Su’a Cravens peeks at his rear view mirror. The car behind him looks familiar. It was behind him when he was waiting to pull out of the grocery store parking lot. It looks a lot like the car that was behind him yesterday. A minute later, it's still there. That is the same car as yesterday... isn’t it?
He takes a right and glances at the mirror again. That car is still there. His chest tightens, he grips the wheel tighter, palms sweating. His mind goes to the wave of hate enveloping his social media accounts. Get rid of that p---- a-- b----… F--- him. He bailed out. F--- Su’a … Quit being a b---- this is the NFL … What a p----, trade him … Get the f--- out … He’s in the heart of Redskins country, and he’s an enemy.
Another quarter-mile down the road, he checks. The car is still there, but ... now it’s following closer. Much closer. Too close. Now he’s sure: I’m being followed. His thoughts turn to the gun he’s carried with him everywhere for weeks. He takes a right turn down an unfamiliar street. He looks back. The car keeps going straight. It was nothing, just like last time. He'll find a new way home again.
Looking back now, Cravens can see it was all in his head. He’s been cleared of the post-concussion syndrome that was responsible for the paranoia, anxiety and panic attacks that he says, in part, led him to consider walking away from football. But the damage to his reputation is real. So is the lost season of a playoff hopeful team that was counting on him to take the next step, a team that seemingly hasn’t forgiven him for leaving.
The Case of Su’a Cravens is about an organization’s indifference to a player’s health. Or it’s about personal responsibility, a young man who didn’t fully commit to a team and a sport that demands nothing less. Or it’s about the NFL’s need to update arcane policies and fix a broken culture that allows players suffering from mental health or long-term concussion issues to slip through the cracks. Most likely, it’s about all three.
In the fourth game of his NFL career, Cravens dropped into his area in Cover-3, recognized a checkdown and transitioned downhill. As he tried to make the play on Cleveland’s Isaiah Crowell, the running back’s knee drove square into the emblem on the right side of the rookie’s helmet. Crowell slipped the tackle as Cravens blacked out.
He had two previous concussions in his football career, one in high school and one in college, but never one like this one, where he lost consciousness. He walked off the field on his own, but doesn’t remember doing so. His first memory is being in the training room a few minutes after he’d left the field.
Cravens sat out the next two games as he went through the NFL’s concussion protocol. While in the protocol, he had common concussion symptoms—headaches, dizziness, blurred double vision, and trouble focusing his eyes and coordinating them to track moving objects. He started wearing prescription glasses to help correct the vision issues. One teammate says the concussion drove Cravens “mentally crazy,” because he was just 21 years old and he didn’t know how to handle the injury with his desire to get back on the field. At the team facility, he frequently wore sunglasses and kept his hoodie up.
His symptoms improved and Cravens returned to play in Week 7, having passed the NFL’s return to participation protocol, a five-step treatment process that includes the imPACT test, a computer-based cognitive test that is used to compare a player’s post-injury results to his baseline results. He was seen and cleared by an independent neurologist who is not affiliated with the team, as the protocol requires.
“I got treated so I’m thinking, ‘O.K., I must be fine, I passed the imPACT test,’ ” Cravens says. And on Sundays, he was fine. But off the field, he says, seemingly mundane occurrences were triggering panic attacks. When he was alone at home, he felt depressed, hopeless and afraid. He still struggled with his vision, so much so that he got his car windows tinted because of his sensitivity to sunlight. “When personal struggles came up, I couldn’t deal with them the same way,” Cravens says. “I thought maybe it was just because I was homesick. I’d never lived anywhere but California. Maybe this is just what comes with rookie year?”
He convinced himself his feelings were normal for a 21-year-old adjusting to life in the NFL. His performance as a rookie was up-and-down, but plenty promising. Washington saw him as their version of Arizona’s Deone Bucannon or Mark Barron of the Rams, a collegiate safety with the potential to become an athletic, hybrid linebacker to counter the NFL’s increasingly pass-happy offenses. He was still more comfortable at safety, but the potential was there. “I was all-in,” Cravens says. “I wanted to be the next star on defense for the Redskins.”
That was first called into question late that season. During the opening drive of a Week 14 game at Philadelphia, Cravens shed a block and used his right arm to trip up Eagles running back Ryan Mathews on a second-down run. He signaled to the bench with his left hand and then made his way to the sideline with an injured right biceps. He missed the rest of that game, but Washington staged a comeback win without him. They were 7-5-1 on the season, in prime position to capture an NFC wild-card spot.
The team originally feared Cravens had suffered a tear, but MRI results showed he did not need surgery. In his press conference the Monday after the Eagles game, Jay Gruden called the injury, “a moderate elbow sprain” and said the rookie was day-to-day. (Through a team spokesperson, Gruden declined to comment for this story.) Instead, Cravens missed the next two games, which Washington split. The team needed a Week 17 victory to keep its playoff hopes alive.
