Draft prospect Owusu embodies mystery of concussions in football
Stanford wideout/returner Chris Owusu has a sprinter's speed and a bodybuilder's physique. He also has a medical report that makes NFL teams wince.
The 6-foot, 196-pound senior had his final season cut short last November, when he sustained his second concussion in three weeks and third in 13 months. He was asymptomatic within days of each concussion, but the Cardinal did not clear him to play in the Fiesta Bowl or the Senior Bowl. Since then he has been medically cleared by two doctors, including at the annual Scouting Combine in February. But that has not allayed concerns among some NFL personnel men.
"He's off our board," says one general manager. "He was from the start. It wouldn't matter if he was RG3, he'd still be off our board. With that kind of history it's not worth the risk of him being seriously injured, especially with all the attention you're going to receive. If you draft him you're going to be under the microscope the whole time. Every time he gets hit it's going to be magnified tenfold."
Owusu's combination of medical risk and athletic talent makes him the most intriguing prospect in this year's draft. He is entering the league at a time when more than 1,000 former and current players are plaintiffs in 59 lawsuits against the league -- including at least 15 class-action suits -- that claim the NFL failed to adequately treat and educate players about the possible long-term consequences of brain trauma. Just last week Ray Easterling, a safety with the Falcons in the 1970s, shot himself to death after years of struggling with depression and dementia, his wife said. Fourteen months earlier, former Bears and Giants safety Dave Duerson committed suicide, after which it was learned he was suffering from chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE), a degenerative brain disease.
It is against that backdrop that Owusu is entering the NFL. One general manager says he has third-round talent, but gave him a seventh-round grade because of the concussions. Most executives view him as a value pick, meaning he has too much talent to pass on altogether but will only use a late-round selection on him.
Two neurosurgeons and a neurological psychologist recently told SI that there is not an A+B=C formula when it comes to past concussions and susceptibility to future concussions. Factors such as severity of the blow, recovery time and frequency of incident play a role in determining the likelihood of someone being predisposed to future concussions.
"In my 40-plus years of seeing individuals with concussions, there's no question that there are some people that can be concussed with forces at a lower level than other people," says Dr. Robert Cantu, senior advisor to the NFL's Head, Neck and Spine subcommittees. "We've seen it more prominently in our boxers, in terms of the 'glass jaw' syndrome. But generally speaking in the people that I've followed, if they've been properly managed, if they've truly gotten over their concussion completely, it's not been my clinical experience that people that have had a concussion necessarily are more likely to have more of them than other people in the same sport that they're playing. I've not clinically seen it, and I believe ... much of the literature that would lead you to believe that there is an increased incidence of concussions involved improper management of concussions in the beginning and letting people go back while still symptomatic. Many people falsely think that if you've had a concussion your next one is going to be worse. That's not true."
Still, stories like that of Lions running back Jahvid Best give teams pause. In 2009, Best was held out of Cal's final four games after sustaining two concussions in as many weeks. He was drafted 30th overall the next year and reportedly did not suffer from concussions. However, last season he missed time in training camp and was lost for the season in Week 6 because of complications from concussions.
To some, the issue going forward is not whether Best will play again (he plans to), but SHOULD he play again? It sounds like a simple question, but the answer is complex because the science on brain trauma is so limited.
"Part of the problem is, because it's not like a heart attack, because it's not like a broken bone where you can see the abnormality, the data is not so clear to everybody," says Dr. Richard Ellenbogen, fellow co-chair of the Head, Neck & Spine Committee. "You and I might say, 'Boy, that doesn't make a lot of sense to go back after a third concussion.' And I might recommend that you sit out for a year. But we need more data.
"I've had a player who I sat out for an entire year. He had a terrible injury and had blood in his head and he said, 'Well, doctor, what's the data that this is dangerous for me? I said, 'There is no data. It's just my judgment.' I made him bring his mother in -- this is a professional player, 25 years old -- and I said if this were my kid I wouldn't play him. Let him sit out for a year. He sat out for a year, eventually went back and two years later he made All-Pro. Was that a success story or a failure on my part? I don't know, but the reality is he sat out the year. There are other people who told him he could go back earlier. Until we have enough of the science ... and follow these players long enough, we won't be able to fully answer the question of susceptibility to future concussions. We hope to be able to say: After your third concussion, if you have this particular finding, you're more likely than not to have a good outcome or a bad outcome. The problem is it's an art right now, not a science. We've got to develop the science that goes along with this."
To that end, Ellenbogen and others are seeking to create a national database that tracks concussions in athletes from the youth level through professional sports. There have been talks among NFL, NCAA and high school associations about joining forces to increase safety and knowledge. Ellenbogen says the Department of Defense is also trying to set up a national database to follow military personnel who have sustained brain trauma.
Owusu says he never had a concussion before his final two seasons at Stanford. A human biology major who is laying the foundation to become a physician, he says he has read a couple of articles about concussions and talked with his doctors about whether he is at greater risk by continuing to play. So far, no one has told him that.
Still, the images of him being concussed were frightening. Against Oregon State last November, his body appeared to go limp as he fell to the ground after helmet-to-helmet contact, then his muscles locked up briefly while on the turf. He was taken off the field by ambulance and was not medically cleared the rest of the season, despite being asymptomatic the next week.
"Did I put up a fight a couple of times to get back on the field? Yes, I did, because I love the game so much," says Owusu. "When you get the game taken away from you like that, it's something where it opens your eyes and it's frustrating. I respect what the coaches and the doctors and the medical staff did for me here at Stanford, I really do. They looked out for my overall well-being and did not take any chances. But could I have played? I felt that I could have. Did they do what they felt was in my best interest? In their eyes, I think they did. But it was a frustrating process."
Owusu says he watched replays of the first couple of hits that resulted in his concussions, but saw no need to view the others. The 22-year-old is bright and engaging and seemingly has everything ahead of him. So why put himself at any sort of risk? Because of his love for the game and the fact that no one has told him there is a direct correlation between past concussions and future concussions.
"I love the camaraderie and the competition," he says of football. "Maybe I'll change some things about the way I get tackled, or try to be smarter and go out of bounds."
He pauses and chuckles.
"I'm not going to go out of bounds," he continues. "That's not me. I'll probably just go down. But I love the contact. That's part of the game. If you don't like contact then you shouldn't be playing football. I just can't wait to get that big hit again, then popping back up and showing people this is me. I'm back."
The unanswerable question is, for how long?