Sidelined By Brain Injury, Ex-NFL Player Copes With 'Desperation'
The home of Sean Morey bears the impressive signposts of his 10-year career in the NFL: a Vince Lombardi trophy for his Super Bowl championship with the Pittsburgh Steelers in 2006. A hefty Super Bowl ring. A framed photograph showing Morey in midair, launching himself like a missile to block a punt. With that play in 2008, his Arizona Cardinals became the only team in NFL history to win a game in overtime with a blocked punt.
But look in Morey's medicine cabinet, and you'll find other vestiges of his NFL career: the bottles of pills that he takes to mitigate the effects of brain injury he sustained playing football. Propranolol to help with debilitating headaches. Lexapro, an anti-depressant, to — as Morey puts it — "lengthen my fuse." Ritalin to help him focus. Trazodone to help him sleep.
Morey suffers from post-concussion syndrome.
Hundreds of other NFL players have been diagnosed with far more serious conditions: dementia, ALS, Parkinson's and severe cognitive decline. On autopsy, the brains of more than 50 players show clear signs of chronic traumatic encephalopathy, or CTE, a progressive degenerative disease.
Morey hopes that by retiring from the NFL when he did, in 2010, he's avoided that fate.
By the end of his career, Morey was considered one of the best special teams players in the league. Special teams players sprint down the field to block and tackle on kickoffs and punts. Because of the speed and the explosive collisions that result, the kickoff return has been considered one of the most dangerous plays in football.
Morey was small for the NFL — just 5 feet 10 inches and 190 pounds. But he was fast and relentless. He was what's called a wedge breaker. "I basically hit and blocked everything I could, as hard as I could," he tells me. "Anything that moved."
And over his career, he suffered dozens of concussions. "Somewhere in the high 20s. You know, I was pretty reluctant to admit how many I'd had," he says.
But he does remember them in photographic detail; for example, one concussion that knocked him unconscious in 2007. "I was asleep," he recalls. "You feel like you're waking up from a dream. But you see the grass, you hear the noise, and you realize, 'Oh! I'm in a football game!' So you get up, and I start walking, but I'm walking sideways."
Another time, he stumbled off the field to the opposing team's bench.
In his final season in 2009, he had four concussions in just one game, he says. "Every time I hit somebody it was like getting tasered," he says.
That was when doctors told him it was time to hang up his helmet. "They said, 'There's a chance you'll never get over these headaches,' " Morey says. " 'You've been symptomatic for too long, and I just can't with a clear conscience let you play football anymore. You've gotta retire.' "
When I sat down to talk with Morey and his wife, Cara, at the home they share with their three young daughters in Princeton, N.J., they told me about the symptoms that Sean has shown over the past four years. He'll get crushing migraine headaches that knock him out of commission for days at a time. He'll launch into bouts of explosive rage, shouting at his family. He has trouble focusing, forgets things and loses his train of thought.
Sean says there's no question these symptoms are related to brain trauma sustained playing football. "You cannot have that kind of pain and have it not be related to brain damage," he says. "The dysfunction, the pain, the misery, the confusion, the desperation, the depression. ... There were instances in my life that would never have existed had I not damaged my brain."
Cara Morey has watched her husband turn into someone she doesn't recognize. "He gets a look in his eyes that you're pretty sure you've never met this person before. ... It's very scary. It's a type of rage that I had never seen, and I don't think anyone should ever see, and I don't think my girls should ever have seen it."
"There's years of my life, but more importantly, there's years of my daughters' life, that I wish I could rescript," says Sean.
Cara admits that she may be in denial about the extent of her husband's injuries and whether he might get progressively worse. "I don't want to ask myself that question because I'm scared of what the answer would be," she says.
Morey is among dozens of retired NFL players who have agreed to donate their brains for medical research when they die. He hopes his brain might provide some answers.
For now, he accepts that the damage he sustained is permanent. He doesn't think it's getting worse, so he tries to adapt. He writes a lot of reminder notes, sets alerts on his phone, stays on top of his meds. And he has devoted himself obsessively to learning about concussions and helping other players who are suffering.
He was founder of the NFL Players Association's committee on traumatic brain injury. Now, he's an independent advocate for players' health.
