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When the Game Goes Dark

Jaguars linebacker Russell Allen thought he had his bell rung against the Bills in Week 15 last season. He played through the injury and double vision, but two days later found out he’d suffered a stroke on the field. A dead spot in his brain means he’ll never play football again

CARLSBAD, Calif. — Russell Allen will never play football again.

The Jaguars linebacker confronted this reality last Thursday, sitting on the beige sectional in the living room of his home in San Diego’s northern suburbs. It was 9 a.m. in California and noon in Jacksonville, when his agent called with the dreadful news Allen had expected for months: The one-time rookie free agent had been cut after five NFL seasons. The Jaguars announced Allen’s release along with three other cuts, listing the official reason as a failed physical. But this was no ordinary roster move.

Coach Gus Bradley would call Allen to tell him how sorry he was—and that he would always be a Jaguar. General manager David Caldwell also would reach out to express his condolences. As the news sunk in, Allen’s wife, Ali, whispered instructions to their 2-year-old son. Parker did as he was told, running over to his father and telling him he did “a good job playing football.” Allen, 27, burst into tears.

In the back of the brain, the cerebellum tells the body how to walk, run and even crawl. It might also play a role in discerning happiness and fear, but the medical science isn’t exactly sure. What doctors are sure of, however, is that Russell has a spot on his cerebellum, no bigger than a dime, that is dead.

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It went dark on Dec. 15, 2013. Just after halftime in a Week 15 game against the Bills, Allen strafed across the hash marks in pursuit of a ballcarrier before running into center Eric Wood several yards downfield. The two collided face-to-face, dead center from Allen’s perspective, and Allen walked away buzzed as he casually shrugged his shoulders.

“It was strange because it was so routine,” Allen says. “We hit, I got off the block, no big deal. I felt something flash—like they say when you get your bell rung. I didn’t lose consciousness. I walked back to the huddle and finished the drive.”

He showed no immediate signs of being injured. One snap later he sprinted toward the right sideline as running back C.J. Spiller pulled down a swing pass. A half-step too late, Allen exalted cornerback Alan Ball for making the tackle, slapping him on the helmet and shouting, “I see you A.B.!” Two snaps later Allen dropped back in coverage on 3rd-and-seven, only to switch gears as quarterback E.J. Manuel escaped from a crumbling pocket. Allen made a solo tackle in open field, wrapping up Manuel’s ankles after a two-yard gain and forcing a punt on fourth down.

“I felt something flash—like they say when you get your bell rung. I walked back to the huddle and finished the drive.”

At some point in the second half, however, Allen began having double vision on the sideline. He went to fellow linebacker Paul Posluszny for an evaluation. “I remember him telling me to look in his eyes,” Posluszny says. “He kept asking, ‘Is my eye OK?’ I looked at him and said, ‘Yeah, it looks fine.’ I couldn’t tell the seriousness of the situation. How do you tell?”

For Allen, this is the embarrassing part. He went back in and finished the game.

Afterward, he showered with a headache, got dressed with the same headache, drove home with his wife, struggled to watch Sunday Night Football because of light sensitivity, and went to bed with the same headache. If he still had it when he woke up, he told himself, he’d inform the team. The headache persisted on Monday morning, so he told the trainers that he’d been dinged on Sunday and that for a few minutes he’d seen double on the sideline.

Big red flag.

The Jaguars’ medical staff ordered an MRI and sent Allen home after it was done. On Tuesday morning the trainer called Allen and told him to meet the team physician at the emergency room. Allen thought going to the hospital was only a matter of convenience, because the doctor might be doing rounds there. To his surprise he was told that he’d suffered a stroke during the 27-20 loss to Buffalo. Allen was admitted to the hospital and put through a battery of tests for three days while teammates visited and coach Bradley (and several assistants) called to offer encouragement.

