played in pads so I find that I’m really not attracted to watching anything that’s not done in pads because it’s a false sense — it’s an illusion. That’s like the Olympics to me. And there are a lot of guys that do really well in that and can’t play. If the guy’s game film isn’t enough… I’m a game film guy. [I look at] a guy’s track record, his past. I’m just not a big fan of it but I do glance occasionally at it.
JR: Combine aside, do you still pay attention to the prospects going into the draft a few months ahead of time or do you wait until the draft rolls around?
DW: I evaluate it from college. The good college players that I’ve seen, that means something to me. If the Skins had a number one pick I’d be more into it. When we pick in the second round and I have no idea knowing who’s available — so what I’ll do is get involved in it as it gets closer. I’ll start looking for lineman. Like, I’m looking at the kid from Wisconsin. I’m looking at lineman and safeties, things I think we’ll go after as a team and just get some background on it. But it’s all just busywork because once they pick ’em, then I get into the guy. Before, it’s just the fun of it. I do like the draft a lot and I’m waiting to see if there’s moves gonna be made.
JR: Like today with the Chiefs and the 49ers.
DW: Chiefs-49ers. That was a no-brainer but I didn’t know what [the 49ers would] get for [Alex Smith]. Now my next line of passion is the Niners are holding all the cards and do they cash ’em in and go up and get somebody in the top ten? Because they’ve got enough to do it and they don’t need much. So they can really help their team because they were exposed. [Justin] Smith’s injury at tackle mitigated the end. [Aldon Smith] was hell on wheels until the kid inside got hurt. So that changed their whole dynamic. They need another defensive lineman.
JR: So you don’t think they’ll go after Revis like everyone’s speculating?
DW: I don’t know. I know they’ve got a lot of picks. I don’t know the cap situation.
JR: Everyone’s bringing up Crabtree and Kaepernick as people they would need to re-sign so that will affect the cap.
DW: Neither one of those guys is Revis. Vernon Davis is their best player to me, best receiver. And they didn’t throw to him when they should have. To me, in crunch, I’m going to Davis. [Michael] Crabtree ran a horrible route and got no separation.
JR: You’re a tight end at heart.
DW: No. He’s just the best. He could have run that fade route much better than Crabtree in my opinion. They’ve been in a championship game with Crab and them guys. And they’ve been in a Super Bowl. They’re doing fine, okay? Because now that you’re that close, now you get a key injury next year that you didn’t have this year. That’s the way this game works. It never works the way you think it will. Their corners didn’t kill me. Do I go after Revis, who’s going to give you, at best, one or two dominant seasons. To me, I’d stay away from it. I’d grow my own. They’ve got smart people there. If there was a college kid that they like a lot, I’d rather get a young kid because I can afford him. Revis is a lot of money for a guy who may have played his best for someone else. That’s the old burgundy and gold method and it doesn’t work. I don’t like it.
Stay tuned for parts two and three of my interview with Doc.