Many inside the building thought Cravens would be ready for the regular-season finale. The team wanted the rookie to get his arm drained to help reduce swelling and move the recovery along, but Cravens was hesitant to get the procedure to the point where he sought out a second opinion. Teammates wondered why he wasn’t pushing through the injury. Making matters worse, there were reports that Cravens was spotted playing ping-pong at the team facility. (Peter Schaffer, who Cravens hired as his agent last March, says those reports were fabricated and that Cravens doesn’t play ping-pong.)
DeAngelo Hall, a locker-room leader and team captain who retired after last season, remembers talking to trainers and Cravens about the rookie’s unexpectedly long absence. He says he told Cravens, “If I can drain this joint to get it done? I’m gonna drain this joint.’ And he’s like, ‘Well, if we make the playoffs, I’ll drain it.’ And we were like, ‘Dog, we need you to MAKE the playoffs.’ ”
“Guys were talking in the locker room, Just get it drained,” says Chris Baker, a defensive tackle on that 2016 team who’s now with the Bengals. “Guys were worried, like, What's going on?”
While he didn’t witness it, Joe Barry, the team’s defensive coordinator that season and now linebackers coach and assistant head coach with the Rams, says that there was a “major altercation” between Cravens and the “powers that be.”
“Everyone in the building heard about it,” Barry says. “They said, Listen, this isn’t a major injury, it’s a bruise, it’s an issue, we can give you a shot to help you with the pain but this shouldn’t be a major deal that you should miss time with. You’re fine. Su’a took offense to that... He got pissed and left.”
The MMQB’s Albert Breer reported that Cravens missed a treatment that week, and The Washington Post reported that Cravens did not report to the facility for three days. Linebacker Will Compton, a team captain that season who signed with the Titans this past offseason, says that Cravens “went AWOL for like, four days.” Teammates and coaches say no one could reach him by call or text, including Compton, who had been spending more time than usual with Cravens because he was also injured in the Philadelphia game. “He didn’t answer texts from coaches, teammates, player development, nobody,” Compton says. “Everybody tried getting to him.”
Through agent Peter Schaffer, Cravens denies the account that he went AWOL. Schaffer, who didn’t represent Cravens at the time, says that his client only missed an off-day, not any mandatory meetings, practices or treatments.
Cravens did not have his arm drained and did not play in the finale. The Redskins lost, at home, to a Giants team that had already clinched playoff seeding, 19-10. The backlash against Cravens swelled.
“The team tried to say that my injury wasn’t as bad as it was and they told newspapers that I decided to sit out the game on my own,” Cravens says. “It never felt like they wanted me there. They always tried to treat me like I was faking my injuries or something.”
“No one thought he was faking an injury,” says Compton. “I like Su’a a lot, he means well. He said he tore his bicep. Well, it comes back that he sprained his elbow. He had four weeks to get back from a sprained elbow. Guys are out there playing with stuff on their elbow all the time. He didn’t make the effort.”
After the elbow injury, Barry says he met with Gruden to discuss Cravens’s future, and the coaches agreed the best thing for Cravens would be a switch to safety full-time. So at the end of the 2016 season, Cravens started attending defensive back meetings to get a head start on the position switch for the next season.
In January 2017, Cravens met with Gruden to discuss conflicting feelings toward the organization. He was angry that the team doubted the severity of his injury. He opened up to Gruden about his paranoia and depression, which at the time he thought were “personal battles.” He says he wondered whether or not he wanted to keep playing football. Cravens says Gruden listened and assured him he’d be fine.
That offseason, Cravens spent time back home in L.A. and says it didn’t take long for his family and friends to notice a change. Normally charismatic and outgoing, Cravens withdrew from friends and family and became much more serious and easy to anger. “They were telling me, ‘You’re acting completely different. You’re attacking the people that love you, what’s wrong with you?’ ”
Just before leaving for training camp last year, Cravens caught up with his cousin Jordan Cameron, the former Dolphins and Browns tight end. Cameron had just retired from the NFL that spring because he’d suffered four concussions in six seasons and didn’t want to risk further brain trauma. Cravens confided in Cameron that he wasn’t feeling right and, to his surprise, Cameron said he’d also had anxiety and depression after a concussion. Cravens says it was Cameron who first suggested he visit Micky Collins, director of the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center’s sports medicine concussion program. Collins had helped Cameron recover from the same symptoms Cravens hadn’t been able to overcome. Cravens was intrigued, but with training camp starting, he didn’t have time to set up an appointment in Pittsburgh.
During that camp, Cravens’s personal life and career started to unravel. A serious incident involving his family was weighing on him. (The MMQB learned details from two independent sources outside of the organization—Cravens believes the team intentionally leaked the information—but Cravens would not confirm any details or provide any information on the incident, other than to say it involved his father and deeply affected him. “It’s just very, very confidential what happened,” he says.)
He twice met with Gruden to talk about where his head was at. He cried as he explained that he was having a hard time making football his main priority when his family needed him back home in L.A. Cravens says Gruden again told him to fight through it. Cravens says the coach asked him, “What are you going to do outside of football to make money? Your family depends on you, you need to take care of your family financially right now.”