Allen’s wife and mother couldn’t believe it. Pregnant with the couple’s second son, Ali knew the risks of professional football and had steeled herself for the day he might be lying on the field motionless, surrounded by doctors. But he’d driven home and told her he was fine. And he was always fine, having never missed a regular-season game in high school, in college at San Diego State or even in the NFL. Above all, Ali wanted to know why. His mother, Jennifer, insisted the diagnosis was made in error.

But the results were conclusive: a small portion of Allen’s brain was inactive. Doctors told Allen it could have been much worse, especially since he went back on the field and risked other jarring collisions. As it was, he had trouble holding onto dishes, breaking several—a symptom consistent with a cerebellum injury.

“If I could go back in time I would do it differently,” Allen says. “Being in it and knowing how I felt in that moment, the game feels so serious. You’re thinking, I can’t come out, because what if someone else comes in and takes my job? Or they need me out there, and I can’t come out because I really want to win. But you can’t do that, and I learned that the hard way.”

Undrafted out of San Diego State, Allen (50) caught on with the Jaguars and played in all 64 games over five seasons. (Bill Frakes/SI/The MMQB)

Bill Frakes/The MMQB

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Losing football would have destroyed Allen in college. He wasn’t allowed to start playing until he turned 14, because his father wanted his interest in the game to peak at the right time. Before then Allen played other sports as if they were football, turning baseball and soccer into contact sports whenever possible. He finally caught the football bug during sophomore year at Vista High in North San Diego County, starting at defensive end for a varsity team that would eventually win a state championship.

Thom Kaumeyer recruited Allen to play linebacker for his hometown San Diego State Aztecs, and Allen arrived on Day 1 able to clean 315 pounds while other freshmen managed about half that load. “Great student, and you couldn’t get him out of the weight room,” Kaumeyer says. “You had to tell him not to burn himself out. He was one of those kids who was really hard on himself.”

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Despite amassing 375 career tackles in four seasons, the 6-3, 235-pound Allen went undrafted in 2009. Having played four different positions for a perennial loser, he joined hundreds of other rookie free agents who often go from fringe prospects to the street in a matter of months. Allen had training camp invites from several teams, with two very enticing offers: He could stay on the West Coast and go to camp with the Chargers, or he could chase his dream with the Jaguars, who needed depth at linebacker and had a reputation for turning undrafted nobodies into game-changing contributors. Jacksonville also had the man who recruited him out of high school, Kaumeyer, as their defensive backs coach.

Allen packed his bags and stuck around in the NFL longer than anyone expected. He debuted as a backup and a special teamer, and then became a starter in 2012, leading the Jaguars with 201 combined tackles. With the arrival of yet another coaching staff in 2013, Allen became well-versed at seven positions, from stand-up defensive end to inside linebacker. When he was cut last week, three teams called his agent, Steve Caric, to gauge Allen’s interest. No one outside the Jaguars knew the extent of Allen’s injury—he finished the 2013 season on injured reserve with what was labeled a concussion.

As if coming full circle, Allen’s pro career ended much in the same way that it began.

In 2011, Allen’s third season and Posluszny’s first with Jacksonville, veteran linebacker Clint Session all but collapsed during a game against the Browns. Months later, Session revealed that he had suffered two concussions on the same day. Session trained hard the following offseason and submitted to every medical test, but he couldn’t shake the wooziness and fatigue. It was clear he’d suffered permanent damage, and he eventually retired. Allen spelled Session in that game and subsequently won the starting job.

“Historically, football is full of tough guys, and that’s how is has to be. But there’s a fine line.”

The Session incident had been eye-opening, but not enough for Posluszny to tell Allen last December, “I’m not a doctor. Go ask one.” Then again, with games and livelihoods at stake, you’d be hard-pressed to find any NFL player who is willing to alert the medical staff about a teammate who might be hiding a concussion. “I absolutely have seen guys with serious head injuries,” Allen says. “I’ve seen dozens of those situations, but I would never say something, because they’re grown men and they feel like they need to make those decisions for themselves.”

