Jets quarterback Greg McElroy tried to hide the fact that he suffered a concussion during his first NFL start last Sunday. Given the increased awareness of head injuries, especially among NFL players, you might find that surprising, if not downright disturbing.
You shouldn't. Players do it all the time.
He would know. He tried to do just that during a Week 2 game against the Buccaneers, when he was hit so hard that his helmet flew off.
"You want to do anything to stay in the game, especially if you're a borderline type of guy,'' he said. "You definitely try to hide it."
McElroy got away with it on game day, and then again through the early part of the week. There were no outward indications at practice Wednesday. But he finally 'fessed up Thursday morning, telling trainers he'd been experiencing headaches. And after McElroy was examined by the team's medical staff, Jets coach Rex Ryan immediately made the decision to sit him in the team's final regular-season game against the Bills, re-installing Mark Sanchez as the starter.
It's an all-too-familiar scenario in a league that is desperately trying to change the culture regarding concussions. McElroy's case only underscores the challenge of trying to create an environment in which players aren't afraid to disclose symptoms of head trauma, fearing that they might not be allowed to play. McElroy is a typical example: fringe player getting his first chance to start and doing anything possible to keep playing -- even at the risk of suffering further damage.
"I'm sure there's been a few times in my career I haven't made the smartest decision with [a concussion],'' Tim Tebow said. "You're a competitor, and sometimes that can get the best of you. You have to try and do the smart thing, not the brave thing."
But all too often in the NFL -- and in other sports as well, at every level -- players routinely ignore symptoms, thereby putting themselves at greater risk. McElroy is simply the latest example.
"I think the majority of guys try to play through anything," said Hixon, who missed one game before returning to the lineup. "You never know when you're going to get your opportunity. Look at what happened when Drew Bledsoe went down and Tom Brady steps up. That may be the one opportunity you get, and if it passes you by, you may never get it again."
That thought surely passed through McElroy's mind. With a chance to start the final two games of the season after Sanchez played his way out of the job, the former seventh-round pick knew this might be his only chance to audition for the starter's job down the road -- if not with the Jets, then with another team.
So what do you do, even if you're hurting? You shut up until the symptoms overwhelm you and there's no choice but to seek help.
"It's the competitive part of players," Jets offensive coordinator Tony Sparano said. "You try and educate them the best you can because [concussions] are serious. The competitor in them obviously thinks they can do it. That's where we have to keep educating them on making sure they report these things."
But it will continue to be a struggle, especially in football, where players are taught from an early age to play through pain and injury.
"If it was me, I'd probably fake it," Giants receiver Victor Cruz said when I asked if he would act as if he weren't hurt if he suffered a concussion. "I'd want to get back in there and get a chance to make some plays for my team. As a competitor, you know that in this profession, it doesn't last forever. It's in your best interest to stay out there."
And get this: It was Cruz and fellow receiver Hakeem Nicks who noticed that Hixon was struggling with memory loss in the Tampa Bay game and alerted trainer Ronnie Barnes, who has urged players to look for signs of concussion in teammates. Not as a way to tattle on them, but to take care of them.
And McElroy can learn from another backup quarterback that concussions shouldn't be taken lightly.
"I'm sure Greg isn't thinking how serious it can be," said the Giants' David Carr, who suffered three concussions while playing for the Texans earlier in his career. "He's thinking, 'I have to get on the field, there's a chance for me to play and do something. It's tempting.' "
But . . .
"The brain doesn't regenerate itself, so you have to take care of it," Carr said. "It's your brain, and you only have one of them."