Both times he met with Gruden, Cravens ended up agreeing with his coach, and left the meetings determined to keep going. “I would just bottle all those feelings up again until they would build up” he says. In an attempt to make things better, his family moved out to the East coast to alleviate his homesickness. It wasn’t enough.
Cravens tore his meniscus in his right knee during the first preseason game and had surgery soon after. While he was rehabbing with the hopes to be ready for Week 1, he says he had a different schedule from the rest of the team. On Saturday, Sept. 2, Cravens says he reported at 8 a.m. for rehab and his own workout. The rest of the team had a workout scheduled for 1:30 p.m. Cravens left the facility before then because he didn’t think he was expected to attend the team workout. At 1:30 p.m., he says he received an angry text from Paul Kelly, Washington’s director of football operations, letting him know he would be fined for missing the workout. “He texted me, Who do you think you are, you think you can miss team stuff whenever you want to?” Cravens says. “Belittling me through a text message. That pushed me over the edge.”
He texted head strength coach Chad Englehart, who was running the 1:30 workout. You got PK texting my phone, this is stuff I gotta deal with? I’m tired of this. Hours later he was still fuming. He sent a series of messages to the defensive backs group text.
Star cornerback Josh Norman was hosting players and team staff for a housewarming party that night. Cravens was invited but didn’t attend. Most of the DBs were there, and their phones went off simultaneously with the texts from Cravens.
According to multiple people who received or saw the texts, Cravens called out individual players and thanked them for their specific impact on him. “I told them I was about to retire,” Cravens says. “I said, I’m ready to deal with my personal issues and my family issues. Good luck this year, y’all are going to ball out.” Cravens then removed himself from the group text, which most interpreted as a sign of finality.
Says Hall: “We were all like, ‘Whoa, is this a joke? This has to to be a joke.’ ”
Cravens also texted director of player development Malcolm Blacken and Englehart, thanking each of them and their wives for their support through his struggles with homesickness, depression, anxiety and injuries.
The messages to the defensive backs were quickly passed around the party. Many were furious. In their eyes, Cravens was abandoning them at the worst possible time, hours after the team had finalized the 53-man roster with the league office. Cuts were official; there was no going back. Team president Bruce Allen was at Norman’s party and alerted other team execs of Cravens’s texts. (Through a team spokesperson, Allen declined to comment for this story.)
Cravens and agent Peter Schaffer are careful to make the distinction that Cravens didn’t actually say he had retired in the group text, but that he was thinking about retiring. He did not file any paperwork with the league, or put out a press release or alert the public in any way. But players who received the texts recall how they were interpreted. “Oh, the text was definitely, ‘I’m retiring,’ ” says Hall. “There was no, ‘I think.’ It was not, ‘Hey, I think I might be done guys…’ No. It was, ‘I’m done.’ ”
That night and the following morning, the front office scrambled to figure out what to do now that a starter was leaving after they’d submitted their final roster. The next day, Sunday, Cravens came to the facility to talk to coaches and execs.
Over the course of a 30-minute meeting, Cravens says he explained to Gruden and Allen how he felt overwhelmed by anxiety and paranoia, and how that, in light of that family issue, football was not his main concern. He trusted them enough to tell them the details of the extremely personal matter involving his father—he was promised it would stay a secret. According to two independent sources, Cravens also said that he wanted to work a job with less pressure and had a specific occupation in mind: selling real estate in L.A.
Cravens says he was told he was a valuable part of the team and that they wanted to get to the bottom of his issues. He says they suggested he see a doctor, and he told them he wanted to see Collins. Team doctor Anthony Casalaro referred him for an appointment in Pittsburgh with Collins, and Gruden told Cravens he had 30 days to figure out whether he wanted to rejoin the team and play that season. If Cravens didn’t return to the team within 30 days then they would put him on the reserve/left squad list, which would amount to a suspension—without pay—for the entirety of the season. Essentially, the team would give him time to consider his future, as well as a chance to consult with Collins.
That “30-day grace period” was actually a rarely used roster exemption. When a player leaves the team after the roster cut-down to 53 players, as Cravens did, the team can request a roster exemption from the NFL that will last up to four regular season games. During that time, Cravens would not count against the 53-man roster limit. If granted the exemption, the team is required to notify the player first with a “five-day letter.” According to Cravens, on the same day of this meeting with Gruden and the front office, he received the five-day letter from the team, which stated that Cravens had left camp without permission, and if he did not return within five days he could be placed on the reserve/left squad category for the rest of the year. According to an explanation an NFL spokesperson gave to The Washington Times, the team could lift the roster exemption at any time within the grace period to activate the player, trade the player, release the player, or—if the five days have passed—place the player on reserve/left squad.
Cravens says he did not receive the full explanation of his exempt/left squad designation, and came away thinking that Gruden and Allen had been generous in granting him time to get his mind and body right. He left the meeting feeling relieved. But a source familiar with the meeting says Cravens and his agent at the time, Fadde Mikhail, were fully briefed on the meaning of the five-day letter and the consequences involved. (Mikhail declined a request for comment.)
