Nearly 4,000 former NFL players are suing the league over concussions, claiming they were purposely misled about the dangers of brain injury. But even though he suffered about a dozen concussions during his Hall of Fame career and still deals with symptoms from post-concussion syndrome, former Giants linebacker Harry Carson isn't one of them.
He doesn't want the NFL's money. He does want the league's attention.
"I was asked two years ago to be a lead complainant by a law firm in New York, but it wasn't something I was looking to do," Carson said in an interview with Newsday. "Some of my old teammates called me and said, 'Why haven't you joined the lawsuit?' I told them it's better for me not to so I can continue to deliver the message, what can be done to help players once they've sustained concussions. Those are the ones who need help."
But why not join the lawsuit, which could lead to billions of dollars paid out by the NFL to players who suffered head trauma during their careers?
"Because people will think that I'm only speaking out for my own financial well-being," said Carson, who was inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 2006 after playing his entire career from 1978-88 with the Giants. "It's more important for me to deliver the message but allow it to stay pure and not have it be influenced by money."
Carson remains deeply troubled by the persistent problem of concussions, which the league has attempted to address for the last several years by raising awareness of the dangers of head trauma and donating millions of dollars to medical research. Had he known from the start of his career that he might suffer the consequences of brain injury after his career, Carson said he would have elected not to play. And he said he doesn't want his 3-year-old grandson to ever play the game.
"I've bought him golf clubs, I take him swimming, we go to the driving range," he said. "But I do not want him to play football."
But he remains committed to helping former players dealing with the effects of concussions. He laments the fact that he couldn't do more to prevent the recent suicides of former NFL stars such as Bears and Giants safety Dave Duerson and Chargers linebacker Junior Seau.
"See, the stuff that Dave Duerson and maybe Junior Seau experienced is stuff that I experienced when I played," said Carson, who feels good most of the time but experiences headaches that can be triggered by bright lights or loud noises or by looking at the TV from a certain angle.
He said problems with memory loss have improved over time, but he looks back on several instances in his playing days when he would be unable to come up with words during interviews with reporters.
Carson said he experienced suicidal thoughts during his career and believes former players experiencing similar thoughts can be helped by increased awareness. "In the early 1980s, I had thoughts of driving off the Tappan Zee Bridge," he said. "That was something I contemplated, but I didn't talk about it. I had some small bouts of depression when I played. You have thoughts like you're going crazy."
Duerson, who committed suicide in February 2011, had evidence of chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE). Former safety Ray Easterling, who killed himself last February, had severe CTE. An autopsy on Seau, who committed suicide in May, was inconclusive regarding CTE.
Former linebacker Jovan Belcher, who grew up in West Babylon, committed suicide Dec. 1 after murdering his girlfriend. It is uncertain whether evidence of brain injury can be found, given that he shot himself in the head.
A study of 85 brains donated by the families of deceased veterans and athletes with history of brain trauma, -- released this month by researchers at Boston University's Center for the Study of Traumatic Encephalopathy -- found that 34 of 35 former pro football players' brains showed evidence of the disease.
Carson believes he could have convinced Duerson and Seau, and perhaps Belcher, not to take their own lives. It haunts him that he couldn't have done more.
"If I had been able to speak with them, I could have told them, 'You're not going crazy. What you have is something that is very manageable,' " Carson said. "But when you talk to football players, they're very proud individuals, and when they feel like they're not in control of their own bodies and what they're thinking, they literally believe they're going crazy. I very much identify with where a lot of these guys are."
After retiring, Carson was so concerned about his own concussion-related problems that he sought medical treatment. He was diagnosed with post-concussion syndrome in 1990 and became an outspoken advocate for concussion awareness in 1994.
"I'm concerned because [concussions] are a natural part of the game," he said. "It doesn't matter how safe you try to make it. The pure nature of the sport, you're going to sustain some kind of head trauma. It's pure physics. It's the brain stopping and hitting up against the inside of the skull. It's not about the helmet. It's about the brain rattling inside the skull.
"I think it's important that people be aware that there are things you can do to help themselves," he said. "I try to educate people on this issue that so many people have no clue about. By talking about it, it has opened the eyes of people. We need greater awareness of the problem."