Two brutal concussions last fall put the Colts receiver at the forefront of the NFL's head-injury crisis. While he's eager to get back on the field, experts remain unsure how much danger that might put him in
Austin Collie feels phenomenal. That's the word he chooses: phenomenal. It is a profoundly unambiguous adjective, leaving no room for interpretation. And Collie does not invoke it just once. He says it while sitting on a couch in the ramshackle beachfront apartment he and his family have rented for his four weeks of rugged off-season workouts at a high-performance training center in Southern California. He says it again while leaning over the kitchen sink next to his wife, Brooke, stabbing pieces of fresh fruit from a bowl. And he says it while cradling his four-month-old son, Nash, in his arms and looking out through a morning fog at the frothy waves of the Pacific. Phenomenal.
It's a revealing semantic choice, both visceral and calculated. "My body feels great, my head feels great," says Collie. "I don't want the label." The label. Collie, a second-year wide receiver for the Colts, suffered two concussions, six weeks apart, during the second half of the 2010 NFL season. On both occasions he was knocked unconscious. He played in one game between the concussions and left in the second quarter suffering from dizziness. After the second concussion he was placed on the injured reserve list with two weeks left in the regular season.
He is back now, cleared by the Colts' medical staff to resume playing. He has been training since February, awaiting the resumption of a career that began with great promise: In his first 25 games as a professional Collie caught 118 passes from Peyton Manning and scored 15 touchdowns, developing into a tough and reliable slot receiver. He can see it coming. "I don't want to be the poster boy for concussions," he says. But over his objections, he will most certainly have the label.
Collie arrived in the NFL at a time of groundbreaking research into the long-term effects of concussions and other brain trauma. Several former NFL players have died tragically young. Super Bowl--winning safety Dave Duerson of the Bears, 50, and defensive back Andre Waters of the Eagles, 44, both committed suicide; Steelers Hall of Fame center Mike Webster, 50, died of heart failure after suffering from dementia and depression for years. Waters and Webster were found to have suffered from chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE), brain damage likely caused by repeated blows to the head; Duerson's brain is being tested for CTE. Many other former players are struggling with cognitive problems. Rules have been changed to protect players. Institutional, public and media sensitivity are acutely heightened.
Last Christmas Eve, five days after Collie's second, season-ending concussion, respected columnist Bob Kravitz of The Indianapolis Star wrote, "If Collie was my kid, I'd suggest it's time to contemplate another line of employment." Kravitz was not alone. NFL-related message boards lit up with fans pleading for Collie to retire at age 25.
Collie's journey underscores the complexity of an evolving science in an emotionally charged arena. Waters and Webster were deeply harmed by CTE; Duerson suspected he was. Yet NFL Hall of Fame quarterback Steve Young, who played football at Brigham Young with Collie's father, Scott, was by his own count concussed three or four times in a 15-year NFL career and has not felt long-term effects. "I had [concussions], I did not have any side effects, I rested for a little bit, went back and played, and up to today I'm fine," says Young, 49. "Austin's father called me, and I said, 'Make sure you take enough time and listen to the Colts' doctors.' I've been out of football 10 years, and the number of guys I meet who are suffering is alarming."
When the 6-foot, 200-pound Collie took the field in Philadelphia against the Eagles last Nov. 7, he was in the midst of a terrific second pro season, with 44 receptions in six games. (He'd missed one game after thumb surgery.) He had a reputation as an explosive route-runner and a tireless worker, which did not surprise those who knew him at BYU, where he returned from a two-year Mormon mission in 2007 and caught 162 passes in two seasons. "He had a ton of want-to," says Brandon Doman, the Cougars' offensive coordinator. "And he's just fearless."
With 2:29 left in the second quarter in Philly, Collie ran up the field from the left slot and caught a Manning pass in stride. He was hit in the shoulder by the Eagles' Quintin Mikell and in the head by Kurt Coleman's helmet (Coleman was penalized 15 yards), and he fell motionless to the turf. Henry Feuer, the Colts' consulting neurosurgeon, who has been with the team for 26 years and on football sidelines for 40, immediately jogged onto the field.