In a press conference the next day, Gruden made no mention of the fact the team could place Cravens on reserve/left squad any time after the five days were up, and again referred to Cravens’s exempt designation as a kind of olive branch between the team and the player. “He’s got four weeks really to try to get his life in order on and off the field and figure out where his priorities are and what he wants to do,” Gruden told the press. In actuality, Cravens had much less time than that.
When Cravens sat down with Collins on Sept. 13, everything he’d been struggling with finally made sense. He says Collins told him that there are six different types of concussion symptoms: cognitive/fatigue, vestibular, ocular, post-traumatic migraine, cervical, and anxiety/mood. Some patients have just one of the six of the profiles, some have all six. In Cravens’s case, he presented at least three of the six subtypes: ocular, migraines, and anxiety and mood problems.
After Cravens’s visit, he says Collins sent a diagnosis letter to the team that summed up his impression of Cravens. Collins would neither share nor confirm any details regarding Cravens’s diagnosis, answering only general questions about post-concussion syndrome and its symptoms. But Peter Schaffer, with Cravens’s approval, read a portion of Collins’s report: “Su’a Cravens is experiencing lingering symptoms from a cerebral concussion sustained in Week 3 of the 2016 NFL season… He continues to report symptoms consistent with a concussion including mental fogginess, headache, ocular fatigue, focus problems, anxiety, stress, panic, irritability, anger, depression and delayed sleep onset… It is my opinion that participation in contact football is currently contradictive for Su’a Cravens.” Schaffer and Cravens say Collins did not clear Cravens for football activity.
Every Washington player goes through three physical exams from the conclusion of one season to the start of the next: one in January, and another at the start of the offseason program in April. The third, which was done in June 2017 by an independent physician, includes neuropsychological testing. At each physical, players are given a checklist and asked to report any and all symptoms. Cravens passed all three team physicals before Collins’s diagnosis of post-concussion syndrome. Citing HIPAA, the team would not confirm that they received Cravens’s diagnosis from Collins. Cravens says he confided in Gruden and Allen about his personal battles with mental health issues, and claims he did tell trainers about his mental health symptoms after his concussion, though he does not remember a specific instance of telling medical staff. Citing HIPAA, the team would not discuss any conversations Cravens had with team medical staff, or any conversations he had with team officials concerning his mental health.
After the Sept. 13 appointment, Collins sent Cravens off with a folder full of rehab exercises to complete as daily homework before his next visit in a few weeks. Computer exercises to help his eyes coordinate together, playing basketball to help his dizziness with change of direction movement, and the requirement to do something in a large group of people at least once a day, to help with his anxiety. On Sept. 14, the team sent a letter to Mikhail, putting him on notice that Cravens’s 2017 contract guarantees would be voided. Cravens flew from UPMC in Pittsburgh straight to L.A., where he grew up and played at USC. The Trojans had a home game that Saturday; Washington was in town to play the Rams on Sunday.
Cravens got a sideline pass to his alma mater’s game and ran into Doug Williams, Washington’s senior VP of player personnel, who was at the Coliseum to scout college players. Both men say that they had a conversation that day, but their recollections of what was said differ.
Cravens says he told Williams about his recent diagnosis of post-concussion syndrome. He said that whenever Collins cleared him to return to football, he’d be all-in again. Cravens says he also told Williams that he planned to report Tuesday, the team’s first day back after the Rams game. “I thought everything was squared away,” Cravens says. “Doug told me, ‘I understand, it’s unfortunate that you got this news, but everything is going to work out, we are going to take care of you.’ So from that point on, I’m thinking it’s all good.”
Williams says Cravens never mentioned anything about his diagnosis or plans to come back to the team on Tuesday. “I asked him how he was doing and he told me he was getting better,” Williams says. “I said, O.K., take care of yourself. He said, I just gotta get my family and everything straightened up and I’m gonna be all right. But there was no conversation on what his condition was or him returning or anything like that.”
That same Saturday, Mikhail, who is based in L.A., met with Eric Schaffer, Washington’s Senior VP of Football Operations and General Counsel, to let him know that Cravens would be coming back to the facility that Tuesday. Cravens says he was aware his agent was meeting with Eric Schaffer that weekend. NFL Network’s Ian Rapoport and Mike Florio of Pro Football Talk reported that Cravens was expected to report to the team that Tuesday. A team source says Mikhail did not say that Cravens wanted to return to play football, but that he was going to come back to have a conversation with the team.
Cravens did not return to the Coliseum on Sunday for the Rams game—perhaps a misstep considering his standing with the team. “I was never told to come to the game,” Cravens says. “From my understanding I had 30 days away from the team.” He was still convinced that he and the team were on the same page in regards to his return. On Monday, the team placed him on the reserve/left squad list, ending his season, and preventing him from collecting any of his 2017 salary.
“I was blindsided,” Cravens says. “They were completely aware that I was reporting back and then they put me on the list Monday night before I could get back because they knew I was coming back on Tuesday.”
A team source says Cravens was placed on left squad because nothing he said in L.A., or at any point since the retirement text, led them to believe he had any intention of playing football for the team again.