In the months after Allen’s initial stroke diagnosis, he saw three neurosurgeons. Last week one from UCSD was able to discern how the injury happened. Allen had suffered a carotid artery dissection, a tear in the layers of the artery wall that supplies oxygen to the brain—an injury that occurs in a small percentage of high-speed motor vehicle accidents. (Teddy Bruschi’s stroke in 2005 was caused by a blood clot in his heart, a congenital problem that doctors were able to fix, allowing him to return to the NFL for four more seasons.) None of the doctors Allen consulted could find a precedent for a pro football player suffering this kind of stroke. The last neurosurgeon consulted also dispensed the definitive advice that Allen never play football again.

“Historically, football is full of tough guys,” Allen says. “I have no motive to say it needs to change. For generations football has been tough guys, and that’s how it has to be. But there’s a fine line.”

Russell says he’s happy to have Parker play sports besides football, at least until high school. (Robert Beck/The MMQB)

Robert Beck/The MMQB

* * *

What Allen wants—what he needs—is to make the game better for every man he shared a locker with in Jacksonville, and every NFL player who might shake off a potential a brain injury as a routine part of the game.

“Guys talk about it all the time,” he says. “ ‘I’m all right—I just got my bell rung.’ I’ve had, maybe 10 times in my career, when for a second I felt woozy after a hit. And what I’ve learned from this is that it’s not something to be overlooked. If it feels like something’s wrong, something’s wrong. I want someone to know my experience, so they can know when they experience something similar.”

Russell and Ali are already thinking about Parker, whose toys sprawl across the living room into the kitchen. He has a kid-size soccer set, a plastic basketball hoop, a plush toy football and the real thing—a K-ball salvaged from one of his father’s games. Will Parker play football when he’s older? At least not until high school, Russell says, and no matter what, he’ll know exactly what happened to his dad in December 2013.

“We want to make sure he’s not like, ‘Daddy played football, so I’m going to play football,’ ” Ali says. “We’re so grateful to have the perspective we have now.”

But dissuading Parker from playing will be especially difficult considering Russell’s next step; he hopes to stay in the San Diego area and coach high school football. He wants to help students get their priorities in line sooner than he did. It wasn't until 2008, when he and Ali became friendly with new neighbors Robert Herber, a pastor, and his wife Stefanie, that football started taking a back seat to faith and family. The couple had moved from Texas to San Diego to start the All Peoples Church, and Herber conducted Russell and Ali’s marriage ceremony in March 2010. “God changed our life through those people. It started to sink in for me what it was all about,” Allen says. “I feel like high school is such an important time for kids to learn what football is about. You play the game because you love it, and you want to honor it. You treat people with respect and do things the right way, and you keep it in perspective, keeping family and faith up front. Those were lessons I learned down the road. I didn’t always have that perspective. I learned my lesson.”

“What I’ve learned from this is that it’s not something to be overlooked. If it feels like something’s wrong, something’s wrong.”

Meanwhile in Jacksonville, Posluszny arrived for voluntary offseason workouts on Monday morning, finding Allen’s locker cleared out and ready for the next nobody to make a name for himself, however brief his time in the spotlight. The future is uncertain for Allen, who will be on blood-thinning medication for the rest of his life. He still exhibits coordination problems, struggling to pick up and grip handheld objects, though doctors say these difficulties should subside over time. What they don’t know is how a man with a dead spot in his brain will react to another concussion, even if it occurs away from the field.

For now, Allen simply plans to buy an NFL Sunday television package to catch Jags games next season. But how can he watch a game, he wonders, without analyzing every snap as if he’s still in film sessions? He finds comfort in the support of his now-former teammates, and in the Jaguars’ organization. In his months of worry, the NFL had proven itself the opposite of the cutthroat business he’d heard about and occasionally seen first-hand. The messages from coach Gus Bradley and GM David Caldwell were especially uplifting.

“It gave me closure,” Allen says. “Gus said I’d always be a part of this, no matter what. Dave said I could come back to Jacksonville whenever I wanted. Now I think I can watch again.”

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