"Austin was unconscious for 30 to 45 seconds," says Feuer. "In 40 years I've never had a guy out that long. But then he starts to wake up and sees all these people around him, and says, 'I'm O.K. My neck is fine.' But he was nauseous. He's lying there, and he says, 'Don't sit me up, or I'll throw up on you.' So we kept him down."
Collie, who says he'd never before been concussed, was down for almost 10 minutes before being wheeled off on a stretcher. The stadium had fallen silent. Coming three weeks after the NFL's Black Sunday—when a series of brutal head shots forced the league to administer heavy fines and readdress its policy on hits—it was a somber moment.
Collie's recollection of it is hazy: "I don't remember coming to until they were putting me on the stretcher. It was like waking up from a nap. I just knew I wanted to call my wife, because I assumed she was a wreck."
Brooke Collie, 26, comes from a football family. Her father, Kirk Pendleton, played with Scott Collie at BYU, and her brother, Jordan, is a Cougars linebacker. On Nov. 7 she was eight months pregnant with the couple's first child and was watching the game with Allison Tamme, the wife of Colts tight end Jacob Tamme. "It was so bad, I just broke into tears," says Brooke. "I had never seen anybody get stretchered out like that after a concussion." Within minutes offensive coordinator Clyde Christensen called Brooke to say that Austin was awake. Several more calls of reassurance from teammates and Colts personnel followed.
Austin cannot remember the play, or the four that preceded it; in the ensuing week he slept prodigiously and battled nausea, and Brooke says he also complained of dizziness. Feuer held him out of the Nov. 14 game with the Bengals. The day after that Collie passed the NFL-required concussion ImPACT neurocognitive exam, a series of memory and reaction tests lasting approximately 20 minutes, and was cleared by an independent neurologist, another requirement.
Two days before Indy's next game, at New England, Collie met with Feuer, Colts vice chairman Bill Polian and coach Jim Caldwell. Collie had practiced hard for three days. "I told them I felt great," says Collie. Feuer cleared him to play and told Collie, "If you become symptomatic, you tell me, and I'm yanking you." Collie played 11 snaps. Eleven good snaps, with five receptions for 60 yards and three first downs in just over a quarter. But after catching the ball on a short drag pattern, he was thrown down by Patriots linebacker Jerod Mayo. It was a clean tackle and not a huge shot, but Collie rolled backward and hit his head on the turf. He walked directly to Feuer and said, "I'm dizzy."
Feuer said, "You're out."
In retrospect Collie says his symptoms had flared earlier. "The day before the game I felt a little dizzy and tired," says Collie. "I thought maybe it was just nerves. I didn't feel sensitive to light or loud noises or anything like that. Then in the game there were a couple other times [before the Mayo hit] where I came out because I was dizzy," he says. "I got my wits about me, went back in. But that last hit, I felt like, 'That's enough.'"
Collie's relapse in the Patriots game troubles Feuer and points out one of the biggest difficulties in concussion diagnosis and treatment: It still relies in great part on feedback from the athlete. "I kicked it around in my head for a while," says Feuer. "Maybe I let him go back too soon. But he was asymptomatic. He had a good MRI—but of course those almost never show us anything. He felt good. And he didn't get hit hard." (There was, and remains, a suspicion among Indianapolis reporters that Collie suffered a second concussion in that game. Feuer says, "I feel strongly that he did not sustain another concussion in the New England game.")
Feuer sought information from colleagues and eventually met with University of Pittsburgh concussion expert Micky Collins, who showed Feuer a series of kinetic field tests that simulate conditions under which an athlete might experience a recurrence of concussion symptoms. "They get the athlete's heart rate up and then try to make him dizzy," says Feuer. "I got sick watching them."