At 4 p.m. that day, the team released a statement on Cravens, including some advice: “We sincerely hope that Su’a uses this time away from the club to reflect upon whether or not he'd like to resume his career in the National Football League in 2018.”
On the morning of Tuesday, Sept. 19, Cravens decided to report to the team facility in Ashburn, Va., as he had planned, anyway. When he tried his key fob at the door of the facility, it no longer worked. He tried again, nothing. He was locked out.
“I’m banging on the door for like 20 minutes before somebody that wasn’t aware of the situation let me in like, Oh, hey Su’a, whats up?”
Once inside the building, Cravens went to Gruden’s office to report. “I told him I was ready to report and he says, Report for what? You left the team, you’re off the team,” Cravens says.
Cravens says that Kelly then pulled him into a meeting with Eric Schaffer. “Eric tells me, ‘You’re on the exempt list because you left the team. You sprung this on us. We’re not screwing you over, we’re doing what is best for both parties,’ ” Cravens says. “And then I get escorted out like I broke into the building, like I’m just some regular dude who snuck onto the Redskins' facility.” Eric Schaffer declined to comment.
Soon after Cravens was placed on reserve/left squad, Mikhail filed a non-injury grievance against the team for inappropriate placement on a list. In the written grievance, he argued that the team knew Cravens was going to report back when they put him on the left squad, and that the team also knew he had a diagnosis of post-concussion syndrome, a football injury. At risk was Cravens’s $651,408 base salary for the 2017 season. After Mikhail filed the grievance, Washington requested 25% (covering one year of his four-year contract) of Cravens’s signing bonus that they paid him his rookie year. Cravens has not yet been forced to pay that back.
Once an agent files a written non-injury grievance to the NFL’s management council, the NFLPA works with the council to schedule a hearing date. The length of the total grievance process varies, depending on where the case sits on the waiting list and because some special cases filed as expedited grievances take priority over others. Typically, an arbitrator is selected by the NFL and the NFLPA from a panel of four, and the arbitrator will normally issue a ruling 30 days after the submission of all the briefs. Cravens’s grievance lay dormant through the 2017 season and still has not landed a hearing date. One of the three regular arbitrators took medical leave and his absence created a backlog of cases with one less arbitrator to hear them.
Because the case is still open, the NFLPA will not comment on the grievance. When Cravens hired Peter Schaffer as his agent in March, Schaffer revived the effort and is currently pushing to land a date for the hearing. Schaffer says that Collins will testify in the hearing. “In the NFL if you suffer a football-related injury, the team is required to pay your salary,” Schaffer says. “As long as it is football-related then you are entitled to your compensation. If you get hurt doing your job, why should you take a pay cut?” Schaffer also has another grievance pending against Washington: Former general manager Scot McCloughan, over the terms of his dismissal.
It’s rare for a player to land on injured reserve for a concussion problem still lingering from the previous season, but not unprecedented. In 2012, the Detroit Lions placed running back Jahvid Best on PUP to start the season and later moved him to IR because he was still recovering from two concussions suffered during the 2011 season. However, unlike Cravens, Best was placed on IR after the second concussion, in November 2011, and did not return to play after that injury. As a rookie, Cravens played seven games after returning from his concussion, and played in the 2017 preseason opener.
Terry Glenn’s 2001 grievance against the New England Patriots bares resemblance to Cravens’s situation. Glenn walked out of training camp on Aug. 3, 2001, when he found out that he would be suspended four games for violating the league’s substance-abuse policy. The team sent Glenn a five-day letter saying it could suspend him after a fifth day of unexcused absences. But the Patriots did not suspend Glenn immediately following the fifth day; instead the team waited until Aug. 16 to place him on the reserve/left squad list. Glenn’s agent, James Gould, told The New York Times that he was trying to arrange a meeting with the Patriots when he was notified that Glenn had been placed on the left squad list. Gould filed a grievance against the Patriots and won. Glenn’s season-long suspension was overturned on Sept. 12, just a month after the Patriots placed him on the left squad list. According to the Telegram & Gazette (Worcester, Mass.), arbitrator Richard Bloch based his decision solely on the timeframe in which Glenn was placed on the left squad. He felt Glenn should have been given more warning. The NFLPA’s lawyer representing Glenn argued that, “The Patriots had an obligation to impose a new deadline after no action was taken immediately after the fifth day.”
This same logic that won Glenn’s case could apply to Cravens’s case. Just like Glenn’s agent was trying to set up a meeting with the Patriots, Mikhail told Eric Schaffer that Cravens would be at the facility, and the day before he came back the team put him on the left squad list. Additionally, the team sent him the five-day letter on Sept. 3 and did not suspend him until Sept. 18, ten days past the first day on which they could have taken action. The difference with Glenn’s case is that he was not injured. He was able to play immediately, so his grievance might have been expedited.
