Wes Welker Concussions: How Much is Too Much?

Regularity of concussions has become a big concern in the NFL.

NFL: Super Bowl XLVIII-AFC Press Conference

Wes Welker has suffered an alarming amount of concussions in a short period of time. (Noah K. Murray-USA TODAY Sports)

(C+P) — Phineas Gage meet Wes Welker. Centuries later the legend of Gage continues and it is a legend football players like Welker need to start taking heed of if hearing about former players is not enough.

In an era that has never been more focused on the consequences of concussions, Wes Welker seems to fly under the radar. Not with his play. No, there he is widely regarded as one of the game’s best slot receivers. Year in and year out finding himself as his signal callers’ favorite receiver — whether it be Tom Brady in New England or Peyton Manning in Denver. Yet the talk is slowly shifting towards his unfortunate history of concussions, and this is a discussion that, for his own sake, needs to be given more consideration.

In recent years, the NFL has made concussions a main focus in terms of improving player safety, whether it is through rule changes or equipment requirements. They developed a return-to-play policy and outlawed helmet-to-helmet contact. All of which is a great step in the right direction, and it should help lower the risks as time goes on, but for Welker it may all be too little to late.

In the span of 10 months, the All-Pro receiver has sustained three separate concussions, and that is not even counting countless others he suffered prior to his time in Denver. In years past this would be brushed aside as a natural symptom of playing the violent game that is football. But recent studies, and furthermore evidence from former players, shows concussions are no longer something to be ignored. Welker has, and likely will again, passed all required NFL concussion testing before returning to play, but three in one year raises the question as to if the protocol should be revised.

Denver Broncos wide receiver Wes Welker (83) is tackled by Kansas City Chiefs cornerback Brandon Flowers (24) during the fourth quarter at Sports Authority Field at Mile High. The Broncos defeated the Chiefs 27-17. (Kyle Terada-USA TODAY Sports)
Denver Broncos wide receiver Wes Welker (83) is tackled by Kansas City Chiefs cornerback Brandon Flowers (24) during the fourth quarter at Sports Authority Field at Mile High. The Broncos defeated the Chiefs 27-17. (Kyle Terada-USA TODAY Sports)

Should he be allowed to return in a week if he no longer shows any symptoms? Should he be allowed to risk another concussion in a short time frame, knowing just how severe the long-term consequences are?

How many stories like that of the late Junior Seau committing suicide because of symptoms that have since been linked to Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy (CTE), a neurological disease that can be caused by concussions. No one can be sure what exactly drove Seau, or the countless others who have similar stories to take their own lives, nor should anyone try, but the sad truth of the matter is the common denominator between them all is that they played football.

The brain has long been known to be one of the more complex organs in a human’s body. This is no secret, and understanding the effects of concussions can sometimes be just as complex. Having said that, one needs to look no further than the century-old story of one of neurology’s most famous patients, Phineas Gage, to understand effects of traumatic brain injury.

Gage was a railroad worker and managed to have an iron rod shot clear through his skull in a tragic accident. He miraculously lived, but his life would never be the same. Not because he lost motor skills or the ability to live a relatively normal life as one might expect given the nature of his injury. Instead, he lived on as a completely different person. Gone was the quiet well-mannered individual his friends had known him to be, and in his place was a man void of all his previous good-natured qualities.

The frontal lobe, of which Gage sustained his injury, is known in its simplest form to control impulses and house many of the things that make humans, well human. When this is injured it can change how a person acts, how they think — or how they do not think at all. As was the case with the infamous Gage, it is the case with countless ex-professional football players. The vast majority of trauma in football comes in the frontal lobe due to its location at the front of the brain. While no injury in football is as blatantly serious as the one Gage suffered, the repeated effects of concussions can have a very similar outcome.

Wes Welker on the sidelines of the game against the Dallas Cowboys at AT&T Stadium. Denver beat Dallas 27-3. (Tim Heitman-USA TODAY Sports)
Wes Welker on the sidelines of the game against the Dallas Cowboys at AT&T Stadium. Denver beat Dallas 27-3. (Tim Heitman-USA TODAY Sports)

In the case of Seau and many others, the repeated trauma of multiple concussions took away their ability for impulse control; it changed who they were. It did not happen instantly, it took years of trauma and buildup to slowly take form, but when it did the tragedy of it all soon became very clear.

A number of diseases and conditions have been dubbed “the silent killer”, but one might argue concussions are “the silent killer” of football. At the time of the injury it looks pretty innocuous, even Phineas Gage himself was said to have walked away on his own power relatively unfazed after sustaining his injury, but the true effects of severe trauma to the brain — which is what multiple concussions are — do not show up right away. It takes time.

That time is drawing ever closer with every hit Welker takes. Maybe the NFL will take a stand, but for his own sake it may be time he makes the choice for himself. A choice he likely will have wished he made years sooner down the road.

The situation Welker finds himself in is one that will repeat itself many times in the future. That is a symptom of the game of football; it is hard to imagine concussions ever being eliminated. The question is, where is the line drawn? How many is too many for one player to sustain? There will always be the argument that football is meant to be a violent sport and players understand what they are signing up for. But do they really?

It is hard to imagine players willingly signing up for the possibility of significant and severe personality changes down the road. Players are shut down by doctors every year for spinal issues that are deemed life threatening. When will concussions become an accepted reason to retire from football? Welker would not be the first if he chose to do so — fellow wide receiver Austin Collie retired after multiple concussions — but he certainly would be the most high profile player to do so.

Is it time for Welker to hang up the cleats? Furthermore, is it time the NFL expanded its concussion protocol to include guidelines for players that sustain multiple concussions in a certain time frame? Someone better decide soon because as evidence has shown, it truly is a matter of life and death — no matter how immediate it may or may not be.

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