Kansas offensive lineman Jordan Shelley-Smith doesn’t remember his first concussion. He also doesn’t know how many he’s had.
Shelley-Smith does know this much, though: Playing football this year was unlike seasons past.
“The hits just felt different, wore on you a little more. Just the wearing down on your head,” Shelley-Smith said. “It’s hard to not want to hit your head when you’re O-line or D-line. If you think about it that way, you’re going to get hurt.”
It all led to a final decision last week. After talking with his fiancee Becca Strecker, Shelley-Smith chose to retire from football because of concussions, telling his teammates during a Monday team meeting.
In the end, his symptoms — including headaches — made him worried that he didn’t have enough time to heal properly during his final months of eligibility his senior season.
“It was something I couldn’t necessarily control,” Shelley-Smith said. “You want to keep giving your all, but you know your body can’t take it any more. I think that’s why it was so emotional.”
Shelley-Smith returned for one game this season, playing in the Jayhawks’ road loss at Memphis before experiencing some earlier symptoms.
Because of KU’s open-door policy with injuries, he felt comfortable approaching trainer Murphy Grant about his concerns. Shelley-Smith said he met with doctors and also called up former teammate Jake Love, who also retired from football last year because of concussions, before making a final call.
“As much as we don’t want to think about it, there’s bigger things than football. There are,” Shelley-Smith said. “It’s only a percentage of your life, even if you go to the NFL. It’s a very small portion of your life. There’s a lot to it, even if you love the game.”
Shelley-Smith will remain involved with KU football through the end of the semester. He’s continuing to be part of the team in a mentor-type role, with KU offensive line coach Zach Yenser encouraging him to participate in offensive-line meetings.
“I want him to be around our guys,” Yenser said. “He’s really good for our room, really good for our team, great for our locker room, whether he’s playing or not.”
Shelley-Smith also believed he was fortunate to be in a place that doesn’t minimize the potential impact of concussions. That starts with coach David Beaty, whose philosophy on head injuries was shaped by personal experience; his wife, Raynee, dated former Stephen F. Austin linebacker Cally Belcher in 1994 when he died of a brain aneurysm after taking a hit to the helmet during spring practices.
“These are these individuals’ one life that we are talking about,” Beaty said. “And you know what, this is a big industry. Football is a big industry. You know, there’s a lot of things going on that would make you want to have a player out there regardless.
“But the truth of the matter is, not one of them’s worth it. It’s not worth it. That’s somebody’s family treasure.”
Shelley-Smith, who says he is now symptom-free, earned his degree in supply chain management from KU’s business school last spring. He looks forward to having children, and he won’t discourage them from playing football or doing whatever makes them happy.
He still feels comfortable with his choice to leave the game a couple years after having NFL dreams.
“It’s one of those things, you don’t want it to end,” Shelley-Smith said. “But it’s your body telling you that it’s probably time.”
TCU at Kansas
When: 11 a.m. Saturday
Where: Memorial Stadium, Lawrence
Other story lines
1. QB change: KU coach David Beaty unexpectedly announced Monday that sophomore Ryan Willis would be his team’s new starting quarterback. Willis, who has impressed at times during spells replacing Montell Cozart in recent weeks, started the Jayhawks’ final eight games last year before becoming the second man in the rotation this season. Cozart said earlier this week that he still expected to play in the game as well, so there’s still some mystery left surrounding how Beaty will handle his QB rotation.
2. Nearly historic: TCU has struggled recently against KU, which includes last year’s matchup in Fort Worth, Texas. The Jayhawks, who were 46.5-point underdogs, had two chances to win late before a Willis interception and subsequent four-and-out preserved the Horned Frogs’ 23-17 victory. Heading into that game, teams that were 46.5-point underdogs or more were 0-58 since 2003, according to teamrankings.com.
3. Some luck, please? KU has a negative-7 turnover ratio, which is tied for fourth-worst out of 128 FBS teams. Underlying numbers, though, appear to suggest that KU should have better “turnover luck” moving forward. For one, the Jayhawks have lost eight of nine fumbles when recovery rate historically is around 50 percent. Also, KU has 26 passes defensed but just three interceptions, meaning the Jayhawks have been around the football enough to make more big plays ... even if they haven’t happened yet.