Sports

Getting Your Bell Rung

Man Up spoke to former linebacker Joshua Perry, who retired from the NFL after suffering his sixth concussion.

Aymann Ismail and a picture Joshua Perry in uniform
Photo illustration by Slate. Photos by Lisa Larson-Walker and Gregory Shamus/Getty Images.

Joshua Perry was 24 when he retired from the NFL in 2018 and gave up the sport he’d been playing since he was 9 years old. In his announcement, the Seattle Seahawks linebacker and former Ohio State star cited health as the reason; he’d just suffered his sixth documented concussion. On a recent episode of Man Up, he spoke to Aymann Ismail about his decision, his love of the game, and his post-NFL future. This excerpt of the interview has been condensed and edited for clarity.

Aymann Ismail: Can you first talk to me about what happened during your first concussion? What was it like? What do you remember?

Joshua Perry: The first concussion I suffered in my football career—documented—was in high school. It was a play where I was going to tackle a guy, and he fell right on top of me as I was tackling him, and my helmet accelerated into the turf. I was out of it, dazed and confused. We had an athletic trainer on the sideline. He was qualified and trained to be able to spot concussions, so he pulled me out. I think that might’ve been my sophomore year in high school.

Ismail: You said “documented.” What does that mean, exactly?

Perry: There are the concussions that are documented. But all those years when I was in Little League, where they didn’t have an athletic training staff out there, or all the time that I was in middle school, where they didn’t have qualified concussion spotters or really it wasn’t as big of a hot-button issue, I probably had suffered some concussions. There were the plays where you “get your bell rung,” and you dust it off and go off to the sideline, catch your breath, and get a drink of water, and you feel competent enough to go back in the game. There were probably a couple of those situations that happened up until that point, but my first one that was documented on paper was my sophomore year in high school.

The conversation really shifted after my second [NFL] preseason when I had my fifth concussion. I had a conversation with some loved ones about what should I do from here.

Any doctor will tell you the risks of playing having had concussions, but they’ll also tell you that it’s your decision. If you feel good right now, you don’t know what it’s going to be like down the line. It could be good. It could be bad. They’ll tell you: “You have no signs of any lasting issues. Your brain scans look fine.” So it’s up to you to make that choice. Then I had the sixth one. That’s when I just knew. The next day, or maybe two days after that, I was sitting up with the GM of the Seahawks telling him that I was done playing football. My career was over.

Ismail: How would you describe getting a concussion? What is that experience like?

Perry: It was a little bit different every time. Some of them were more dramatic than others. …

Mental fog probably was the biggest thing that I experienced. I’m generally a pretty clear thinker. The headaches obviously were a thing to be concerned with. My mood and my demeanor would change drastically from being a pretty excitable guy, a very positive outlook, to just kind of dumpy. I would feel dumpy when I was concussed. And that’s pretty typical, where people have mood swings. They don’t feel very good in terms of their disposition, or even some people get angry and aggressive. I never was aggressive, but sometimes I would just be angry. Somebody would ask me a question, and I’d be mad, like, “Just stop asking me stupid-ass questions right now.” So it’s interesting how it shows up, and it’s different for everybody. And I would say, out of six concussions, I couldn’t point to two that were exactly alike.

Ismail: Earlier we were talking about how important respect was for you and this idea of not wanting to let your team down. Did you feel like you had to work through any of those ideas?

Perry: I feel like the concussion thing for me was always like: Damn your respect. I really don’t care at this point. I need to take care of my brain. I had earned the respect of my peers at just about every level. When I was in high school, I was a captain. When I was in college, I was a captain. When I was in the NFL, I ended up leading my team in special teams tackles as a rookie. I was just an earning-my-stripes kind of guy. But when it came to my brain health, I was like: “Sorry, guys. You’re going to have to go out there and get it without me. Because 20, 30, 40, 50 years from now, if I have any repercussions from these brain injuries, none of y’all are going to be sitting by my hospital bed rooting me on and patting me on the back anymore. It’s just going to be a memory from the past that’s faded.”

Ismail: Did anyone tell you not to quit?

Perry: The people who I trusted and talked to before that decision—my mom and dad, my girlfriend, and my agent—the only thing that they said is “Are you sure?” Because they know the type of guy that I am and how much football meant to me. They just wanted to make sure that I wasn’t going to regret walking away. But nobody said you shouldn’t do it. You look at Twitter and Instagram, and there are folks who would be like, “You gave up an opportunity of a lifetime,” or they’ll call you soft, or they’ll say your career wasn’t very good anyway. And you can say whatever you want, but that’s why you don’t trust people like that with decisions that are so important.

Ismail: I keep thinking about Andrew Luck, and when he retired from his injuries, he did get support for his decision. Probably more support than he would have gotten a decade ago. But still, his fans booed him for coming off the field in preseason.

