by Malcolm Gladwell
One evening in August, Kyle Turley was at a bar in Nashville with his wife and some friends. It was one of the countless little places in the city that play live music. He’d ordered a beer, but was just sipping it, because he was driving home. He had eaten an hour and a half earlier. Suddenly, he felt a sensation of heat. He was light-headed, and began to sweat. He had been having episodes like that with increasing frequency during the past year—headaches, nausea. One month, he had vertigo every day, bouts in which he felt as if he were stuck to a wall. But this was worse. He asked his wife if he could sit on her stool for a moment. The warmup band was still playing, and he remembers saying, “I’m just going to take a nap right here until the next band comes on.” Then he was lying on the floor, and someone was standing over him. “The guy was freaking out,” Turley recalled. “He was saying, ‘Damn, man, I couldn’t find a pulse,’ and my wife said, ‘No, no. You were breathing.’ I’m, like, ‘What? What?’ ”
They picked him up. “We went out in the parking lot, and I just lost it,” Turley went on. “I started puking everywhere. I couldn’t stop. I got in the car, still puking. My wife, she was really scared, because I had never passed out like that before, and I started becoming really paranoid. I went into a panic. We get to the emergency room. I started to lose control. My limbs were shaking, and I couldn’t speak. I was conscious, but I couldn’t speak the words I wanted to say.”
Turley is six feet five. He is thirty-four years old, with a square jaw and blue eyes. For nine years, before he retired, in 2007, he was an offensive lineman in the National Football League. He knew all the stories about former football players. Mike Webster, the longtime Pittsburgh Steeler and one of the greatest players in N.F.L. history, ended his life a recluse, sleeping on the floor of the Pittsburgh Amtrak station. Another former Pittsburgh Steeler, Terry Long, drifted into chaos and killed himself four years ago by drinking antifreeze. Andre Waters, a former defensive back for the Philadelphia Eagles, sank into depression and pleaded with his girlfriend—“I need help, somebody help me”—before shooting himself in the head. There were men with aching knees and backs and hands, from all those years of playing football. But their real problem was with their heads, the one part of their body that got hit over and over again.
“Lately, I’ve tried to break it down,” Turley said. “I remember, every season, multiple occasions where I’d hit someone so hard that my eyes went cross-eyed, and they wouldn’t come uncrossed for a full series of plays. You are just out there, trying to hit the guy in the middle, because there are three of them. You don’t remember much. There are the cases where you hit a guy and you’d get into a collision where everything goes off. You’re dazed. And there are the others where you are involved in a big, long drive. You start on your own five-yard line, and drive all the way down the field—fifteen, eighteen plays in a row sometimes. Every play: collision, collision, collision. By the time you get to the other end of the field, you’re seeing spots. You feel like you are going to black out. Literally, these white explosions—boom, boom, boom—lights getting dimmer and brighter, dimmer and brighter.
“Then, there was the time when I got knocked unconscious. That was in St. Louis, in 2003. My wife said that I was out a minute or two on the field. But I was gone for about four hours after that. It was the last play of the third quarter. We were playing the Packers. I got hit in the back of the head. I saw it on film a little while afterward. I was running downfield, made a block on a guy. We fell to the ground. A guy was chasing the play, a little guy, a defensive back, and he jumped over me as I was coming up, and he kneed me right in the back of the head. Boom!
“They sat me down on the bench. I remember Marshall Faulk coming up and joking with me, because he knew that I was messed up. That’s what happens in the N.F.L: ‘Oooh. You got effed up. Oooh.’ The trainer came up to me and said, ‘Kyle, let’s take you to the locker room.’ I remember looking up at a clock, and there was only a minute and a half left in the game—and I had no idea that much time had elapsed. I showered and took all my gear off. I was sitting at my locker. I don’t remember anything. When I came back, after being hospitalized, the guys were joking with me because Georgia Frontiere”—then the team’s owner—“came in the locker room, and they said I was butt-ass naked and I gave her a big hug. They were dying laughing, and I was, like, ‘Are you serious? I did that?’
“They cleared me for practice that Thursday. I probably shouldn’t have. I don’t know what damage I did from that, because my head was really hurting. But when you’re coming off an injury you’re frustrated. I wanted to play the next game. I was just so mad that this happened to me that I’m overdoing it. I was just going after guys in practice. I was really trying to use my head more, because I was so frustrated, and the coaches on the sidelines are, like, ‘Yeah. We’re going to win this game. He’s going to lead the team.’ That’s football. You’re told either that you’re hurt or that you’re injured. There is no middle ground. If you are hurt, you can play. If you are injured, you can’t, and the line is whether you can walk and if you can put on a helmet and pads.”
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