Morey is constantly on the phone with other retired NFL players, trying to persuade them to join him in intervening in the $765 million concussion settlement that's now being reviewed by U.S. District Judge Anita Brody.
The deal was reached between the NFL and thousands of retired players. But Morey is concerned that a lot of players are left out: players who may not have the most serious conditions, such as Parkinson's or ALS, but who are still suffering the consequences of brain injury in the NFL.
This Sunday, Sean Morey will tune in to watch the Super Bowl from home. He's hoping for a tough, physical, exciting game. But he'll be watching with a very critical eye. "Every time someone gets concussed, I'll rewind it," he tells me. "I'm looking at, did they even evaluate him? Did anybody look at him? Did they shrug it off? What's the report back? Well, they're saying, 'Oh, he got shaken up on the field.' They won't use the word 'concussion.' I'm like an educated, informed spectator. I'll watch it more closely."
AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:
From NPR News this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Audie Cornish.
ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:
And I'm Robert Siegel. On Sunday, when the Broncos and Seahawks face off in the Super Bowl there will, no doubt, be gorgeous precision passes and wily running moves. There will also be massive hits - tackles and collisions that can have the same punishing force as a car crash. And the effects of those hits are now well-known. Hundreds of players who suffered head trauma in the NFL have been diagnosed with dementia, ALS, Parkinson's and severe cognitive decline. On autopsy, the brains of more than 50 players who have died show clear signs of chronic traumatic encephalopathy, or CTE.
Our co-host Melissa Block spent time this week with one retired player who is struggling with post-concussion syndrome. Melissa visited former NFL special teams player Sean Morey.
MELISSA BLOCK, BYLINE: Sean Morey is now 37. He ended his career in 2010, on the advice of doctors. Morey was the rare Ivy League player who made it to the NFL. He was a star player at Brown - scrappy and tenacious; and small by NFL standards, just 5-10, 190 pounds. But he was fast and played smart. And he made it not just to the NFL but to the Super Bowl twice, the first time in 2006 with the Pittsburgh Steelers.
(SOUNDBITE OF 2006 SUPER BOWL)
JOHN MADDEN: ...say who has the advantage in special teams? I think it's the Pittsburgh Steelers.
BLOCK: Sean Morey was special teams captain.
(SOUNDBITE OF 2006 SUPER BOWL)
AL MICHAELS: ...and Super Bowl XL underway in Detroit...
BLOCK: The Steelers would go on to win the Super Bowl that year. Morey made it to the Super Bowl again with the Arizona Cardinals and the Pro Bowl. And in 2008, his Cardinals became the only team in NFL history to win a game in overtime with a blocked punt when Morey launched himself like a missile at the punter.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED FOOTBALL BROADCAST)
UNIDENTIFIED ANNOUNCER: ...will punt from his goal line. He's got it. Here they come! Cardinals blocked it! It's picked up! It's a touchdown! Cardinals win. Monty Beisel with a touchdown, Sean Morey with the block. How about them Cardinals?
BLOCK: By the end of his career, Morey was considered one of the best special teams players in the league. Special teams. They're they guys who sprint down the field to block and tackle on kickoffs and punts. Because of the speed and the explosive collisions that result, the kickoff return has been considered one of the most dangerous plays in football. Sean Morey was what's called a wedge breaker, fast and relentless.
SEAN MOREY: I basically hit and blocked everything I could, as hard as I could - anything that moved.
BLOCK: And over his career, he suffered dozens of concussions.
SEAN MOREY: Somewhere in the high 20s. You know, I was pretty reluctant to admit how many I'd had.
BLOCK: But he can remember them in photographic detail.
SEAN MOREY: I can rattle off a ton of them...
BLOCK: In 2006, the Super Bowl against Seattle.
SEAN MOREY: ...so somebody had peeled back, and they just crack-back blocked and hit me right in the side of the temple. And I was - that was - that was - that was a rough one.
BLOCK: In 2007, against Carolina.
SEAN MOREY: And I hit with the crown of my head and I was asleep. You feel like you're waking up from a dream. But you see the grass, you see the - you hear the noise and you realize, oh I'm in a football game. So then you get up and I'd start walking, but I'm walking sideways.
