reen Bay — The lights went out for a few seconds on Bryan Bulaga when he was blindsided in the Buffalo game last December.
The Green Bay Packers right tackle couldn’t talk very well. He glanced around Ralph Wilson Stadium but didn’t know where he was.
He was taken to the locker room for evaluation and discovered his balance was terrible and his head ached.
They were telltale signs. He had suffered a concussion.
“They are scary,” said the 6-foot-5, 314-pound veteran. “You don’t feel like yourself, and to me that’s not a good feeling.”
If Bulaga had suffered a concussion before the new standardized leaguewide concussion protocol, any number of things might have happened for him or any other player in the NFL. He might have just taken a breather. He might have returned. He might have been described as getting his bell rung.
The Packers medical staff would have probably rested him as a precaution.
Last season, he was benched immediately without debate and only returned the following week after passing a series of tests.
In training camp this week, the Packers were without several players because of concussion or head-injury symptoms, including receiver Jared Abbrederis, backup quarterback Scott Tolzien and right guard T.J. Lang.
But concussions are actually down from 173 in 2012 to 112 in 2014, according to the NFL. The difference may be in how the injury has been handled. Life in the NFL now means that any head injury and any symptoms are identified and treated swiftly, seriously and publicly.
While the Packers may be inconvenienced with the number of guys they have going through the concussion protocol at the moment, players say they’re grateful for the NFL’s new policy.
“I take it seriously,” said Packers cornerback Micah Hyde, “because of what’s been going on in the league and how they’ve been a lot more strict with concussions.”
There is no such thing as being overly cautious. That means the players even take the baseline test seriously. Remember when quarterback Peyton Manning purposefully tried to underperform on his concussion test so he could return to the field quicker?
That’s not the attitude today in Green Bay.
“That’s our health that we’re talking about,” Packers rookie corner Damarious Randall said. “That’s nothing to play with.”
In addition to physical tests, the computerized, 45-minute baseline test determines a player’s memory, concentration, reaction time, attention span and problem-solving skills.
Some questions are easy. Randall was asked to look at different shapes such as squares, triangles and circles that were flashed to him in a certain order. He had to recall the shapes in the right order.
“I could probably do the same resultswith a concussion,” Randall said.
Other questions were difficult. Rookie receiver Ty Montgomery was given a sequence of numbers he had to recite in ascending and descending order, and he had to compute difficult math problems.
“I’m sort of being facetious, but I was thinking, ‘Wow, I can barely get some of the questions right and I don’t have a concussion,'” Montgomery said.
With this baseline, neurologists have a map of the player’s brain function when not injured. It is essential for the sake of comparison for when he does get injured.
During the game, there are a lot of people watching out for head injuries. There’s a doctor or athletic trainer in the press box scanning the field for anyone who looks woozy. They could be helpful during the frantic pace of the no-huddle offense.
There’s also a team-employed neuropsychologist on the field, and a third independent physician, unaffiliated with the NFL or the Packers, on the sideline, who could stop play to have someone checked out.
“If you feel like your head is bothering you, they’re going to find out right away,” Hyde said. “They’re not going to wait until after the game to look after you.”
Officials, coaches and teammates can look out for injured players, too, and may have the best insight. That’s what Montgomery learned while at Stanford, that not all concussions — like Bulaga’s — are obvious, and not all players exhibit the same symptoms.
“You’d see a guy kind of get up, and walk in the opposite direction,” Montgomery said. “At first it’s like what is this guy thinking? What is he doing?
“But then you realize, whoa, whoa, he might be concussed.”
When Hyde took a knee to his head and blacked out on the field his sophomore year at Iowa, it left him with a headache that day, insomnia that night and a general unwell feeling.
“I couldn’t remember what happened, but I knew right away I had a concussion,” Hyde said. “The trainers knew right away. I stopped playing.”
In many ways, this protocol protects players. When doctors and tests — not coaches or players — determine a player’s health, there’s less of a chance of putting an injured player back on the field too soon.
“It’s an insurance policy; it is really helping us,” Randall said. “Say down the road, some of us just start acting weird or develop some of the things the older guys have been developing. We can look back to the changes and see that we were fine before.”
But there will still be those who will fight to return to the field when expectations are high and high-paying jobs are on the line.
“That pressure is very internal as well,” veteran fullback John Kuhn said.
Once a concussion is diagnosed it is very important to treat it correctly, and that’s why you see players miss practice and work time with the team.
Kevin Walter is a program director of sports medicine at Children’s Hospital of Wisconsin and a concussion expert who advises the Wisconsin Interscholastic Athletic Association. He said the standard treatment is to rest and avoid any mental stimulation.
“It still boils down to giving your brain a rest and decreasing that stress, be it school, work, physical exertion, visual stimulus — and making sure you get good sleep,” Walter said.
Concussions and the resulting traumatic brain injury and Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy (CTE) can be very costly to a person’s mental health. They’ve been linked to depression, cognitive impairment, relationship problems and memory loss.
But Randall has never had one and doesn’t worry because he said he doesn’t experience a lot of helmet-to-helmet contact.
“A lot of these guys know what they’re signing up for,” Randall said. “It’s not like it’s a big surprise to us.”
Hyde felt that his one concussion in years of high school, college and pro football gives him pretty good odds that he’ll be OK later in life.
“You see the guys retired now and you think about yourself, mentally and physically,” said Hyde last week, before he hurt his neck in the third preseason game. “At the same time, I’ve been doing this my whole life. I feel comfortable with the way I’m playing football and how I tackle.”
Montgomery says he certainly can’t do his job and worry about getting a concussion, either.
“This is going to be my livelihood,” Montgomery said. “I want to make a career out of this. This is how I want to feed my family. So I can’t be worried about what is going to happen to me.”
To Walter, that’s the best attitude to have.
“A professional football player that says, ‘Every time I go out and play, I’m scared of getting a concussion’ — then you shouldn’t be out there,” Walter said. “That’s someone who’s going to be slowing down, changing how they approach the game. You could argue that that person would be more likely to get injured.”
Kuhn said he’s not very good about envisioning his life when he’s 50 or 60, much less five years from now, but he said he understands the risk.
“I definitely don’t think I’m invincible,” Kuhn said. “I’ve grown up here. I’ve felt the changes in my body over the years. If I’m optimistic, I wouldn’t say that means I feel invincible.”
“That’s the catch of this game, we love our profession, we love this game. We feel like we’ve done the necessary training, done the necessary safeguards to take care of ourselves enough to play.”