Former NFL Players Are Watching Concussion and They’re Terrified

A drama to most viewers is a horror movie to some retired players. 

Who says a holiday movie can’t be a downer? Not Sony.

On Christmas Day. the studio will release Concussion, the feel-bad sports drama of the year. Starring Will Smith, Concussiontells the story of Dr. Bennet Omalu, who discovered a type of brain damage known as chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE) in a former NFL player and fought the league to acknowledge the neurological risks of playing tackle football. Seventy-six out of 79 deceased former NFL players were found to have the brain disease in a 2014 investigation by Frontline, and there have been 150 concussions in 2015 alone.

If that sounds like a drag, imagine what former NFL players think. These were the guys toiling in the trenches while the league hid the dangers of the game. Fortunately, a handful of them have caught early screenings of Concussion and most are not pleased at all.

The NFL Player’s Association held a screening for 70 former players last week and The MMQB was there to record their reactions. The scene painted by writer Emily Kaplan is downright depressing. Players breathing heavily, gasping audibly and beelining for the exit as soon as the credits began to roll. “If we knew that we were killing people, I would have never put on the jersey,” former defensive lineman Keith McCants said after watching the movie.

Longtime NFL receiver Willie Gault’s didn’t go as far as McCants, but he too wish he had known the truth while in uniform. “If I had seen it while I was a player, I think I still would have played football, but I would have played it differently. I would have had a different mindset.”

Former linebacker Pierre Woods told Cleveland’s Plain Dealer that he’s reconsidering his son’s participation in football after watching the movie. “My son may have to run track,” he said. It’s a notable reaction from a guy who was friends with Junior Seau, the Hall of Fame linebacker who killed himself three years ago and was diagnosed with CTE. Woods knew the dangers of football after seeing what happened to Seau, but it took seeing a cinematic portrayal to question whether his own child should be playing. 

Former offensive tackle Matt Willig, whose career as a tough-guy character actor was preceded by 14 years in the NFL, has a unique take on the movie because he’s in it. Willig plays former Steelers lineman Justin Strzelczyk, who died at 36 and was also diagnosed with CTE. Unlike Strzelczyk, Willig says he doesn’t have any neurological or emotional trouble from his playing days. But that doesn’t mean he’s not concerned.

“It does worry me,” he told Sporting News. “A lot of times, people go 15-20 years without any signs.”

Sony maintains that they don’t want Concussion to come across as an anti-football movie, but like football’s tussle with head injuries, that seems like a battle the studio isn’t going to win. 

Photos by Columbia Pictures