Cravens wanted to go home to L.A. after he was placed on the left squad list and no longer allowed inside the team facility, but says Mikhail advised him to stay in Virginia because if he left the area, that would only feed into the narrative that he quit on the team. So Cravens reluctantly stayed in Virginia and drove past the facility every day. After several uncomfortable encounters with aggressive fans who recognized him—from “quitter” to racial slurs, he says—he began to dread going out in public. “At this point, I’m like, I hate this place,” Cravens says. “I want to go home but I can’t go home. I was stuck in the twilight zone.”
Although he was geographically close to the team facility, Cravens existed in isolation from the team. Besides a handful of teammates who checked in with him, he says that no one else from the organization ever reached out to him. He says he heard nothing from Gruden, Williams, Allen, Kelly or Eric Schaffer. Because he was not allowed in the building, he was cut off from continuing his meniscus rehab with team trainers. Cravens and Peter Schaffer say that because he was on the left squad list, he was also cut off from accessing his NFL insurance and had to file through worker’s comp coverage. Cravens paid out of his own pocket for his flights and hotels when he went to see Collins. Per the CBA, players are permitted to seek second opinions and teams will cover the expenses for those second opinions, but the specific rules on whether that coverage remains in effect while a player is on the left squad list could not be determined. (An NFL spokesperson did not respond to multiple requests for clarification.) When a player is suspended for substance abuse and is in stage three of the league’s substance abuse program (multiple violations), he is banished from the facility except for established treatment appointments, but is allowed to have bi-weekly telephone contact with the club’s director of player engagement.
A source familiar with the situation says the team believed they were not allowed to contact Cravens because of his left squad designation, but that they made sure to provide him with contact info for the team doctors if he ever needed help. (An NFL spokesperson did not reply to multiple messages requesting clarification on whether the team was allowed to make contact with Cravens.)
There is a history with Cravens. Last September, several media outlets reported details of an incident at USC in which Cravens allegedly left the team. Going into his sophomore year, a new coaching staff had switched him to a hybrid safety/linebacker position. He’d been a Freshman All-America at safety his first year on campus and was resistant to the position switch. He missed a practice or two and told teammates he was quitting. Cravens admits he did pack his bags, but says it was because he told coaches he would transfer if they switched his position and he was exploring his options to play for a different program, not because he quit on the team and just didn’t show up.
Josh Shaw, a Bengals cornerback who was a teammate of Cravens’s at USC, says it was serious enough that Cravens had to petition USC football’s leadership committee—a group of select players from each class—in order to be allowed to rejoin the team. Shaw says he remembers Cravens missing a few practices during fall camp, after which he apologized to the team. “He manned up, he realized that we were his brothers,” says Shaw. “Nobody really second-guessed it, we understood at the time that he was going through something. Su’a was a dog. In between the white lines, you knew he was going to give everything he had.”
Keith Heyward was USC’s defensive backs coach at the time, and he says he doesn’t remember Cravens trying to quit, but that he was benched during a practice for being pouty and having a bad attitude about the position switch. He says Cravens’s parents came to campus to meet with coaching staff to discuss the switch to linebacker. In the end, it worked out. Playing the new position as a sophomore and junior, Cravens earned first-team All-Pac-12 honors both years.
Barry, Washington’s defensive coordinator in 2016, is a USC grad who coached linebackers at his alma mater in 2010, and knew Cravens as an area recruit. He was a big advocate for drafting him in Washington, but he never heard about the drama at USC.
“I’m not saying we wouldn’t have drafted Su’a,” Barry says. “But I think when he had his rookie issues, if we would have known he had similar issues in the past, I think it would have helped us deal with it better or differently. I was, quite frankly, pissed that the people I know at SC had never shared that with me during the information gathering process.”
Williams says he was aware of the episode at USC when they drafted Cravens in the second round in 2016. “Young kids all over the country make mistakes all the time,” he says.
Cravens switched to safety full-time going into last year’s training camp, but teammates were surprised to find he still wasn’t happy. Safety D.J. Swearinger, in his first season in Washington, says he heard Cravens say he was done playing during one of the tough days of training camp. “I remember him saying he wasn’t motivated, nothing motivated him about football,” Swearinger says. “You could tell he didn’t want to be out there.”
Compton was mic’ed up by NBC Sports Washington one day during training camp, and NBC’s cameras and microphones caught a conversation with Cravens during practice in which Compton questioned him about that motivation and why he was out there grinding through camp. The video was circulated widely on social media after Cravens left the team. Compton says he was prompted to ask Cravens about his motivation because Cravens told him he was going to quit earlier in practice that day. “He said, ‘Yo, I think I’m done’ ” Compton says. “And I was like, Yo, I’m mic’ed up, relax.”
Every teammate interviewed for this story says that they didn’t notice a difference in Cravens’s personality or behavior after his Week 4 concussion as a rookie. Compton and Hall are both skeptical that post-concussion syndrome is the reason Cravens left the team.
Most players interviewed for this piece said they like Cravens personally, and that he got along well in the locker room. But Cravens was withdrawn when it came to discussing any personal issues with teammates.
“I enjoyed being around Su’a, but he was a little different,” Hall says. “Su’a’s a tough little nut to crack.
