It happens quickly—less than four seconds after the ball is caught.
So quickly, in fact, that before the camera, the announcers, or the TV audience can register the collision, the play is already over. The ball carrier gets up, an “offsides” penalty is called, and the players disperse, leaving one hulking linebacker splayed face down on the field, not moving: # 51, Terry Crews.
Crews was then a second-year player for the San Diego Chargers. That night, November 29, 1993, the Chargers were in Indianapolis, facing the Colts on Monday Night Football. Crews, a backup linebacker, started on special teams and took the field for the San Diego kickoff. “My skill in the NFL was never catching,” Crews says, reflecting on that night. “It was never throwing. It was never tackling. It was to take as much pain as possible.”
It was also to make as much pain as possible. Crews’ job on kickoffs was to charge down the field at full speed and crash into the opposing players—not to tackle the ball carrier, but to break up the “wedge,” an infamous blocking position designed to protect the ball carrier by providing a wall of bodies elbow-to-elbow in front; one part Spartan phalanx, one part red-rover line. The wedge was outlawed by league officials in 2009, because of what the formation forced opposing teams to do: send a massive player like Terry Crews screaming down the field to destroy it. He was the “wedge breaker.”
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#TBT OUCH! That time I suffered a concussion on #mondaynightfootball. I had NO IDEA where I was after this– played the rest of the game. Might be why I’m so crazy now! LOL #1993 #concussion
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That Monday night, wedge-breaker Crews sprinted downfield to do his pain job. But the wedge somehow split before Crews got there, and he penetrated the kick return line, head down, straight at the ball carrier. They met at full speed like rhinoceroses—what would today be called (and flagged as) “helmet-to-helmet,” an illegal tackling technique.
Crews immediately suffered a concussion, a mild traumatic brain injury (TBI) that causes the head to oscillate rapidly and the brain to literally swirl, and then collide with the interior of the skull. He was unconscious, he believes, for almost 10 seconds.
“I remember feeling like I was in the womb. It was the most peaceful feeling ever. It was like: where am I? … I don’t care.”
“I didn’t remember one thing after that,” he says. “Everything went blank. And the funny thing about it is that I’ve never taken drugs. I’ve never even been high or drunk in my life. But I remember feeling like I was in the womb. It was the most peaceful feeling ever. It was like: where am I? … I don’t care.”
Crews managed to stand up and jog off the field, shaking his head. The CDC has since identified post-concussive symptoms like difficulty remembering recent events, headaches, or sensitivity to bright lights and loud noises, mood changes like irritability or sadness, and sleeping more or less than usual. Crews experienced many of these within the first few minutes.
He forgot where he was. He began asking his teammates questions about the “U” on the other player’s helmets—the Colts’ horseshoe logo. “U? Are we in Utica? Where are we?” Moments later, the punt team was called. Crews was on the punt team. But Crews didn’t remember what a punt team was. What was a punt?
He started to panic. “I’m gonna get fired … I’m gonna get FIRED!” Crews began thinking.
At halftime, Crews says his coaches attempted to “piece my memory back together.” He tried his best to convince them he was OK—it was working.
“I knew that I couldn’t be truthful about my injury, or else I might get cut. This is the reality of when I was in the NFL.”
“I knew that I couldn’t be truthful about my injury, or else I might get cut,” he recalls. “This is the reality of when I was in the NFL. They would say Are you injured? And you’d go no. Because if you said I’m injured, then you might not be on the team the next week.”
Returning to play after suffering a concussion is extremely dangerous. Repeated concussions of varying degrees, even small ones—called “subconcussive hits”—have been linked to chronic traumatic encephalopathy or CTE, which can cause personality changes and depression. A number of former NFL athletes with the condition have committed suicide. As hits to the head are particularly damaging to younger brains, recent legislative efforts have sought to ban tackle football until kids reach their teenage years.
Crews played before the increase in CTE awareness and in-game concussion screenings. And after his quick memory refresher in the locker room, he went back onto the field that night and played the rest of the game. And then he played three more years in the NFL.
“When I look back and I see the footage of that—because I don’t remember it,” says Crews, “you just go my god, it’s a car accident.”
He says that acting and exercising his memory has helped keep him sharp and perhaps even combated potential side effects from his years in the NFL.
“I’m always always cognizant,” he says, “and thankful for the fact that I made it out.”
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