In a terrifying moment when the life went out of Russell Wilson’s stone-cold eyes, his head planted in the turf by the force and fury of a 272-pound tackler, the stadium in Denver went silent with the guilt we try to bury for our love of a brutal sport.
When a television camera caught the dazed, leaden eyes of a crumpled Wilson near the goal line, the score of a silly game didn’t matter, ending the losing streak against Kansas City didn’t matter, football didn’t matter.
All that mattered was that a father of three children could get up because two young boys and a girl are in need of Wilson’s hugs far more than the Broncos wanted a victory Sunday to avoid elimination from the NFL playoffs.
The Broncos gave Wilson $245 million to play quarterback and risk rattling his cerebellum until age 40.
Are you sure it’s worth the brain damage?
This is a risky business. We all know that. And, yes, Wilson signed up for this blood sport. The voluntary nature of the deal doesn’t make it any less nauseating to watch when a man who’s a father first and quarterback second gets his lights knocked out.
The bravest man in this 34-28 loss to the first-place Chiefs was Wilson, who nearly rallied the Broncos from a 27-point deficit, trying to pull off the biggest comeback in franchise history, right until the instant he was concussed by a tackle from Kansas City lineman Frank Clark at the end of a 14-yard scramble early in the fourth quarter.
“I looked down at him after the play,” Clark said, “and I see like him squealing and stuff like that.”
We raise a toast to the football warrior who puts his body on the line. After being educated on the horrors of CTE, however, we cover our eyes and pray for the best when a player suffers an injury to the brain.
“He put his body on the line, man,” said Brett Rypien, who replaced Wilson at quarterback. “You can say what you want. We are 3-9, they are 9-3. The guy is out there putting his body on the line, battling his (butt) off to win the game. That’s the kind of guy I want to follow.”
Despite all his quirks and some cringe-worthy aggrandizement of his brand, there’s no question Wilson is a winner. For the first time since joining the Broncos, he demonstrated why the team is riding with him. After throwing a pick-six in the first half, Wilson finished with 247 yards passing and three touchdowns. DangeRuss outplayed Patrick Mahomes. And isn’t that why the Broncos traded for him?
But now it is time for the Broncos to protect their hefty investment in the veteran quarterback, and maybe protect Wilson from himself. With this 10th loss of the season officially snuffing out Denver’s slim playoff hopes, there is no reason to rush Wilson back to the field. Let his brain heal. Let his body heal. Let his spirit heal.
If Wilson doesn’t play another snap during the course of the next four games, when the Broncos are playing for nothing but pride, I would be OK with that. How about you?
“He’s in the concussion protocol now,” Broncos coach Nathaniel Hackett said. “So we’ll go through that step-by-step process and do it the right way.”
Nothing that happens the remainder of this season, not even whatever thought general manager George Paton must give to whether Hackett should be one-and-done head coach, is as important to the future of this franchise as Wilson’s health.
We can be certain Wilson will try to get back on the field as soon as possible. With a large clump of grass embedded in his helmet after he scrambled to within 2 yards of the goal line, Wilson didn’t want to leave the field with Denver trailing 34-21.
Although wobbly and obviously concussed, Wilson tried to return to the Denver huddle before being escorted to the sideline and the blue medical tent by team staffers.
A football player’s natural, never-surrender instinct can be hazardous to his own health. My friend Mike Boryla, a Pro Bowl quarterback for Philadelphia in 1975 who is now a Colorado playwright and outspoken critic of the sport’s violence, issued this lament 90 minutes after the Broncos’ loss to Kansas City: “How to gracefully leave football before they kill you?”
Rather than endure more ravages of football that caused him chronic pain, Indianapolis quarterback Andrew Luck retired at age 29 in 2019. Earlier this season, Miami came under intense scrutiny for what appeared to be a callous approach to a head injury suffered by quarterback Tua Tagovailoa, who was held out 23 days after the Dolphins were blasted with intense criticism.
Dealing with the frustration of the eighth one-score defeat of this lost season, Broncos linebacker Jonathon Cooper tried to sort through his emotions in the locker room, before admitting: “My head is all messed up.”
While it’s easy to feel empathy for Cooper’s emotional pain, the concussion to his quarterback is a matter of far more importance. Forget football. At this point in Denver’s season, getting Wilson’s head back straight is all that counts.