Perry: I played in Indianapolis. I think the character of the fans there is different than what was represented by them booing, but they were out of pocket booing like that. …

I think the mentality has to shift as a whole. Most people did a great job with it, but anybody that would say that he was soft is out of their damn mind because there are very few people who could experience that type of trauma and physical pain and then try to respond and rebound the way that he had throughout his career. Most of the people calling him soft would probably get a paper cut or a hangnail and be over there pissing and moaning and crying. So it’s super strange to me how people that don’t belong in a certain space still find their way into that space.

Ismail: We teach athletes to work through pain and to put their pain aside for the sake of the sport, and that in order to excel at any given sport, you need to work through a lot of pain. That’s the name of the game. Your decision worked against that. It feels like there’s a gap between how you felt your entire career—getting up after concussions, going to the sideline, taking a sip of water—to now deciding: “Who cares about touchdowns? My brain is more important.” How does one person go from that first day to the next?

Perry: I think for me at least, concussionwise, it was different than a bone injury or a soft tissue injury. I feel like the risks are more known for other injuries. I’ve got a shoulder injury, but it’s going to be arthritic. My right hand is already arthritic from injuries I sustained. I knew that was going to happen. That was a truly known risk. But there is so much research still to be done over concussions that it’s hard to evaluate. When you make these types of decisions, you evaluate your current state, what you’re going to be like when you get back in the game, and then what is going to be the long-term consequence or repercussion for your decision.

It was easy to say: “Right now I feel awful. Two weeks from now I’m going to feel just like my old self.” But then when you say down the line, how am I going to feel? And you’re like, “I don’t know.” And I feel like that’s how it was easy for me to go against the grain of this “no pain, no gain.” My arthritis, for example, I can deal with the amount of physical pain that comes with it. But can I deal with memory loss? Can I deal with depression? Can I deal with bouts of rage and anger? Can I deal with being in the middle of a sentence and then completely losing my train of thought? Absolutely not. I just can’t do that.

Ismail: How did you overcome that bias?

Perry: I felt two things. No. 1, my long-term health was more important than playing a game that I loved. And that was a really hard decision. But the other thing: Part of the issue in the NFL is guys just can’t walk away from the money. I could walk away from it because I feel like I can make a lot of money doing other things. And until we put the pressure on institutions—and until we put the pressure on athletes in general to do better for themselves academically and to plan for careers outside of their professional sport that they think they’re going to excel at … I didn’t anticipate my career was only going to be two years. I thought I was going to be a six- to eight-year guy in the NFL. But I was prepared to make a transition. Guys aren’t ready to do that, and that is a huge disservice to them because then they end up pushing through injuries they shouldn’t push through. And then you look down the line 40 years and these guys are shells of themselves, and they look beat up, and they look battered, and they just can’t help themselves.

Ismail: But not even just in football, you’ll find guys who hurt themselves and deny it and don’t want to acknowledge how their bodies are hurt just because they feel like they, as a man, have to.

Perry: You get some of these old-school blue-collar guys, and they’re the same way. It’s like, “My chest hurts, but I’m not going to go to the doctor.” Then, next thing you know, somebody’s got lung cancer. Or “This chest pain’s not a big deal” and they’re suffering a heart attack. Those are the types of things that literally kill people. Like, “I’m tough enough. I’m macho. I don’t need to see a doctor.” It’s like, “Well, yeah, you’re not going to see a doctor. You’re going to see a mortician because you’ll be dead.”

Ismail: Do you still watch football? What do you do on Sundays?

Perry: It’s my whole job now, Saturdays, Sundays. I’m on a local radio station in Columbus, Ohio. I cover NFL football on Tuesday nights. I cover college football Wednesday nights. And then I work with Big Ten Network on Fridays and Saturdays. So I cover college football throughout the Big Ten.

Ismail: That’s interesting, though, that you’re still watching football. You still probably see people hitting each other really hard.

Perry: Oh, yeah. The shame of it all is I enjoy it. It’s so crazy. I was able to remove myself from that environment. But at the end of the day, there’s a certain reason we watch football, and everybody, regardless if you’re a football fan, you enjoy the big hits. And so I sit there. I consume them. I don’t cringe. And the reason I don’t cringe is because it’s a known risk. My story was on the Today show. Andrew Luck’s story has been all over every daggone media outlet. Guys know the risk, and they know they can walk away from the game, and they make a decision not to. And it’s not an indictment on anybody. As long as they choose to stay in the game, I’m going to consume and enjoy it from the viewpoint that all these guys are enjoying their experience and that they’re willingly there and they’re happy about it.

To listen to the entire interview, click the player below or subscribe wherever you get your podcasts.