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USA TODAY Sports’ Nancy Armour details the disturbing findings from the latest study linking CTE to playing football and what it means for the NFL.
USA TODAY Sports

CANTON, Ohio – Terrell Davis is being celebrated as one of the greatest ever with his fresh enshrinement into the Pro Football Hall of Fame, but given the potential for long-term effects of brain injuries he clearly wonders about the price he’s paid to be so honored.

“I can’t lie,” Davis said Friday, when asked about the topic by USA TODAY Sports during a Hall of Fame news conference. “We’re all scared. We’re all concerned, because we don’t know what the future holds.”

On the heels of a recently released study that revealed that 110 of 111 deceased former football players had been stricken with the degenerative brain disease chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE), Davis’ response adds context amid the glorious annual festival that honors the game, its legends and values attached to football that some insist reflect those of American life.

For all of the pomp and pageantry, it was fitting that Davis – who had maybe the best three-year stretch ever by a runner in history with the Denver Broncos, which included back-to-back Super Bowl triumphs, a 2,000-yard season and a signature moment that came wrapped in a migraine headache – served up a sobering reminder of the human toll.

“When I’m at home and I do something, if I forget something, I have to stop to think: Is this because I’m getting older or am I just not using my brain, or is this because of what happened as an effect of playing football?” said Davis, 44. “I don’t know that. So yeah, I’m scared.”

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The irony is not lost on Davis that one of the most memorable episodes of his career involved playing through a head injury. In Super Bowl XXXII, Davis suffered from a migraine headache and missed virtually an entire quarter of a game against the Green Bay Packers for which he was honored as MVP. At one point, Davis told coach Mike Shanahan that his condition was so bad that he couldn’t see.

What did Shanahan do? He put Davis back in the game after a Broncos drive advanced to the goal line. Shanahan merely wanted Davis in the game as a decoy – to throw off the defense with the threat of a run.

How shameful. Whatever risk to some disaster that could have caused further, maybe extensive damage to Davis went by the wayside.

“I think about that moment a lot, because if they had the rules in place back then, I don’t go back into that game,” said Davis, referring to the concussion protocol rules that maintain that players cannot return to a game if diagnosed with a concussion after being examined by an independent neurotrauma consultant.

Davis isn’t sure whether he also suffered a concussion in that game because he was never examined for that, but admitted it was possible, if not likely.

“And that changes a lot,” Davis pondered of being removed from the game. “Am I here? At this podium? Thank God it didn’t happen back then.”

Davis’ last sentence says something about the tough-man culture that exists in football. In the past decade as awareness has increased and protocols have been established and revised, the culture has shifted somewhat. But there are undoubtedly many cases when players suffer head injuries that others may not detect, and they continue to play through them.

Many players, even while expressing concerns, accept the risk of head injuries as part of playing football.

“I worry about everything that can possibly happen to my body, not just concussions,” Seattle Seahawks defensive end Michael Bennett told USA TODAY Sports. “I worry about the hip, I worry about the knee, the neck, the hands. There are so many things that can happen.”

Bennett said that he addresses CTE concerns in a book, Things That Make White People Uncomfortable, slated to be published next year. He likens playing football to striking a deal with the devil. That doesn’t mean he’s come to grips with long-term risks of head injuries.

“I haven’t,” he said. “I’m fearful every day. I’m a real human being.”

Kurt Warner, the former quarterback who joined Davis among the seven-member class of new Hall of Fame inductees, once sparked headlines by maintaining that he didn’t want his sons to play football and was concerned about what the quality of his life would be decades down the road because of the head injuries that he suffered.

Warner, who told USA TODAY Sports that he suffered three concussions playing football, has softened his stance as it comes to his kids as the process for evaluating and treating concussions has evolved.

“The only way this works is you telling me every time you don’t feel quite right,” Warner said of his current message to his sons. “That’s probably the one thing I wish I would’ve learned a little bit earlier.”

While Warner pledges vigilance in monitoring his sons, he realizes that in dealing with head injuries during his career he also received that same attention from someone – his wife, Brenda, also his Hall of Fame presenter.

“She was my Jiminy Cricket, the one on my shoulder going, ‘Hey, let’s be smart. Are you where you need to be when it’s time to play?’ “ Warner told USA TODAY Sports. “Where we have the mentality of being the tough guy, she was the one saying, ‘Let’s do the right thing – not just for today, but for the long haul.’ “

It’s the fear that comes with football for those who play – and those who love them the most.

Follow NFL columnist Jarrett Bell on Twitter @JarrettBell.

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