Bears safety Chris Conte grabbed his helmet and returned to the field.
Moments later, one of the world’s most well known experts in sports-related head trauma took to his keyboard to vent his concerns.
That would be Chris Nowinski, co-director of the Center for the Study of Traumatic Encephalopathy at Boston University. Nowinski, who has studied the brains of many deceased athletes for evidence of a degenerative brain disease, seemed worried that Conte was putting his well being at risk by returning from an apparent head injury that he had sustained in the first half of Sunday’s game.
“Watching Bears game,” Nowinski tweeted. “Fact that Bears Conte back in after obvious concussion is tragic. How many symptoms does he have to show to stay out?”
Like it or not, this was a story.
Because this bold public statement did not come from a knee-jerk fan or a snarky reporter. Nowinski works with the group that diagnosed the brains of former NFL players such as Junior Seau and Dave Duerson, and he has pushed for significant rule changes in the NFL aimed at limiting dangerous hits to players’ heads.
Still, concussions remain a part of the game.
And Nowinski had alleged “obvious” signs that indicated a concussion for Conte.
After the Bears’ ugly loss, I relayed Nowinski’s message to the Bears’ third-year safety.
“Like what signs?” Conte said.
Nowinski didn’t elaborate in his message, I said.
“I mean, if you can tell me what obvious signs, then I could answer that,” Conte said. “But I don’t know what he’s talking about.”
On Monday, Nowinski spoke by phone about what he had seen during the game.
“His head slammed violently off the turf,” Nowinski said. “He sat up and took off his helmet. He was visibly giving the shaking the cobwebs maneuver, which is a telltale sign of concussion. And he was also pointing to his head as he was talking to the medical staff.
“With that impact and the head shake – the head shake is a universal sign of a concussion. There are very few injuries the head shake helps you with other than concussion.”
Nowinski explained that it’s possible that the Bears’ medical staff followed all of the NFL’s guidelines but Conte returned to the field anyway. He said “wiggle room” was built into the testing system that could allow concussed players to return to the field.
“The problem sometimes, when that test is given 10 minutes after the concussion, is that it’s treated as the only evidence necessary,” Nowinski said, “whereas the reality is you have to take into consideration the symptoms the athlete felt on the field. So, this is a mistake that happens over and over again.”
Regarding Nowinski’s in-game message, Conte seemed more perplexed than upset. He spoke without emotion and did not hesitate to describe the play in which he was injured.
“I hit the back of my head on the ground,” said Conte, who stayed down on the field for a few minutes before heading to the locker room to be evaluated for a concussion. “I kind of swung back and hit my head pretty hard, so they wanted to check me out.
“But I passed all of the tests and everything, so I was good.”
Conte had to answer a variety of questions as part of the NFL’s baseline test for concussions.
“It’s a pretty in-depth process,” Conte said. “They’ve got a whole protocol. They’ve got a neuro-specialist that comes down, and they put you through a whole iPad app and everything.
“It’s pretty in-depth, and the questions aren’t easy. There’s a lot of memory stuff – things that are hard even if you don’t have a concussion. So if you do have a concussion, it’s pretty hard to pass those things. And I passed them all, so they did everything right.”
Other players echoed Conte’s description of the league’s concussion test.
Fellow safety Major Wright nodded when I asked whether he had gone through the process.
“Yeah, I’ve had it,” Wright said.
So is there a way to pass the test by…
“Cheating?” Wright said.
“No, you can’t cheat,” Wright said. “You can’t. It’s stuff to remember. If you’ve got a concussion, you’re not going to remember things like that.”
Part of the beauty of the test is that it helps to protect players from themselves.
That’s important to note. Because if it were up to many players – despite all that they know about the long-term dangers of head trauma – they would play through concussions.
Even during a quick survey of the Bears’ locker room, old attitudes emerged.
Wright mentioned “toughness” a few times during our chat. He said he has played through a lot and took pride in his toughness, and he never doubted Conte’s toughness for a moment.
Yet concussions have nothing to do with toughness.
Bears safety Anthony Walters described his perspective on head injuries.
“Guys want to play,” Walters said. “We make it this far because we’re competitors.”
So wasn’t a neutral test, void of tough-guy emotions, a good thing to help protect players?
“Nah,” Walters said. “Because maybe you could slip up here or there with a question, and that could ultimately end your day. And then, once you miss the rest of that game, there’s problems getting into the next game, and there’s problems, problems, …”
Walters trailed off.
Translation: For a reserve player such as Walters, “problems, problems…” could mean losing a six-figure job that hundreds of unemployed players would line up to accept.
As for Conte, he insisted that he would not want to play through a concussion because of the long-term dangers.
“If you’ve got a concussion – especially with all the research and stuff – you don’t want to put yourself out there at risk,” Conte said. “I wouldn’t have gone back out there if I wasn’t 100 percent that I was OK.”
• Northwest Herald sports columnist Tom Musick can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org and on Twitter @tcmusick.