Late afternoon on day two of the 2017 NFL draft, Matt Harris received a group text that was sent to him and his former Northwestern University football teammates: His roommate, Anthony Walker Jr., had been drafted in the fifth round to the Indianapolis Colts.
It was a happy occasion, but Harris braced himself for another emotion: regret.
"I thought I would have a tougher time with it," he says, thinking back on the moment several months later. Harris himself, a star defensive back for the Wildcats, retired last fall due to concussions, giving up his own NFL dreams. "But because I had so much preparation, as far as knowing [football is] not my calling," the wave of remorse didn’t come. Though he was happy for his friend, Harris says he wouldn’t change a thing about his own life.
"All the support I had as far as family and friends, and all the people I had in my corner really shined," Harris says. "I could’ve been down, but they kept me up, really motivated."
As one of the team's senior captains, recording double-digit tackles and consistently receiving Big Ten honors, the NFL was within Harris’s reach. Now, instead of conditioning and getting ready for his fifth and final college season, Harris—who says he suffered memory loss due concussions sustained during gameplay—graduated and works full time at Education Funding Partners in Chicago.
He’s part of a not-so-coveted club of college football players who chose to leave the game early in their careers because of concussions. While there is no official number on how many college players retire due to concussions (or fear of medical complications thereof), visibility for the problem has increased recently. Just this spring, two big football schools lost players (Arizona defensive lineman Justin Holt and Southern California safety John Plattenburg) to retirement—both players cited concussions as the primary reason for leaving the game.
Throughout their playing years, Harris and several other college retirees say they were told that concussions were just a part of the game—but with the recent high-profile retirements, college players are telling their peers that they may not be worth the sacrifice.
Harris, a Chicago native, was just 10 years old when his father died. He began playing football a year later to help him cope with the death; the camaraderie and focus that came from the sport helped him grieve. He says he was aware of the dangers of concussions when he started playing—and even experienced a few during his high school years—but before his last game, when he took the hardest hit he’s ever taken, he never considered leaving football because of them.
“Like with any injury, you try to put it on the back burner, just so that you don’t focus on [it],” Harris says.
The same was true for former Oklahoma players Daniel Brooks and Tay Evans—they’d taken plenty of hits over the course of their careers, never thinking that one of them could be their last. The two Sooners, along with teammate Jamal Danley, joined Harris as 2016-2017 season retirees due to head injuries.
Brooks, a then-senior who played running back, announced his retirement from the game just 17 days before Harris. The last straw was when he took a knee to the head in a September game against the University of Louisiana-Monroe. “In terms of impact and initial pain, it was probably one of the worst [concussions I've had],” Brooks says. After telling the trainers he was fine, Brooks would go on to make several plays—he remembers none of them.
Looking back on his decade-plus of playing time, Brooks estimates getting anywhere between 20 to 30 concussions. He didn’t realize the severity of the injuries until doctors alerted him. By the time he took that last hit, he says memory loss was common. In the end, Brooks says his decision to leave the game was 50 percent due to concussions, and the other 50 because of his limited playing time.
The Sooners played Ohio State the following weekend, where linebacker Evans suffer his own final concussion. Evans says it was a second-quarter play when he read the line, met a running back in the hole, and made a tackle—with most the impact on his head. A couple plays later, Evans had his helmet knocked off by his teammate. “All I remember was laying on the ground,” Evans says.
As awareness increases for the connection between sports, head injuries, and concussions, college athlete retirements show that fewer young men are willing to risk their health to play the sport they love.
Does that affect precollegiate sports as well? According to the National Federation of State High School Associations, 1,083,308 boys participated in their school’s football program during the 2015-2016 season. That’s about 26,000 fewer than the 2009-2010 season, a 3 percent decrease. NFSHSA did not respond to requests for comment.
Head football coach James Catanzaro at Lake Forest College says there are likely multiple reasons for that small dip, but he admits that he’s faced issues when talking to prospective student-athletes throughout his 17 years of recruiting—specifically those who worry about concussions.
However, Catanzaro says that more often, players start worrying about health impact during freshman year. At that point he says he will counsel them on the benefits of staying on the team—but he also tells them about opportunities off the field, from management to marketing.
For a while, Harris figured he’d keep playing football—no matter the cost. “I think it’s very difficult because you get in a position where you really want to play, you worked hard, you’re doing all these things, and you get your opportunity,” he says. “You don’t want something to impact you from reaching that goal.”
In week two of the 2016-2017 regular season that all changed. Northwestern was playing Illinois State. Harris says doesn’t remember the play—another memory lapse he attributes to head injuries—and it wasn’t until he watched the film that he realized his teammate hit another player, who spun into the air, and ultimately hit Harris’s chest.
“That one, was probably the scariest for me, just because it was a normal football play,” Harris admits. “But it just kind of showed that the more I played, the easier it was for me to get a concussion. And in that moment, I knew I was done.”
He says he cried in the locker room, fearing the next concussion would lead to irreversible health issues. He worried about his future and thought about wanting to have his own family.
“Everybody in the locker room broke down that day,” his mother Tina remembers. “I’ve never seen my son like that before, and it was very devastating to all.”
She took advantage of the opportunity to talk to her son’s teammates about the risks of the game: “These are the kind of things on their minds, too, that they’re scared to talk about, because they feel like they owe the college for their degree,” she says.
In the end, Harris says he is glad he retired when he did. "I definitely don't regret what I've done. Would I do it again? Probably, if I didn't know what I knew now," he says, adding that it's hard to imagine what he would have done if he was fully aware of the consequences. "It's not fair because now I'm living it and I've experienced the harms that can come from the sport. But at the same time it's been a huge blessing in my life in terms of accomplishments, benefits, growth. I wouldn't take that back for the world."