Support the news

An Open Letter To Wes Welker: It's Time To Stop Playing Football

Steve Almond: "[T]he risks of permanent brain trauma increase with every concussion, and anyone who’s seen you play knows that you get hit. A lot." Pictured: Denver Broncos'  Wes Welker takes to the field during NFL football training camp on Saturday, July 26, 2014, in Englewood, Colo. (Jack Dempsey/AP)MoreCloseclosemore
Steve Almond: "[T]he risks of permanent brain trauma increase with every concussion, and anyone who’s seen you play knows that you get hit. A lot." Pictured: Denver Broncos' Wes Welker takes to the field during NFL football training camp on Saturday, July 26, 2014, in Englewood, Colo. (Jack Dempsey/AP)

Dear Wes,

I’m sure you get a lot of fan mail. Anyone who is as good as you are at something as insanely competitive and popular as football deserves those letters. I've seen you play a number of times and marveled (along with everyone else) at how you’re able to excel in a game where most of the players weigh 100 pounds more than you.

As it happens, though, I am not actually a fan of yours. And this turns out to be important, because it means I don’t have an agenda when it comes to the question of whether you should continue to play football, despite suffering three concussions in the last 10 months.

But what I would suggest is that you use the next week or so to do a little independent research about what it’s like to suffer from dementia.

Most of the people you interact with on a daily basis do have an agenda, Wes. The folks in your inner circle, to begin with: your agent, your manager, your teammates, your coaches and friends.

All these folks want you to be Wes Welker, the football hero, the marquee matchup, the Super Bowl aspirant, the cash cow.

Your millions of fans also need to see you in a certain light, as the Little Receiver Who Could, the mighty mite who’s afraid of nothing. It gives them a vicarious thrill to see someone roughly their size succeed in a sport dominated by giants.

And you yourself — having spent a lifetime devoted to football and scrapped your way to stardom despite going undrafted — must feel a burning desire to get back on the field and do the one thing you feel you were born to do.

Why not?

You love the game. You love your teammates. You want to live up to the unspoken code of football, which sanctifies above all those who sacrifice their own bodies for the greater good, who play hurt.

This impulse must be especially strong for you, a guy who worked so hard to reach the pinnacle of NFL stardom and to return from a gruesome leg injury a few seasons ago.

There’s no doubt that you must want, also, to redeem yourself after so famously dropping a pass that might have clinched Super Bowl XLVI for the Patriots, a play that no doubt haunts you.

It would be pointless (and frankly obnoxious) for me to question any of these feelings. You come by them honestly.

But what I would suggest is that you use the next week or so to do a little independent research about what it’s like to suffer from dementia.

Related audio

If you can stomach it, I’d take a look at some video of Pittsburgh Steelers center Mike Webster, both from his prime and his later years. Or talk with the friends and family of other players, such as Junior Seau, who suffered from Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy (CTE), a form of dementia that’s been found in dozens of former pro players.

In fact, just this week doctors at Boston University’s CTE Center revealed that Michael Keck, a linebacker who never even reached the pros, suffered from an advanced form of CTE never seen before in someone so young. Keck died at 25, of an apparently unrelated heart condition.

As you probably know, CTE is sometimes referred to as a "silent killer" because players are often unaware that their brains are damaged until years after they retire. That’s when they start to lose their memories, their moods become erratic and they descend into severe depressions.

You can check out the way Hall of Famer Tony Dorsett described his mental state last year.

It’s hard to think about all this scary stuff when all everyone around you wants to know is when you’ll be back in uniform. And the truth is you might choose to continue playing and never receive another concussion and never develop CTE. But the risks of permanent brain trauma increase with every concussion, and anyone who’s seen you play knows that you get hit. A lot.

Here’s the thing, Wes: sometimes you have to step back from your own life to put things in perspective.

Your decision to leave the game would send a powerful message to other players: that sometimes heroism resides in turning away from danger rather than letting it smash you into the turf on national TV.

You’re 33 years old now. You got married a couple of years ago and from what I understand you want to have kids. Do you think those kids will care about whether you play another year or two and win that elusive Super Bowl ring?

My hunch — based on my own kids, anyway — is that any little ones you help bring into the world would much rather have a father who left the game behind, who decided that the next four or five decades of his life were more important than some short-term glory. Having kids changes the way you think about things is my point.

Your decision to leave the game would send a powerful message to other players: that sometimes heroism resides in turning away from danger rather than letting it smash you into the turf on national TV. And it would also send a message to your many fans, those who love watching you dart and weave, but who have no idea what it’s like to suffer actual serial brain traumas.

Of course, it’s not your duty to be a role model, Wes. But it is your unique opportunity.

You’re clearly a smart, thoughtful guy, maybe the most respected wide receiver of your generation.

Think about it.

Steve Almond


Steve Almond is the author of the new book, “Against Football."


Related:

Steve Almond Twitter Cognoscenti contributor
Steve Almond's new book, "Bad Stories: What the Hell Just Happened to Our Country," is now available. He hosts the Dear Sugars podcast with Cheryl Strayed.

More…

+Join the discussion
TwitterfacebookEmail

Support the news