Ben Roethlisberger

Whether or not Ben Roethlisberger suffered a concussion Sunday remains unclear. After pulling himself from the game, he then concluded he had suffered a migraine.

Testing on Tuesday, however, showed that he likely did suffer a concussion, or at least was displaying symptoms of such an injury. All of that is secondary to a much more encouraging revelation, which is that Roethlisberger clearly understands the dangers of brain injuries.

Ben Roethlisberger

According to his account, he removed himself from the Steelers' game against the Seattle Seahawks after blurred vision that he interpreted -- wisely -- as a symptom of a concussion. Roethlisberger played nine snaps of a drive after the hit that likely caused the concussion, then went to the locker room to trigger the NFL's head injury protocol.

There are problems with this, of course: Roethlisberger shouldn't have taken a single snap after the head injury in question, and someone else should have stepped in to remove him from the game rather than relying on his own decision to come out. Remember, the brain-injured can't be trusted to make smart decisions in the heat of the moment.

Had he wanted, Roethlisberger likely could have finished the entire game without his coaches batting an eye. The head injury and his blurred vision could have remained a secret he told no one -- up until recent years, that was how most concussions were handled. And no one would have been surprised: Big Ben is known for his toughness and grit on the field, and his willingness to soldier on through injuries that would bring other quarterbacks down.

That's what's impressive about this story. Roethlisberger went against all of these variables -- his reputation, his desire to play and win, the oversight of league-mandated medical staff -- and chose to take himself out of the game. In doing so, he dealt a serious blow to the Steelers' chances of winning that game -- they went on to lose and fell out of their tentative spot as a playoff wild-card team. But, more importantly, he put his health first.

Ben Roethlisberger

That's a game-changer.

Experts on the subject of brain injuries in football have said that we have enough information to connect the dots. Football begets concussions, concussions begets dementia and other mental health problems later in life. The next step to fighting the disease is awareness, and not just among those of us who like to scream from our soapboxes that the game of football is destroying its players. The awareness needs to come from the people involved: Families of young football players, medical trainers, coaches, and the players themselves.

If NFL players understand the dangers of football and still choose to put their long-term health at risk, that's one thing. The crime occurs when players suffer irreparable damage before they even realize they're doing something wrong. That's why so many NFL veterans have sued the league for withholding information. They were denied the opportunity to at least be accountable for the consequences of their decisions.

Roethlisberger is lucky. He doesn't have to play football in an era where the dangers of the game are unknown. As CTE claims more and more members of the NFL's fraternity, Big Ben is able to look down the road and see the possible fates he entertains every time he takes a hit to the head.

And based on his comments this week, he's giving that reality a lot of thought.

Ben Roethlisberger

"People know me, I'll play through any injury," Roethlisberger told 93.7 FM. "I've played through a lot of injuries. But the brain is not an injury that you want to play with and play through. I think more people need to understand that. We play football for such a short period of time in our lives. When you're done, you want to be a father and a husband and be the best I can be. If I have these brain injuries, it's not worth it."

No NFL player of Roethlisberger's stature has made such strong statement about concussion dangers to this point. It's an enormous win for brain injury advocates: Awareness is creeping into the highest ranks of the NFL, and it's giving players pause. What they do from this point on is their choice, but Big Ben and others are starting to grasp the staggering realities that could await them later in life.

As Roethlisberger describes it, those realities hit him hard on the sideline this Sunday, and pushed him to a course of action that, in years past, he might have ignored.

"I was on the sideline thinking, 'Do I want to go back into this game?'" Roethlisberger told 93.7. "I was thinking of my family, my lifestyle when I get done with football, with all these injuries … the brain is nothing to mess with.

"I was literally on the sideline probably for the first time maybe in my life, thinking about my family and not going back into the game because I did not feel quite right. It was definitely a moment, that's why I was honest with the trainers and doctors and wanted to tell them exactly what I was going through."

Luke Kuechly

For the folks at Boston University's CTE Center, where the leading research regarding concussions, sub-concussive hits and brain disease are taking place, Roethlisberger's concussion might prove to be a watershed moment. Two weeks after the St. Louis Rams failed to pull an obviously concussed Case Keenum from the game, one of the league's biggest stars is candidly discussing his moment of enlightenment on the sideline.

Is football worth his long-term health? At some point, every NFL player will have to ask themselves that question. The risks are too known, and the conversation is growing too loud.

Roethlisberger arrived at that crossroads Sunday. Enter the game, soldier on, go for the win? Or head to the locker room, put his health and family first?

Said Roethlisberger: "I feel like I made the right [decision]."

More: St. Louis Rams Don't Care About Player Safety

CTE in NFL vets

 

Mike Webster #52

As a player, Mike Webster was an all-time great, earning nine Pro Bowl selections and winning four Super Bowls with the Steelers. In 1997, Webster was inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame.

 

Mike Webster #52

Unfortunately, Webster's post-football life was troubled. He was afflicted by amnesia, depression and dementia in his later years, many of which he spent homeless despite having relatives willing to house him. After his death in 2002, he became the first NFL veteran diagnosed with CTE.

