A No-Brainer: Football Leads to Concussions : Chris Miller Keeps Getting Knocked Out and Keeps Going Back

TIMES STAFF WRITER

One Ram-tough man in this town likes to joke about quarterback Chris Miller and those brain injuries that caused him to forget addresses, telephone numbers and the day of the week.

"My belief on concussions is, you get whacked over the head enough, your leaking cerebral fluid thickens into a shell that protects your brain," running back Ron Wolfley said. "Miller's problem is that he has not been hit in the head enough ."

Another Ram-tough man says there is too much hype about those brain injuries that caused Miller to get lost once for more than an hour on a 20-minute drive home.

"I think concussions are a little overrated," Ram Coach Rich Brooks said. "People in the game also have knee injuries. They have shoulder problems. I think concussions have been made bigger than life."

One woman in this town does not agree with either man.

Each time an opposing player nears Chris Miller during games, her stomach grabs her. So she grabs somebody--a friend on the couch, a stranger in the stands, anybody.

She holds tight until the play is over or the quarterback stands up.

"Earlier this season, two men sitting in the row in front of me felt my sharp nails and thought I was crazy," she said.

The last time Miller didn't stand up, she was so panicked she ran to the field and demanded to talk to the doctor. She doesn't want to think about the next time.

She is Jennifer Miller, the quarterback's wife and mother of their two young children. She has watched her husband endure four concussions in the last 13 months.

She doesn't talk Ram tough.

"Before every game, I am a wreck," she said. "I worry about him all the time. My No. 1 interest now is to make sure he comes out of the game in one piece. It's hard. It's very hard."

Stepping into this great divide on Sunday against the San Francisco 49ers, as he does every week, is Miller.

He has been at his unshaven, barking, swaggering best. He has led a team to first place while ranking sixth in the NFL in passer ratings. He has thrown more touchdown passes than Troy Aikman, 11 to seven, and fewer interceptions than Steve Young, three to four.

But he has been quietly, vulnerably, caught between the worries of his family and pressure from his associates.

Between outside medical theories that the next concussion could kill him, and arguments from NFL doctors that such proof does not exist.

It is a battle that can have many winners.

But only one loser.

Chris Miller stiffens as if challenged to a fight.

"I don't want to back down," he says. "That's just the way it is."

*

Nobody will tell Chris Miller to quit.

Not after his head was bounced off the artificial turf in New Orleans last season, causing a concussion that caused him to sit out two starts.

Not after he was jolted by the Saints again less than two months later in Anaheim and missed another start because of a concussion.

Not after his head was thumped by the Seattle Seahawks in the first exhibition game this year, causing him to walk off in the first quarter.

And not after his head was nearly removed--his brain rocked again--on a helmet-high hit by Vinson Smith of the Chicago Bears last month.

Nobody, not family or friends or teammates, will tell Chris Miller to quit.

Jennifer says the closest they came to a serious discussion occurred after the Seahawk game, when Miller returned to Oregon to visit his newborn daughter.

"Why does this keep happening?" she asked him. "This can't keep happening, can it?"

"But," Jennifer said this week, "I trust Chris to know when it's time to walk away. He is the only one who can know."

Vic Maxey, an Atlanta businessman and close friend, said he gave Miller the verbal equivalent of a noogie when they met in the stadium parking lot after the Chicago concussion.

Miller told Maxey he felt fine, that he only had a little headache.

"BS, you're getting knocked out too much," Maxey shot back. "Buddy, life is too short for this stuff."

Mark Rypien, veteran Ram backup quarterback, wouldn't dare say a word to Miller about his injuries. But he admits he thinks about them.

"My wife and I talk about it, and if something like this persisted for me--well, you have to think about the long-term ramifications of what is happening," Rypien said, quickly adding, "But that is just me."

That is not Miller.

He admits to not listening to the details of medical warnings.

"I'm wearing this new mouthpiece now," he explained, "because doctors are saying something like, 'When you are hit, your jaw backs up to your brain.' "

What he hears, instead, are sounds like that cry from the Atlanta fan two years ago as he lay on the Falcon bench in pain after seriously injuring his knee for the second time in two seasons.

"Miller, you're a [wimp]!" shouted the fan.

Miller pulled his aching body up and cursed the fan back.

He still hears that guy. He still hears other NFL players mumbling about his inability to play an entire year because of knee or shoulder or elbow injuries.

Although only four quarterbacks in NFL history have thrown for 10,000 yards at a younger age--Miller hit that mark when he was 26--he had started only 20 of his last 48 games before this season.

"Chris had not been known for being a tough guy," Rypien said.

Miller hears things like this and now, in a new town with new enthusiasm and old college coach Brooks at his side, says it is time to prove a point.

"All those injuries and everything, they were like halftime in my career," he said. "I consider what is happening now as my third quarter. It is time for me to kick it."

That means holding the ball as long as is required for the best throw. If he later gets knocked down by three 300-pound men who used that time to fight off blockers, so be it.

"Now, you look at him and see nothing but toughness," Rypien said.

Said Miller: "In some situations, you have to sacrifice your body. I want to hang in the pocket as long as I can, be as tough as I can."

Brooks said Miller's attitude is a good thing.

"I get irritated with that China doll image that Chris carries around," he said. "Right now, Chris is just having fun playing football."

And about the head?

"People have been getting hit in the head since creation," Brooks said. "Rocks fall on you. Trees fall on you. The media hype on concussions the last two years has been unbelievable."

Talk of such injuries, the coach says, actually encourages other players to hurt a quarterback. That is why the word concussion is used about as much around a football field as home plate.

"With all the media talk about them, I think this encourages players to take shots at a guy if they think he is melon head and it can put him out of the game," Brooks said.

Jennifer said Brooks is actually more concerned about the problem than it appears. Brooks recently told Miller he needed to feel right before going back out and playing.

Miller knows he feels fine, because he remembers, after earlier concussions, what it is like to feel weird.

To think that the next day was game day, when it was only a Friday. To be unable to find a familiar airport.

"Some of the folks are saying it's cumulative, but I don't know anything about that," Miller said. "Doctors tell me I am fine and in no danger to play."

Besides, he said, "The way I look at it is like, you're fighting Tyson. He hits you in the head, you fall down, you get up. Two hours later you're ready to fight again."

Or you could be Jimmy Garcia fighting Gabriel Ruelas, in which case you never get up.

"It's a risk, but everybody out there is taking a risk," Miller said, shrugging. "Big suckers are coming at you. Those . . . are bringing the wood. You're holding the rock. They want a piece of you. You're trying to hang in there."

When he puts it like that, it sounds so gallant.

Not at all like the words of the woman so frightened she grabs for strangers.

Copyright © 2019, Los Angeles Times
EDITION: California | U.S. & World
71°