Football players are conditioned from an early age to play through pain, and the Carolina Panthers are no different.
Cornerback Leonard Johnson was rushed to the hospital in what he described as “the worst pain he’s ever been in” after a chest injury suffered against the New Orleans Saints. He admitted the next week that he was having trouble fully breathing, but was back on the field that Sunday against the Oakland Raiders.
And during that game against Oakland, receiver Kelvin Benjamin caused a mild scene on the sideline when, frustrated after tweaking his shoulder, the trainers insisted he sit out while they took a closer look.
“As players we are going to always want to play the game,” said 10-year veteran Thomas Davis, who has recovered from three ACL tears in his career. “We are always going to want to get back on the field.”
But brain injuries are different.
“Totally different,” Davis said. “That’s not something that you can or should play through. I have advised any player that has any kind of brain injury or concussion or anything of that sort to make sure you sit down and seek the proper help that you need.”
For Davis, those words of caution have been especially important when dealing with Luke Kuechly, his close friend and teammate.
Kuechly is one of eight players the Panthers have placed in the NFL-mandated concussion protocol – with nine total instances, since rookie corner Daryl Worley has been in the protocol twice.
Concussions have been so prevalent that Carolina head coach Ron Rivera said Wednesday he hoped to become more educated in the offseason about recognizing and preventing them.
According to Rivera, the Panthers were involved in a similar study a few years ago after a spate of soft-tissue injuries, and the changes the staff made afterward cut down on those injuries.
“To be very frank about it, I think it’s very important that, not just me, but that other people in this industry try to get to understand it a little bit more” Rivera said. “Because who knows? Maybe there’s something that we’re missing in terms of preparation.”
Kuechly’s concussion, on national television, drew the most attention. He was injured during a Thursday Night Football game against the New Orleans Saints, and was inconsolable while being carted off the field, tears streaming down his cheeks.
After the game, when asked about Kuechly’s reaction, head coach Ron Rivera explained to reporters that the tears could be attributed to the emotion Kuechly felt at having to leave the game.
“You know him, he wants to play,” said Rivera.
But last week, NBC sideline reporter Michelle Tafoya talked to Kuechly before Sunday night’s matchup in Seattle and asked about the tears, citing studies that have shown similar reactions displayed by people who have suffered a traumatic head injury.
She reported that Kuechly said he didn’t know where the tears came from, and hoped they were concussion-related because if they weren’t, he had no idea what had caused them.
Kuechly has not been available to speak with local media since returning to practice in a limited capacity on Wednesday.
Nobody knows how a player will react to a traumatic brain injury and, similarly, nobody knows how each player will recover or how long it might take.
“That’s part of the stuff that (researchers, athletic trainers, etc.) are working through right now, just trying to figure out what the different symptoms are,” said safety Colin Jones, who also spent time in the concussion protocol this season. “I think there are like 30 different symptoms that you can have. And now there is so much layering of the protocol that you have to get through to get cleared to come back, which I think is good.
“It helps protect guys from themselves. Because we want to play football.”
Davis saw that on display the night Kuechly was hurt – from the other team.
“When you watch the same game that Luke went down in, (Saints running back) Mark Ingram was knocked out on the field,” Davis said. “And he was over there arguing with the staff about coming back into the game. Fortunately enough, the Saints made the right decision. … I think that really speaks to players wanting to play.
“That’s why it’s important for the trainers and the neutral guys on the sideline to pull us out of the game and really protect the players.”
Davis has taken it upon himself to play that role for Kuechly.
“Take his time. That’s the message I said to him all the time,” said Davis. “Don’t rush back. You don’t want to get into a situation where it’s going to continue to linger.”