 

Forrest Blue #75

As an offensive lineman, Forrest Blue was a four-time All-Pro. His eleven-year NFL career was split between the San Francisco 49ers and Baltimore Colts. Blue died in 2011 in an assisted care facility, after which he was diagnosed with CTE.

 

Lew Carpenter #30

Lew Carpenter made a 47-year career out of football. After playing at the University of Arkansas the running back spent 10 years playing for the Cleveland Browns, Green Bay Packers and Detroit Lions. He retired from coaching in 1996 due to health reasons and died in 2010, agreeing to donate his brain to science.

 

Lou Creekmur #76

An eight-time Pro Bowl offensive lineman, Lou Creekmur suffered from a 30-year decline in mental health leading up to his death in 2009. He was 82.

 

Shane Dronett #99

After a 10-year career in the NFL, defensive lineman Shane Dronett experienced significant cognitive troubles in 2006. He suffered from confusion, paranoia, and bouts of rage. In 2009, he picked up a gun and confronted his wife, who fled. In her absence, Dronett fatally shot himself. He was 38.

 

Dave Duerson #26

In 11 NFL seasons, Duerson was a four-time Pro-Bowler and the 1987 NFL man of the year. In 2011, he shot himself in the chest and died. Duerson had suspected something regarding his mental health: just before shooting himself, he texted his family asking them to donate his brain to science.

 

Ray Easterling #32

An eight-year veteran who spent his entire career with the Atlanta Falcons, Ray Easterling was one of the veterans to add his name to a federal lawsuit against the NFL regarding concussions. In April 2012, he fatally shot himself, allegedly due to the worsening of his clinical depression and the deterioration of his cognitive functioning.

 

Cookie Gilchrist #2

Between the CFL and the AFL, Cookie Gilchrist earned nine All-Star bids. The running back was also a two-time AFL rushing champion. After his playing career, Gilchrist displayed erratic and sometimes angry behavior, particularly to those he had worked with in his playing days. He died in 2011 and was diagnosed with advanced CTE.

 

John Grimsley #59

A 10-year NFL veteran, Grimsley is best known for making the Pro Bowl in 1988. In 2008, he died of an apparent accidental gunshot wound, after which he was diagnosed with CTE.

 

Chris Henry #15

Henry's CTE diagnosis was a breakthrough that brightened the spotlight on football's dangers. After several run-ins with the law, Henry died in 2009 from a motor vehicle accident. An autopsy revealed that Henry had CTE at just 26 years old. He was the first still-active NFL player to be diagnosed with the condition.T

 

Terry Long #74

Long was a consistent starter for the Steelers from 1984 until his retirement in 1991. That same year, Long tested positive for steroids and attempted suicide. He eventually killed himself in 2005 by drinking antifreeze.

 

John Mackey #88

A five-time Pro Bowler and two-time NFL champion, John Mackey was only the second tight end ever admitted to the Pro Football Hall of Fame. After his playing days, Mackey was afflicted with dementia, and his condition worsened until he required full-time care in an assisted living facility. He died in 2011.

 

John Mackey #88

Since John's death, his wife, Sylvia Mackey, has become a powerful advocate for NFL veterans and continues to push the NFL to change through her activism and legal work.

 

Ollie Matson #33

In addition to having a 14-year NFL career, Ollie Matson also won two medals at the 1952 Olympics. He died in 2011 from complications from dementia and was later diagnosed with CTE.

 

Tom McHale #73

A bruising defensive end with an Ivy League education, Tom McHale played in the NFL from 1987 to 1995. He died in 2008 from an accidental drug overdose. His widow now works for the Boston University CTE Center as a family relations liason.

 

Junior Seau #55

Perhaps the most accomplished player to be diagnosed with CTE, Junior Seau was a 12-time Pro Bowler, the 1994 AFC Player of the Year, and a member of the NFL 1990s All-Decade team.

 

Junior Seau #55

In May 2012, Seau was found dead from a self-inflicted gunshot wound to the chest. While never diagnosed with a concussion during his playing career, Seau's wife reported that he did admit to experiencing several. The linebacker also experienced insomnia for years leading up to his death.

 

Justin Strzelczyk #73

As an offensive lineman for the Pittsburgh Steelers, Strzelczyk's career was cut short by his erratic off-field behavior and legal troubles. Upon his death in a high-speed police chase in 2004, alcohol and drugs were initially blamed. An autopsy revealed that the lineman had suffered brain damage.

 

Andre Waters #20

During his 12-year NFL career, Andre Waters earned a reputation as one of the hardest hitters in the NFL. Unfortunately, Waters wound up shooting himself in the head in 2006. An autopsy discovered brain damage sustained during his playing days.

 

Jovan Belcher #59

A young, promising NFL linebacker, Jovan Belcher killed himself in a murder-suicide in December 2012. After killing his girlfriend, Belcher drove to the Kansas City Chiefs' practice facility and shot himself with a handgun in the parking lot.

 

Jovan Belcher #59

After Belcher's death, an autopsy diagnosed CTE in the 25-year-old.

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