Feuer ran Collie through the drills. "I was dizzy for another two weeks, but then I started feeling a lot better," says Collie. He passed the ImPACT test again as a precautionary measure, and on Dec. 19 he played against the Jaguars at Lucas Oil Stadium in Indianapolis. His parents and older brother, Zac, were in the stands. Brooke was home alone with Nash, nine days old.
Collie was brilliant in the game, with eight catches for 87 yards and two touchdowns in the first half. With just over a minute left in the second quarter he ran a seam route, and Manning led him perfectly. Collie gathered the ball, and Jaguars linebacker Daryl Smith exploded into him, his right biceps and shoulder striking the left side of Collie's neck. Collie's head hit the turf, and he lay still. On the CBS broadcast Hall of Fame tackle Dan Dierdorf intoned, "Oh, no. Oh, no."
In the stands Zac Collie thought, Ozzie, you've got to be kidding me. Again? At home Brooke was stunned. "I was freaking out," she says, "but I've got the baby and I can't do anything." Again, a flurry of texts and calls came, from Colts wives and personnel. This time Austin walked off the field. "He was out again," says Feuer, "but only for about 10 seconds." There's little amnesia in this instance; Collie remembers the ball in the air on the play. But, Feuer says, "he was more symptomatic after this one than the one in Philadelphia, no two ways about it. He wasn't just nauseous; he had that vacant stare." Three days later the Colts, acting on Feuer's advice, put Collie on injured reserve.
On Jan. 8 Indy's season ended in a playoff loss to the Jets, and two weeks after that Collie took a demanding three-hour version of the ImPACT test. "No evidence of head injury," says Feuer. Collie's stance is that the Jacksonville hit would have knocked him out if even if he had not been previously concussed. "Anybody would have," he says. "I was just unlucky. Because the Eagles hit was made into such a big deal, and then I got another concussion, people want to say, 'This kid is concussion-prone.' Those were two separate hits, and anybody would have gotten concussions from them."
It's a contentious point. Neuropsychologist Kenneth Podell, who works with Detroit-area professional teams, watched the Jacksonville hit and says, "I believe it would have given anybody a concussion." Yet neurologist James P. Kelly, who consults with athletes and the military, says, "People who have had concussions have a higher risk of more concussions."
Collie has been training since February and says his symptoms are gone. "People are entitled to their opinions about me," he says, "but they're not the ones who've had the concussions. They're not the ones who know how I'm feeling. I've got a family and a kid. I know there are more important things than football. If I get another [concussion], I'll take into consideration what's happened in the past. But every person is different, every body reacts differently. I'm ready to continue what I started in those first six weeks last year."
The Colts support his comeback. "This is all uncharted territory," says Polian, "and it's an athlete in our building who we all care for and respect. But it's 100 percent in the hands of the doctors."
At least one doctor can accept the reasoning behind Collie's clearance. Robert Cantu, a neurosurgeon and codirector of the Center for the Study of Traumatic Encephalopathy at Boston University, says, "If a player takes a really significant blow, then somewhat paradoxically we're a little less worried. CTE is more related to total brain trauma, where you have linemen taking 1,000 to 1,500 subconcussive blows in a season. If [Collie] got clocked twice and the rest of his career has been clean, I couldn't criticize anybody who would clear him to come back and play."
On a cool spring morning in California, Brooke Collie applies a loved one's logic. "In the background you always worry, because it's part of the game," she says. "But this is the life we choose." Her husband, vibrant, strong and fit, stands on a porch nearby, no longer just a football player but a test case, too.
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"I DON'T WANT TO BE THE POSTER BOY FOR CONCUSSIONS," COLLIE SAYS. BUT HE WILL BE.
Photograph by TODD BIGELOW/AURORA
LOOKING FORWARD In Southern California this off-season, Collie trained for his return to football, for which he's been given the go-ahead by neurologists.
[See caption above]
DOWN AND OUT Collie was knocked unconscious on the Philly hit and lay on the field for 10 minutes before being carted off.
AL PEREIRA/NY JETS
PRIME TARGET As a slot receiver, Collie is susceptible to huge hits like this one against the Jets in '09. (Collie was uninjured.)