BLOCK: And in 2009, his final season, against Detroit.
SEAN MOREY: I literally had four concussions in that game. Every time I hit somebody, it was like getting Tasered.
BLOCK: What did the doctors tell you when they told you, you need to retire? What did they tell you about what would happen if you didn't?
SEAN MOREY: Well, they said that there's a chance you'll never get over these headaches. You've been symptomatic for too long; and I just can't, with a clear conscience, let you play football anymore. You've got to retire.
(SOUNDBITE OF MEDICINE BOTTLES OPENING, PILLS RATTLING)
BLOCK: These days, Sean Morey has a sizeable pharmacy in his medicine cabinet at his home in Princeton, N.J.
SEAN MOREY: So Trazodone for sleep; Propranolol for - you know, it's a beta blocker, to help headaches; Lexapro, an antidepressant, to lengthen my fuse; Ritalin - extended-release Ritalin. Oh, and then there's also Methylphenidate, which is 5 milligrams...
BLOCK: Morey gets crushing headaches that incapacitate him for days at a time. He has trouble focusing. He forgets things, loses his train of thought. Sometimes, he explodes in rage.
Is there any question for you that what you've been experiencing, and all the symptoms you've had - that that's connected to football and to concussion?
SEAN MOREY: Do I question whether my symptoms were or were not related to brain trauma? No, there's no question whatsoever. (Laughter) Like, you cannot feel that kind of pain and have it not be related to brain damage. The way I felt, the dysfunction, the pain, the misery, the confusion, the desperation, the depression, the - it's completely - like, there were instances in my life that they would never have existed had I not damaged my brain.
BLOCK: Let me ask you what you do hear from people - which is, they knew what they were getting into, that there...
SEAN MOREY: (Laughter) Oh, that kills me. Don't even start.
BLOCK: ...was no secret that this is a dangerous, violent sport.
SEAN MOREY: Nobody has a crystal ball. Nobody can anticipate this. Like, I can sit here, and I can explain it; and I can tell you it's going to be a hell of a lot different if you're the one experiencing it. It is completely unraveling - there's no other way to put it. Like, oh, well, they knew what they were getting themselves into. That's the dumbest thing I've ever heard. Let's be real. I mean, the NFL purported that there was no long-term issues to suffering concussions. And in fact, they said that you could go back into the same game with a concussion, with no issues.
CARA MOREY: There's a lot of denial. And it's a very scary injury and a scary disease for - well, for any family because you can't see it.
BLOCK: This is Sean Morey's wife, Cara Gardner Morey. They met at Brown, where she was a star hockey player. She's had concussions herself.
CARA MOREY: When it started, I mean, you ask yourself all the things that everybody's asking - how did we not know? I was a human biology major at Brown, so I remember saying to Sean, of course we knew there would be damage if you smash your head all the time. Like, of course we knew. We knew it from boxers. I just didn't know that's what he was doing every day.
BLOCK: As I talk with Cara and Sean Morey, I find myself noticing every time he veers off course, he'll lose himself on a verbal tangent and then wonder aloud where he's ended up.
SEAN MOREY: And, um - what was the question?
BLOCK: Cara Morey is left to wonder about her husband, is this normal?
CARA MOREY: I didn't think he was making up the pain and stuff. But when he would talk about memory issues - that he would go to the fridge and open it, and not know what he was getting - to me, that was normal. I had three young kids. I never knew what I was doing in the fridge. So you just brush it off, like, you're fine. I can't remember so-and-so's phone number. Well, who remembers a phone number, you know?
The hardest thing about this is, you don't know what is normal coping mechanisms with young kids or, you know, what are normal stressors that are going to make you react different. What is brain trauma? I don't know what is what. But he used to be very outgoing and funny. And it's hard to laugh around him now. Probably in four years, we don't really laugh.
BLOCK: But the worst is the rage, when he loses control, shouting at his wife and three young daughters.
CARA MOREY: He gets a look in his eyes that you're pretty sure you've never met this person in your life before - because he doesn't look anything like the person you know. It's very scary. And his voice is really scary. It's a type of rage that I had never seen, and I don't think anyone should ever see. And I don't think my girls should ever have seen it.