“I used to always try to talk to him, ‘Hey Su’a, what’s wrong?’ ” says Hall. “He would never really want to tell you what was wrong. I was one of those guys in the locker room, if anyone had a problem they could address it with me. I’d try to somehow help them out. So it hurt me that I couldn’t help him.”
Swearinger says Cravens never told him about his mental health battles, so he was shocked to hear he was walking away.
His teammates genuinely liked him, and there were good times for Cravens in Washington, like when his interception of Eli Manning sealed a road win over the Giants in 2016. It earned him an embrace from Will Compton, Josh Norman and the rest of the defense.
Mack Brown, a running back who split the 2016 season between the practice squad and active roster in Washington, offered encouraging words on a recent Instagram post on Cravens’s account. Cravens replied to Brown’s comment saying, “I remember expressing myself to people in the locker room and you one of the few that listened.”
“He has a big heart,” Brown says. “A lot of stuff was going on that Su’a was going through and he just needed a break.”
The majority of his teammates were confused, hurt and angry when he left the team. There were the team-wide slights, that he hadn’t played in the crucial 2016 finale with what many teammates perceived was a minor injury. There were also some personal slights. Hall, who was battling nagging injuries as well as recovering from a 2016 ACL tear, was forced to play a much larger role than his body was prepared for in 2017. Swearinger says he paid Cravens $75,000 for the No. 36 jersey—a number Swearinger had worn at his three previous NFL stops and at the University of South Carolina, and the number the legendary Sean Taylor donned during his rookie year in Washington—and was incensed when Cravens walked away. “If you are going to charge me for the number, at least play. I need an explanation on that. Why did you do that if you knew you were going to quit?”
Inside the team facilities, the “quitter” reputation held, and Cravens’s love of football was questioned. But those who knew him before the NFL don’t recognize that version of Cravens.
Coley Candaele, who coached Cravens at Vista Murrieta (Calif.) High School, says that Cravens was always the kind of player who wanted to know the why behind everything. He didn’t respond well to the traditional coaching style of, You’ll do this because I’m the coach and you’re the player. “Su’a is a very smart individual, common-sense wise,” Candaele says. “Sometimes, maybe too smart. Rather than just playing, he’s a thinker.” The coach believes there has to be something more to the story than Cravens not loving football anymore. “Su’a was one of those one-percenters that can play football every day and never get tired of it,” he says. “He was not going to get burnt out or bored because that was what he enjoyed.”
Phillip Jones-Ward, a high school teammate of Cravens’s, shook his head when he read social media comments from fans and media reports that questioned Cravens’s love for the game. “For Su’a to even think about not playing the game of football ever again, you knew it had to be something serious,” he says. “He has a little bit of attitude. But there’s not one person you’re going to meet from Southern California that you wouldn’t call a diva. He went to USC, he’s around Hollywood. But the way this dude works… He’s always worked like he was trying to prove something. A lot of guys will say this game is my life and they are just saying that for the media. But with Su’a, I know for a fact that the game is his life.”
Heyward, Cravens’s defensive backs coach at USC who is now co-defensive coordinator and safeties coach at Oregon, is more direct: “Su’a is not a quitter. He is a great dude, he loves the game, and if he could have been out there playing, I’m sure that he would have.”
The team had other options besides reserve/left squad. If Cravens had been placed on injured reserve for the season instead of reserve/left squad, he would have been paid his salary and still been able to take the season to consider whether he still wanted to play football, as the team suggested he do with his time off.
The NFL constitution adequately covers how to handle a player who left training camp without permission, or quit the team, and it outlines what to do with a player who has a serious football injury, but it doesn’t address the middle ground in which Cravens found himself. Further complicating matters, Cravens is adamant that his battle with post-concussion syndrome paired with his family issue made him snap and impulsively tell his teammates he was retiring. When viewed in light of Collins’s diagnosis, Cravens’s threats or eventual proclamation of retirement can’t be taken at face value.
Javier Cardenas, an unaffiliated neurotrauma consultant (doctor on the sidelines at games) and an independent neurologist (doctor who sees players after injury) for the NFL, says that the definition of post-concussion syndrome is a persistence of concussion symptoms greater than three months from the injury. There is no expiration date, no statute of limitations on such a diagnosis.
That concussion suffered in the fourth game of his rookie year is Cravens’s only documented and reported concussion in the NFL. But an independent neurologist had approved him to return to play. He had also passed three physicals with the team since then, one of which included neurological testing by an independent doctor. When Washington put him on the left squad list, they were within the 30 days of the league-approved roster exemption but past the five-day period to place him on the list. Cravens says the team set him up with a psychiatrist before he was placed on the left squad list. (He says he bristled at that doctor’s immediate suggestion that he start on medication to alleviate the symptoms. The team, citing HIPAA laws, declined to comment on this or to specify the doctor.) The team played by the NFL’s written rules, though those rules might not suffice for a player in Cravens’s situation. (After saying the league could not comment on the grievance, an NFL spokesperson did not respond to multiple requests seeking clarification on roster rules in relation to head trauma initiatives.)
