Anonymous Football Player Details Fear Of Health Risks In 'NFL Confidential'
AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:
It's unusual for an NFL player - a current player - to criticize the league, especially its handling of controversial issues like concussions or domestic violence, but author Johnny Anonymous has done just that. He's an offensive lineman who's written a book under that pseudonym. It's called "NFL Confidential." In it, he details his 2014 season, including training camp and his big break after a starting player gets injured. He's worried about being fired, so we've masked his voice. First, Johnny Anonymous says getting hurt is always on the mind of the player.
ANONYMOUS: It's absolutely constant. The NFL's the only league, the only job you'll find in the world where we have a 100 percent injury rate.
CORNISH: So walk us through the questions that come to mind for a player when they first hear that, you know, sickening sound and they're lying there on the field. What are you thinking?
ANONYMOUS: For some guys, it's fear, which is why you'll see them kicking and screaming and crying, and some guys it's shock. I know for most of us - and probably all of us - the first thing you think is, I'm done; that's it. You think the injury's going to take the game away from you.
CORNISH: So in a way, you know, this is how it happens, right, this discussion of, like, why do people take all the painkillers, you know, like, why do people defy doctors?
ANONYMOUS: You have to. It's the only way you make it through. I can tell you right now, honestly, that if I am playing a game, I cannot complete that game without painkillers. I will not be an effective player.
CORNISH: When did you start playing? You know, how did you fall into a game that you've really come to dislike in a lot of ways?
ANONYMOUS: Well, it's not that I don't like the game. I love the game - absolutely love it. I love every second I can play. And I mean play as in physically play on the field. It's really my distaste for what the NFL strives to be and what they actually are. So, I mean, I can look back to when I started in high school and college, and that's truly a time where I loved everything about it. It's something that I needed to be and that it needed to be a part of me. And then you get the NFL and you realize that the only reason that you're there and the only reason that they want you there is to make money for the NFL, and they'll compensate you for that.
CORNISH: You write in the book that the league is an expert at manipulating people - players, fans, coaches, and you say even me, referring to yourself.
ANONYMOUS: No doubt.
CORNISH: Well, how do you see it as manipulating players?
ANONYMOUS: Well, I mean it's - as far as manipulating a player, it's fairly easy. It's your livelihood. I mean, you grew up being a football player. I went to grade as a football player. I went to high school as a football player to become a college football player. I was in college not to go to college; I was in college to be a football player in the NFL. So you find yourself sitting in my shoes, and you realize that you don't have anything else. This is all I know how to do.
CORNISH: I want to note, though, players like Chris Borland. He retired from the San Francisco 49ers at age 24 because of concussion fears. You write in the book of meeting older players who you describe as being, you know, clearly damaged from their years of play. I mean, what is that like?
ANONYMOUS: It's - I remember recently I had this conversation with a guy that played eight years as an offensive lineman and was told to me as being a very intelligent guy, and I was actually excited to talk to him. And within seconds of speaking to him, his eyes hung heavy, his voice was slurred. The effects were apparent. He could barely walk. It's terrifying. I mean, there's all the talk about CTE and what brain damage can do to you, but you can't forget about arthritis. And just really the downside of every surgery you've had is going to play out when you're 35, whereas in normal people, that arthritic nature of your body won't hit until your - I don't know - late 50s.
CORNISH: So what kind of message are you getting from the NFL about this issue about concussions specifically?
ANONYMOUS: I think there's concern, but I think the concern only exists to combat the negative publicity they are getting. There's concussion protocol that they're putting in. And sure, they'll have to evaluate every player that has a possible head injury. But at the same time, once you can pass your test - your little computer test that they put you through - you're ready to get back on the field, and there's no negative thought. But at the same time, if you have too many concussions on your list and your medical records, they'll weight that against you and not sign you back when your contract's up just out of risk.
CORNISH: So you're saying, on the one hand, maybe they are being more active in checking these things. But on the other hand, the players feel pressured, right? They don't want to be labeled injury-prone.
ANONYMOUS: One hundred percent.
CORNISH: You know, when you introduce yourself in the book, you say that you, quote, "flat out hate professional football, resent it, loathe it." Now, there's got to be something that attracted you to the game initially. What was it?
ANONYMOUS: Well, I do hate the NFL. I love football. It's truly - it's like a drug. I mean, you find yourself placed inside of a game. In those split seconds before and during the play of - you're completely stuck in it. And you thrive in every second that it takes. And it's everything that I want. It's everything I could ever want. And it's part of me now, and it will always be a part of me. But you compound that with all of the mess that is the NFL and the portrayal that the media and the people get, and it's really - it's not what it truly is.
CORNISH: You describe the reason why you initially started playing - that it came after your mother's death. Tell us about her.
ANONYMOUS: She was everything, you know? And she was - I was a mama's boy, which is kind of funny. It was - football was something she never wanted me to do. Growing up, my entire life - you'll never play football. Go play baseball. And I played baseball. And really, I did that until I couldn't play baseball because of another injury. And football was what I wanted to try. And at that time in my life, I needed something like football. And I do think the game still carries a strong connection between me, through the game, to her, just because of everything that we had together.
CORNISH: And how old were you at that time?
ANONYMOUS: I was young. I was young. It was before 10.
CORNISH: You mentioned your mom growing up, that she wouldn't have wanted you to play football. What do you think she would think of your career that you have had and what you're doing now?
ANONYMOUS: I don't know. I think I've had a fairly successful career. And in the same breath, I think she'd look at it go, what are you doing? There's so much more for you out there.
CORNISH: At the end of the day, do think you're going to keep playing? And if so, for how long?
ANONYMOUS: I couldn't answer that. This world move on for me, and every year, at the end of every season and at the beginning of every season when I have to go back, the question will linger the back of my mind of - what the hell am I doing, and why am I playing this game? Do I still need this game? And it just sucks you in. It sucks you back, and you just find yourself moving on.
CORNISH: Well, Johnny Anonymous, thank you so much for your time.
ANONYMOUS: Thank you. Thanks for having me.
CORNISH: That was a voiceover covering the altered voice of Johnny Anonymous. It's the pseudonym of a current NFL player. His real identity has been confirmed by NPR. His new book is called "NFL Confidential." And there's more of our conversation online at npr.org.
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