Preston Dennard doesn’t remember his first NFL reception.
He can’t recall his first professional TD catch, either.
“I’m not sure,” said the ex-University of New Mexico star receiver who played nine seasons in the National Football League. “I know my favorite was against the Cowboys on a Monday night; a diving catch on national TV (Dec. 15, 1980). I don’t remember the first one. Some of those things are a little fuzzy.”
What’s not fuzzy is what, quite possibly, started to make things that way.
That, he recalls vividly.
“Oh yeah, I definitely remember my first concussion,” said the 61-year-old Dennard, who played for the Los Angeles Rams at the time. “I was knocked out. It was against the Cowboys in a playoff game in 1979 (won 21-19 by the Rams).
“I got hit in the back of the head, the lower back temple area, going down for a ball in the third quarter. (Rams quarterback) Vince (Ferragamo) threw it low, and I was coming out of the backfield and dove for it. I think it was (the Cowboys’) Charlie Waters who popped me in the back of my helmet.”
Despite the hit that knocked him out cold, Dennard made the catch. But he said, that play might have been the start of a lot of brain issues.
He is one of five former Lobos interviewed for this story who went on to pro football careers and since have retired. Of the five, three said they believe they are suffering from concussions they had during their playing days.
As for the hit, “Today, a blow like that would have been a big, huge penalty,” said Dennard. “But back then, it wasn’t even a penalty.
“… And one of the things about concussions is they have a cumulative effect. Initially, it only takes one pop. Every one gets worse after that.”
Dennard said he is noticing more memory loss, especially short-term memory, but doesn’t know how many concussions he suffered during his playing days.
“I’m sure there were others from symptoms I remember that are now identifiable alarms for concussions,” Dennard said.
Concussions, of course, are huge news these days. They are being listed as the cause of a number of Traumatic Brain Injuries (TBI), especially chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE).
Last summer, a study by the Boston University School of Medicine and the VA Boston Healthcare System announced findings from their study on 202 brains of former football players, including 111 ex-NFL players. The brains were donated by the families of the former players.
The results were, well, brain-numbing.
Neurodegenerative disease was found in 87 percent of all the brains, and CTE was discovered in 110 of the 111 NFL players’ brains.
“That was quite an eye-opener for a lot of people,” said Don Woods, a former Lobo quarterback who was the NFL’s Offensive Rookie of the Year in 1974 as a running back with the San Diego Chargers. “As players, we’ve known it was really bad. That study shows how bad.”
How bad typically depends on players’ longevity in the league, their positions, the years they played and much more. But there’s little disagreement that the sport has caused a tremendous number of brain injuries.
“The time for denying facts and looking the other way is over,” U.S. Rep. Jan Schakowsky (D-Ill.) said following the release of the study. “We must now actively seek out ways to protect the health and (well-being) of players from Pop Warner to the NFL and every league in between.”
When asked recently if he worries about the possibility of brain damage down the line, former UNM and Chicago Bears star linebacker Brian Urlacher didn’t answer directly.
“It’s all part of the game, whether it’s knees, shoulders, elbows, your neck, your brain, you’re going to get (hurt) somehow,” said Urlacher, 39.
“I have a 12-year-old son (Kennedy), and he wants to play tackle football. I said I wouldn’t stop him from playing, but you have to know that football is a violent game. If you play, you’re going to get hurt.”
Paying physical price
Like Urlacher, the other four ex-Lobos – Dennard, Woods, Robin Cole and Walt Arnold – said they all suffered numerous injuries in their careers.
“We knew we had our bells rung several times, but we felt that we could go out there and play,” Woods said. “You went back out there because you didn’t want to lose your starting position, and you didn’t want to glorify the competition.
“You always wanted to be on top of the depth chart – but then it catches up with you.”
Dennard echoed Woods’ words.
“Guys don’t like to look hurt after a big hit,” Dennard said. “They want to get up. Both the guy making the hit and the guy getting hit, they want to get up and act like Superman. It’s all about bravado.”