Kyle Turley was 6 feet 5, 309 pounds, with hydrant-thick arms covered in tattoos. He was among the meanest, toughest offensive linemen in the NFL.
And he was out cold.
He had taken a shot to the helmet when playing for the St. Louis Rams in 2003 and was briefly unconscious. He quickly came to and made his way to the sideline, yet was so disoriented that when he tried to wave to his wife to let her know he was OK, he couldn't remember where she was sitting.
"I should have remembered that," Turley said. "We bought a luxury box that cost $50,000. It was right over my left shoulder. That's where it was at and always would be, and had been all the games before that. I just kept looking around the stadium."
The truly scary part was still to come. Even though he suffered a severe concussion — one doctor said later that he should have been sidelined for a month —Turley says he was encouraged by team trainers to return to practice three days later. It was the kind of thing that many brain-injury experts now believe could have long-term effects on mental health.
"I came in and [the trainers] said, 'How do you feel now? Because you've got to practice today if you're going to play in the game,' " said Turley, who retired in 2007. "I was like, 'Well … I've got a little bit of a headache still, but it's getting better.' And they're like, 'OK, good! We'll clear you to practice today. We'll watch you.' "
That was not so much a specific indictment of the Rams' medical staff, but of the widely embraced football philosophy from the NFL on down: If you could see straight, you were good to go.
After years of denying a link between multiple concussions and long-term cognitive decline, the NFL is finally taking an aggressive approach to the problem. Various studies have shown:
• More than half of NFL players say they have had a concussion on the field, and one in four recall having at least three.
• Former players have been diagnosed with Alzheimer's disease or similar memory-related afflictions at five times the rate of people who didn't play.
• One in five players who have had multiple concussions say they have suffered depression — three times the rate of players who say they haven't suffered concussions.
"If you look at the diseased brains, I think there's no question that we've been playing the game of football wrong," said Chris Nowinski, a former Harvard defensive lineman who has done groundbreaking research on the long-term effect of concussions. "The game has evolved into something it was never intended to be. It's evolved into intentional helmet-to-helmet hits. It's evolved into 1,000 hits a year. It's evolved into skull-fracturing forces that are protected by a thin piece of plastic, so your skull doesn't get fractured but your brain still absorbs the force.
"It's evolved from a game that used to be about moving the ball, to one that's about highlight-film hits."
There have been studies for decades that link multiple concussions and cognitive erosion. At long last, under increasing pressure from lawmakers, former players and medical experts, the NFL has begun to get proactive.
"We need to make the game safer," NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell said. "We have more work to do, but we think we're making progress and we're changing the culture."
According to a league-commissioned study last year, Alzheimer's disease or similar memory-related afflictions seem to have been diagnosed in former NFL players at a vastly higher rate than the national population. The study, conducted by the University of Michigan's Institute for social research, reported that 6.1% of former players age 50 and older reported they had received a dementia-related diagnosis, five times higher than the cited national average of 1.2%.
The information was gathered in phone interviews with 1,063 retired players, each of whom had played at least four seasons in the NFL. A league spokesman pointed out the study did not formally diagnose dementia, and questioned the reliability of phone surveys.
Still, the emerging information about head injuries is chilling to many current and former players.
"None of this was ever told to us," Turley said. "The NFL never talked about it. The general public never talked about it. It's just because of neglect and ignorance. There could have been so much study and research done on this issue. And now we've finally got doctors who are getting their voice heard.
"They have knocked on the NFL's door many times. It's just never been opened for them before."
Congressional pressure helped spark the change. Last October, Goodell and NFL Players Assn. Executive Director DeMaurice Smith, along with doctors and former players, testified on Capitol Hill in an attempt to identify how to make football safer. Judiciary Chairman Rep. John Conyers, D-Mich., said the issue warranted congressional review.