BLOCK: But they have seen it, like the major blow-up one day last spring. Sean winces as Cara recalls what happened.
CARA MOREY: Very bad, like ripped the car speakers out of the car and slammed the doors, and started walking in the middle of nowhere. And then the kids are crying, where's Daddy going? Just like, very traumatic. And they know a lot. They - I hear them talking. They say, well Daddy played football, and it really injured his brain so...
BLOCK: They say that?
CARA MOREY: Yep.
BLOCK: Is it scary for you, Sean - that rage part?
SEAN MOREY: You know, I know that there's years in my life - but more importantly, there's years in my daughters' life that I wish I could re-script, that I wish I could do over. And no kid should ever have to go through that. But sometimes, the thing that would scare me is sometimes I thought, like, when am I going to get better? And, you know, sometimes I would have really good days and I'm thinking, oh, I'm clear. And then, wham, it would hit me. And I'd be shut down for two or three days. I basically had a headache for like, two and a half years. It was just...
CARA MOREY: It's been four years.
SEAN MOREY: Yeah, but I mean, the ones that were so - and yet I know...
CARA MOREY: You just had them last week.
SEAN MOREY: I know but...
CARA MOREY: You've always - when we have these things, though, you always act like it's over. And I don't think it is. I don't even think it's close to over.
BLOCK: You said something earlier, Cara, about being in denial. And I wonder if you're still in some kind of denial. Like, do you accept that Sean has a brain injury?
CARA MOREY: No, probably not. I'm sure I'm in some denial because I think it would be really hard to accept, is this what's it's going to be like forever - or is it going to be progressively worse? I don't want to ask myself that question because I'm scared of what the answer would be; as in, I think he did a lot of damage to his brain. I think optimistically and hope - and really hope - that it can heal.
BLOCK: Sean Morey is among dozens of retired NFL players who have agreed to donate their brains for medical research when they die. He hopes his brain might provide some answers. For now, he accepts that the damage he sustained is permanent. He doesn't think it's getting worse. So he tries to adapt. He writes a lot of reminder notes, sets alerts on his phone, stays on top of his meds. And he's devoted himself obsessively to learning about concussions and helping other players who are suffering - first, as founder of the Players' Union Committee on Traumatic Brain Injury; now, as an independent advocate for players' health.
SEAN MOREY: Hey, how's it going? This is Sean.
BLOCK: On a commuter train to New York, Morey spends a lot of time on his cellphone, talking with other retired players.
SEAN MOREY: It's kind of sobering that people are struggling but they're just grinding it out.
BLOCK: He's trying to persuade them to join him and intervene in these $765 million concussion settlement that's now being reviewed by a federal judge. The deal was reached between the NFL and thousands of retired players. But Morey's concerned that a lot of players are left out; players who may not have Parkinson's or ALS, but are still suffering the consequences of brain injury in the NFL.
SEAN MOREY: One of my old teammates I talked with the other day, he has a friend that is, you know, early onset dementia and because he's not showing enough of a decline, he doesn't qualify. And that's a thing that I find, you know, unconscionable.
BLOCK: The deal is so bad, Morey feels no one should accept it. And he tells the players there's strength in numbers.
SEAN MOREY: OK. So you're on board? OK. Thank God. All right. Thanks, buddy. I appreciate it.
BLOCK: This Sunday, Sean Morey will be watching the Super Bowl from his living room couch.
BLOCK: When you watch it, knowing what you know now, will you be watching that game in a different way?
SEAN MOREY: Not really. I mean, I'll just watch the game - you know, that's a lie. That's a lie. I mean, I watch and every time someone gets concussed, I'll rewind it and basically, I'm looking at did they even evaluate him? Did anybody look at him? Did they shrug it off? What's the report back? Well, they're saying, oh, he got shaken up on the field. The first thing is, oh, he got shaken up. They won't use the word concussion.
BLOCK: So you are watching it differently.
SEAN MOREY: I'm watching it - I'm like an educated, informed spectator. I watch it more closely.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
SIEGEL: That's former NFL player Sean Morey, talking with our co-host Melissa Block.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.