‘Like someone shooting a shotgun next to my ear, every second of every day’—that’s how the former NFL quarterback describes the effects of the concussions he suffered during his six seasons in the league. How do you face a challenge like that and move on?
On Sept. 14, 2014, Kevin Kolb was vacationing in Cabo San Lucas, Mexico, when Hurricane Odile came straight at the Hilton where he, his wife, Whitney, and friends were staying. Here are the former quarterback’s thoughts on the experience, as recounted to SI’s Andrew Perloff, and how it relates to his adjustment to life after football.
BY KEVIN KOLB
I was afraid when the hurricane struck. There is no doubt about that. But I also had a sense of calm. I consider myself a man who has faith. The events that brought me down to Cabo in the first place—the challenges I deal with every day from the effects of the concussions that drove me from the game—were a big reason why my faith had never been stronger and why I was able to ride out that terrible night.
People have asked why we didn’t leave before the hurricane hit. We tried to move up our flight to get out, but there were no seats available—everyone else on the Baja peninsula was trying to do the same thing. But locals didn’t seem overly concerned. They said they get these kinds of storms all the time. All we’d get is some rain and strong winds. They said we’d sleep right through it.
During the day the weather wasn’t bad—we actually went shopping downtown. But it became clear that the storm was not going to turn away as evening approached. That night the hotel served dinner for all the guests, and we returned to the room at 9 p.m. Soon the wind started to have a dramatic impact. It was howling loudly, and you could see the glass of the windows flexing quite a bit. At that point Whitney and I moved into the bathroom. We took the box spring and the mattress and tried to fortify the bathroom the best we could.
At 10:30 the storm reached another level. The sound became a roar I had never heard before. It was so loud we didn’t hear the windows shatter. We could hear shingles and outdoor furniture flying around and colliding into things. It became apparent the building was struggling to stay intact.
Since we were in the bathroom, we couldn’t see what was going on. Your mind starts racing at every noise you hear. I didn’t know if the bathroom was going to hold up. It dawned on me that people were probably trying to reach us and worried about us. But there was nothing I could do. We were truly powerless. My wife and I got in the bathtub and prayed out loud with one another. I told my wife to hunker down under the mattress and just close her eyes. It was the first time I actually thought I might die.
* * *
We decided to go to Cabo because this was the first summer I hadn’t been in some form of training camp since I was a little kid. My dad was a coach, and football had always dominated my life.
I miss playing, but at first the hardest part was not having the routine. It was such a central part of how I’ve lived my life. But all that was shattered when I suffered my last concussion on my 29th birthday, in a preseason game for the Bills on Aug. 24, 2013.
My first concussion came right after I took over as the Eagles’ starter, on opening day in 2010, on a Clay Matthews sack. I suffered two more concussions and a very serious rib injury when I was with Arizona in 2012.
The thing about the last concussion, with Buffalo ... I didn’t think it could possibly be serious. The Redskins defender just ran by me at the end of a routine scramble and caught my helmet with his knee. I went numb from my neck down for about three seconds, but I stayed in the game. I didn’t know what it was or how serious it would turn out to be. It couldn’t be happening again.
“I had taken every possible step to fend off concussion. None of it mattered.”
But when I got to the sideline and the adrenaline wore off, I knew. The symptoms came rushing in, the pain, the noise, the queasiness. I had taken every possible step to fend off concussion—a new helmet, staying in the best shape possible, trying to play smart. None of it mattered. I went into the locker room and called my wife. She said, you can be a tough guy and try to keep on playing ... but that was it. I knew God had a plan for me, and playing football wasn’t part of it anymore.
With concussions, sometimes you don’t know what is a symptom and what is not. But some symptoms are impossible to ignore. The ringing is like someone shooting a shotgun right next to my ear, every second of every day. It doesn’t go away.
The sensitivity to light also has a profound impact. I’ll be in a business meeting indoors and have to politely ask to put on my sunglasses before the headaches and double vision start.
But I can deal with those symptoms. The short-term memory loss is more difficult. Sometimes I don’t know if I’m just busy with a very full schedule and that’s why I can’t remember everything, or if it’s a concussion symptom.
Even with these issues, which I know I will have my whole life, I can truly say my life after football doesn’t feel incomplete. That starts with my relationship with God. I believe there’s a purpose to everything that has happened to me. And I’ve gotten ample evidence of that throughout the course of the first year in my life without football. Just when things could have gotten tough, I had to dig deep and ask, OK, where is He taking me now? So many good things have happened to me, it’s impossible for me not to think I’m taken care of.
I love to fish, hunt and play golf. When I retired I thought I’d be in paradise since I could do those activities every day. You quickly realize that’s not paradise.
But even when I was playing I started investing in and studying energy resources. A good friend and I started a company called MK Transfer. We supply piping and mechanisms for water-displacement mining. It has quickly developed into a very full-time job, and we’re growing fast. Of course, the business world is different from the football field, but it allows me to scratch that competitive itch that never goes away.
On a day-to-day basis, I have to respect the concussion symptoms. That means getting a good night’s sleep every night. If I don’t get a good night’s rest, I feel the impact the next day. These are challenges, but they’re ones I can always handle if my head and my heart are in the right place.
* * *
In Mexico, during the most intense period of the storm, I looked down at my phone and somehow knew if we could just make it until 11:15 we would be OK. The most intense period of the storm felt like it lasted forever. But then, sure enough, at just about 11:15 things started to calm a little. We knew we were through the worst of it that night.
After the storm passed the difficulties were far from over. We emerged from the bathroom to find glass everywhere, and the room door had actually been sucked through its frame several inches. It took me and four hotel employees to pull it open so we could get out. Later that night we found ourselves in a ballroom with all the other guests in stifling heat, not knowing what the next few days would bring.
The day after, we walked around the area and witnessed true devastation. The hotel had lost power. Would food spoil? What about water? What about looting? It was very unsettled situation that felt almost as dangerous as the storm.
We spent the next three days in Cabo waiting to find some way out. The staff at the Hilton was incredible, and they were able to procure enough diesel fuel to provide limited periods of electricity. Finally on Sept. 17, three days after the storm, an opportunity arose to get on a military plane leaving from the Cabo Airport, and we didn’t hesitate.
We were lucky. But we were also disappointed that America seemed completely oblivious to what happened just south of its border. There was no American presence there whatsoever after the storm. There are so many displaced families and people who lost their livelihoods. I have so much gratitude for the hotel employees who helped keep a potentially disastrous situation under control, and I’m happy Hilton has stepped up and made sure those staffers would be taken care of. For me, it was a wake-up call for how important international aid is and the responsibly we have as a country.
On a personal note, it was another example of the power of faith in my life. I may not be playing football, but I have my family, I’m doing something I love, and I know deep in my heart that I’m taken care of, no matter how strong the storm is outside.
Kevin Kolb played six seasons with the Eagles and Cardinals. He retired in 2013 and lives in Granbury, Texas.
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