Quarterbacks speak so matter-of-factly about getting their blocks knocked off. Take Chris Miller, the battle-scarred 29-year-old Los Angeles Ram. Last week, while sitting in a meeting room at the team's practice facility in Anaheim, Miller considered an especially brutal shot he had taken from some San Diego Chargers on Nov. 27. "You get so focused on the receiver that you don't see the rush coming," Miller said, his voice devoid of emotion. "On this play I tried to get rid of the rock as soon as I could, or these dudes would have blown me up. I turned my body just as I threw it and bam! I got crunched. Four dudes landed on me."
Long pause. "You know," Miller said, "you're not going to get up every time."
Miller knows that as well as any quarterback in the NFL. He emerged unscathed from the Charger assault, but on two other occasions this season he has not been as fortunate. With two concussions, in addition to bruised ribs and a pinched nerve in his neck, he is the 1994 poster child for abused quarterbacks. Since suffering his first concussion, on Oct. 23 against the New Orleans Saints, he has forgotten how to drive home, forgotten what day it is and has heard a doctor tell him that there is a spot on his brain.
Against the Saints, Miller was slammed in the chest after releasing a pass, and he fell hard against the artificial turf in the Superdome, his head whiplashing on the hard surface. Miller's head throbbed, but he played on. Later on the sidelines during that first half he asked a Ram doctor for something to ease his pain. "Hey. Doc," he said. "I've got a hell of a headache. Can I have a couple Tylenol?"
December 19, 1994
Miller played the rest of the half, struggling at times to remember plays and slurring some words in the huddle. "You sound slow," guard Tom Newberry told him at one point. At halftime Miller's head was pounding, and he complained to the doctors that he was experiencing tunnel vision. "Is there anything you can give me?" he asked them. Upon further examination, Dr. Craig Milhouse, a team physician, decided that Miller needed more than a couple of painkillers. He was sent by ambulance to New Orleans's Southern Baptist Hospital.
After undergoing a CAT scan, Miller received a visit from a grim-looking doctor. "We've found a little spot on the front of your brain," the doctor said. Miller barely heard the rest. Internal alarms went off. A spot on the brain! They're talking about my brain! I've got a son and another child on the way, and they're talking about my brain!
Miller stayed in the hospital overnight. The CAT scan had revealed a significant bruise on his frontal lobe caused by his brain colliding with the inside of his skull when his head hit the turf. Miller's concern was heightened when, watching ESPN from his hospital bed that night, he saw a story about the long-term effects of concussions. On the broadcast former New York Giant linebacker Harry Carson, who retired in 1988, said that he still feels a bit foggy and that he believes concussions suffered during his playing days are the cause. The bruise on Miller's brain subsided enough for Miller to return to Los Angeles the next day.
The Rams had a bye the next weekend and were to face the Denver Broncos on Nov. 6 in Anaheim. On Saturday, Oct. 29, Miller and his wife, Jennifer, were in Eugene to watch Miller's alma mater, Oregon, play Arizona. He was still fuzzy, and Jennifer noticed it. "My wife said, 'You're talking strange. You're not making sense,' " he says.
Miller stood on the Oregon sidelines with a buddy, rooting for the Ducks. "Man," said Miller at one point, suddenly anxious, "I've got to get back to L.A. pretty soon. We play Denver tomorrow." His friend reminded him that this was the Rams' bye week, and thus they had no game the next day. Miller couldn't believe he had forgotten that.
The fog didn't lift the following week either. "It was like the morning after you've drunk a bottle of tequila," he says. The Rams started Miller's backup, Chris Chandler, against Denver. But Chandler was knocked out with a concussion of his own in the fourth quarter, and Miller was inserted for the last two series of the game. Says Miller, "The docs told me, 'You think you're nervous. We're just praying you don't get hit in the head.' "
But the Rams' head trainer, Jim Anderson, says the decision to put Miller in the game was made only after extensive testing. "Chris could have started," says Anderson. "He was cleared medically to play prior to the game. The decision to put him in at that time was not made on the sidelines."
Following the game, which the Rams won 27-21, Miller drove Jennifer to Planet Hollywood in Costa Mesa, a 20-minute trip from Anaheim Stadium that he had made four or five times this season, his first with Los Angeles. His agent, Frank Bauer, followed in a second car. Miller got lost on the way.
After dinner Miller left Planet Hollywood in his car, and Jennifer and Bauer went in the other car, heading for the Miller home in Newport Beach, a 10-minute drive from Planet Hollywood. A half-hour later Miller found himself driving on surface streets near Anaheim Stadium, and not at all certain how he got there. The stadium is east of Planet Hollywood; the Millers' house is west. He called home. "I'm totally lost," he told a worried Jennifer, who was waiting for him in Newport Beach. "I'll be home in a while."
"Altogether," he says now, "I guess it was two, two and a half weeks before the concussion cleared completely. I had two CAT scans, three or four MRIs and one test [an electroencephalogram, which measures brain-wave activity] where they stuck 22 needles all over my scalp and head. That makes you start thinking."
Thinking, perhaps, about retiring to Oregon? "I'd be lying if I said I hadn't thought about that," he says. "This game's a roller coaster of emotions. At one point you think, This is crazy. Why am I doing this? I want to be in good health for my children. Earlier this year I was on the phone with my financial guy [Miller is in the first year of a three-year, $9 million nonguaranteed contract], and I asked him how I would stand financially at the end of this contract. A few weeks ago I was asking him for a rundown on how I would stand after this season.
"But then you get back on the field, and you're with the guys—hanging out, partying—and you play a game like the one we played at San Francisco, where you come so close to beating the Niners at Candlestick [31-27], and the game is so much fun. I'm not ready to leave it."
Two weeks after the 49er thriller, Miller experienced his second concussion, in the Rams' second meeting with the Saints. "I got rag-dolled," says Miller.
Just as it sounds, Miller was flung to the Anaheim Stadium grass, landing on the side of his head. "They had to crack six or seven vials of smelling salts," he says. Eventually, Miller got up and walked away. Will he be so lucky this Sunday?