Cravens believes Washington did not entertain the idea that he had a football-related injury when he met with them after learning he was placed on the left squad. “There was no argument,” he says. “It was just, This is not a football injury. You were cleared by our guys, you sprung this on us and you walked away and you basically quit.”
“Teams don’t have any understanding or sympathy for delayed head trauma,” a veteran NFL agent says.
Per the CBA, players have a right to get a second medical opinion, which is what Cravens did in seeing Collins. It’s common for a team doctor to disagree with that second opinion, but teams are typically willing to work with the player to compromise. If they can’t reach an agreement on a treatment or diagnosis, the next logical step is to send a player to a neutral third-party doctor. When an injured player is cut from the team and files an injury grievance, the team is required to send him to a third-party doctor to settle the dispute with a third diagnosis. Because Cravens was not cut from the team and his grievance is non-injury, the team was not required to seek a third-party opinion on the post-concussion syndrome diagnosis. And because Washington was already doubting his commitment to the team, they might have been less inclined to compromise.
“[Washington is] more combative in nature than most teams,” the veteran agent says. “They are in the bottom couple teams as far at that goes.”
Washington is siding with the expertise of its medical staff, and the front office seems to bristle at the thought of rewarding a player who they believe abandoned them. The amount of money at stake—$651,408—is simultaneously small to one of the NFL’s 32 teams and enormous to a player on his first NFL contract. Withholding it seems more symbolic, an act of principle against a player who brought them little more than frustration over two years.
Cravens couldn’t bear to watch NFL games last season. They made him think about what he might have been doing on the field, had his post-concussion syndrome been diagnosed earlier. He purposely left his TV off on Sundays and only watched college football. “Those were the good days when I was healthy, when I was at USC, where they loved me and wanted me,” he says.
During each visit to Collins, Cravens would spend a full day at the UPMC facility. He’d start with the ImPACT test on a computer and then see an optometrist to do different vision tests. Then he’d do a 30-45 minute cardio test to make sure he didn’t have any symptoms while exercising. From there, he would meet with a psychiatrist and then finally see Collins to review his results and talk about his treatment plan. By his second or third visit to Collins, he started to feel more like himself.
On Dec. 7, after about five visits to UPMC and more than two months after his season had officially ended, Collins cleared Cravens to return to football activity. Cravens says his passion for football returned, full-force. “Once my mind got cleared of all that cloudiness and all that fear, that’s when I was like, O.K., this is the guy that I know, this is the guy that is ready to compete and be the best person and football player that he can be,” he says. “That desire to get out there came flooding back.”
Cravens was removed from the left squad designation and officially reinstated on Feb. 14. Even though Gruden insisted the team would not trade Cravens, it was clear that a fresh start was the best outcome for both parties. Cravens asked to be traded. In mid-March, frustrated that there had not yet been a deal, he fired Mikhail and hired Peter Schaffer to represent him. On March 28, the the Broncos acquired him in a swap that essentially netted Washington a fifth-round pick. Moments after the trade became official, Cravens posted a video to his social media: He is gazing out the window, while the Disney Aladdin song “A Whole New World” plays.
Peter Schaffer says that Williams was a class act throughout the entire trade process, and it wouldn’t have happened without his work. Cravens has no hard feelings toward Gruden, and emphasizes that he loved playing for him. He says he would have been O.K. with returning to Washington, but that, “Bruce [Allen] wouldn’t have allowed it. Bruce did not want me back in that locker room.” Cravens heard some of the public criticism from ex-teammates over the past year, and he thinks the front office swayed opinion of him in the locker room.
Regardless, a return was out of the question for some of those teammates. “I wouldn’t trust him again,” Swearinger says. “Anybody that steps down on me and my teammates, I am going to have a hard time accepting you back. I don’t care if you’re Deion Sanders, if you quit on us, then you quit.”
Adds Hall: “Someone told me they heard the front office didn’t like him, and I’m like, Man, the front office loved him, they wanted him out there. I was trying to convince some guys in the locker room: Maybe he’s dealing with some stuff, let it slide. And it was, No, f--- that, he quit on the team, I don’t want him out there with me. It was [going to be] hard to come back from that, get back in our locker room. The best thing for him and us was to move on.”
One year later, it’s impossible to calculate just how much of a role post-concussion syndrome played in Su’a Cravens’s decision to walk away from the Washington Redskins. The incident involving his father might have been a bigger reason. There was also the homesickness, which was never really resolved. And, of course, the expectations of a first-year starter surely weighed on him. Maybe a part of him did just grow tired of football.
Or perhaps he was a 22-year-old overwhelmed by it all, in a league still grappling with how to help players struggling with mental health issues. The past two years brought lessons for Cravens. There were surely lessons for the Redskins, and for the NFL.
For now, Cravens has found peace in Denver. “He’s fitting right in with us,” says Darian Stewart, veteran safety and one of the Broncos’ team leaders. On Sept. 9, when the season opens with a home game against the Seahawks, Cravens will pull on an orange No. 21 jersey and play in a meaningful football game for the first time in 21 months. His once-promising career will be back on track. He won’t be looking over his shoulder anymore.
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