When Chiefs safety Husain Abdullah in December sustained his fifth known concussion in six years, he promptly thought of Junior Seau — the former NFL great who had been “larger than life” as Abdullah grew up in Southern California.
After Seau died by suicide in 2012, he was found to have the degenerative brain disease chronic traumatic encephalopathy — among numerous other NFL players who had CTE.
If you scoff at that science, which was evident long before the movie “Concussion” enlightened a whole new audience, The Flat Earth Society may have a place for you.
No wonder, then, Abdullah “got scared,” as he wrote in an essay for The Players’ Tribune last week.
His thought process took on a new dimension when his wife had their fourth child earlier this year. One night, he stared at his new daughter thinking, “I want to be aware of everything going on in her life, and I want to take care of her. I don’t want her to have to take care of me.”
All of which helps explain Abdullah’s seemingly abrupt retirement last month at the age of 30, thus joining a rapidly growing club walking away from the NFL in hopes of getting out intact.
In 2011, five players retired at 30 or younger, according to ESPN Stats & Info.
Nineteen did so last year, and more than 20 already have in 2016, and that doesn’t even include the just-over-30 likes of Mike DeVito of the Chiefs and D’Brickashaw Ferguson of the Jets.
Even if there is no shortage of eager gladiators on the immediate horizon, this is a significant psychological shift.
It speaks to enhanced consciousness of the perils of the sport, including the sinister constant sub-concussive blows that too few still consider tangibly enough, and the liberating power of players to make heaps of money for a few years and get out.
Even if spectators aren’t ready to forsake the game, even if you still revel in monster hits instead of grimace, it’s evident that more and more participants get it.
This along with reforms at the youth level is for the greater good — even if there is something jarring in Abdullah’s well-reasoned notion of why the NFL ranks will continue to be replenished.
“Even with more players each year retiring early,” he wrote, “and a growing number of parents unwilling to let their kids play football, the fact remains that there are kids in poverty-stricken communities all across America looking for a way out, and football has been — and will continue to be — an avenue for them to pursue.
“And those kids? They’re growing up in neighborhoods in which they don’t know if they’re going to live to see 16.
“So they’re not concerned with how playing the game of football might impact their brains at age 50, or 40, or even 30, when they’re likely to already be out of the league, should they make it that far.”
The idea of more NFL players retiring young still is counter-culture, though, so it doesn’t necessarily bode an immediate seismic change.
Even with youth football numbers trending down, it doesn’t necessarily signal the impending end of a game so steeped in macho that even Abdullah felt the need to clarify that he “did not retire out of fear; I retired because I had to come to terms with my own medical history.”
So it’s perhaps no surprise that the subject seemed somewhere between taboo and at arm’s length for Chiefs players.
Linebacker Tamba Hali, who is 32 and one of the most thoughtful people you’ll ever encounter, will tell you “there’s pain (all) around my body.” But if you ask him how he approaches thinking about how much longer to play, it’s based purely on his ability to perform. And if you ask him how he weighs his future health in all this, he smiles and says, “I’m not going to tell you that.”
Linebacker Derrick Johnson is 33 and missed the 2014 season because of an Achilles’ injury similar to DeVito’s.
He is also a pensive man and says “football is a violent sport, so things happen. You never know what guys are going through. Guys play through injury all the time, myself included.”
Johnson would never “point a finger” at someone retiring young, he adds, and if he had any “concussions recorded” maybe he’d look at it differently. But as it is, he’s going to “ride it out and shoot for the stars.”
Quarterback Alex Smith, 31, did not play tackle football until high school and thinks the same way for his own young sons but adds that the broader topic “is hard to get into.”
“I know it’s very gray,” he said. “That’s just kind of the way it is.”
Running back Jamaal Charles, 29, who last year sustained the second season-ending knee injury of his NFL career, cites the fact that every case is different and expresses no concern about his future health.
He is an incredibly appealing player to watch because of his sheer talent and unquenchable appetite to play. He also is a player you might find yourself concerned about, because of what a target he is and how he makes himself vulnerable by never letting up and knowing that he tried to avoid going through a concussion protocol in San Diego in 2014 because he had a concussion in Indianapolis in January.
But when it comes to his future, Charles, who is far more reflective than most people realize, stresses only the immediate.
“My future is about my legs, so my future is about trying to get my health back,” he said, later adding, “We’re all different, in our own image.”
One thing they all have in common, though, is their relative youth.
And for all the equipment improvements and protective rules changes and medical advancements, the greatest cautionary tale looms in the years.
In researching what became of the 40 Chiefs players who appeared in the first Super Bowl in 1967, it was jolting to learn that 13 had died — many by their 50s.
Perhaps that death rate would be consistent with most other random groups now into their mid-70s.
But even more disturbing was that at least half of the 40 either publicly or privately had been dealing with various forms of dementia – including the piercingly sad saga of Otis Taylor.
To say nothing of Jim Tyrer, who amid financial woes shot and killed his wife, Martha, and himself on Sept. 15, 1980, leaving behind four children. Today, his brain would have been sought for CTE study.
Many, too, had undergone unfathomable numbers of surgeries:
E.J. Holub had 20 on his knees; Dave Hill had five on his back; the late Sherrill Headrick had 15 related to football, and Fred Arbanas says he had 21.
“Both shoulders replaced, both hips and now my right knee,” said Arbanas, a longtime Jackson County legislator, on Friday. “Neuropathy in my right foot and right leg and right hand, that’s probably one of my biggest problems now.”
Arbanas, 77, played for the Dallas Texans and Chiefs from 1962-70 and was the all-time All-AFL team tight end.
He remembers the helmets having “netting” and knocking heads with people, meaning you’d get dizzy and miss a few plays.
“Even if you weren’t 100 percent, you still went back in there anyway: to get that guy who might have done it to you,” he said. “And you don’t want to let your teammates down.”
He understands the advancements in equipment and rules now and still loves watching the NFL. He’s generally enjoyed seeing his grandsons play high school football and thinks there are plenty of dangers in other sports.
But asked if he would do it all over if he’d understood the future consequences, Arbanas balked.
“When I was a young buck, I didn’t think anything about damaging my body; I always felt that I was damaging the other guy a little bit,” he said. “The way I am right now, I would probably say I would have studied harder and become an orthopedic surgeon (to treat) people like me.”
Football is a damn fine game, and most anyone who played it can tell you what it did for your sense of resolve through adversity and understanding how to be part of something bigger than yourself.
But the more we learn about the seemingly collateral damage, the more primary the harm seems to be. It’s hard to reconcile it all, really, and Abdullah’s essay reflected conflict, too.
He sees “hope for this game,” he writes, because of the advances that have been made just since he first was being treated for concussions five years ago.
Yet there is this: After his fourth concussion, Abdullah was determined to change the way he played.
“I took the big hit out of my game,” he wrote. “I started tackling with my head off to the side instead of trying to run through the ballcarrier. I could perform everything that was asked of me, without the big collisions.”
Then he tried to take down Buffalo quarterback Tyrod Taylor in Week 12 last December with the “new, smarter way of tackling I had mastered” … only to collide with a teammate, too.
“I had done everything right. I protected myself. I got my head out of the way,” he wrote. “But at the end of the day, there’s only so much you can do to protect yourself in this game.”
That’s why he knew he had to get out while he still has hope for a normal future — and that’s why more and more players will and should be thinking about the same.