By Tony Grossi
The Morning Kickoff …
The perils of an NFL career: For 10 years in the NFL, the last four with the Browns, Nick Sorensen made a good living smashing into blockers on kickoffs and punts and tackling the returner.
Sorensen appeared in 129 NFL games, never making a single start at his natural position of safety. But his career lasted nine years longer than he thought possible as an undrafted free agent in 2001. The game was fun, the money was good.
As his concussions mounted – three at Virginia Tech and then 10, he estimates, in the NFL – he never second-guessed the career he chose and loved.
Now, nearly two years after his last concussion, it’s not uncommon for him to experience periodic episodes of blurry vision, migraine headaches and vomiting for hours.
“I never had a headache in my life until probably my fifth year in the NFL. Now I get migraines every two or three months,” Sorensen said. “One day I was just sitting at home and everything got blurry all of a sudden. I just started throwing up and it went on for eight hours. Now, whenever my vision gets blurry, I take an Excedrin and drink coffee, an espresso. If I catch it quickly enough, before I throw up, I’m OK.
“Six or seven months ago was the worst one I ever had. For some reason, that time (the Excedrin and coffee) didn’t work. I threw up for five hours. I used to get them twice a year, then every four months. Now my wife is keeping notes. I think they’re coming about every three months. I’ve got an appointment to see a doctor.”
Sorensen used to joke to his wife of two years, Danielle, that she might have to take care of him some day when he’s stricken with dementia at the age of 40. He’s 33. The jokes stopped a week ago when Junior Seau took his life at the age of 43, possibly because of severe depression caused by head trauma injuries during his NFL career.
“It’s definitely sad,” Sorensen said. “But I think everyone being so up in arms about blaming the NFL for it, it’s not right. It’s not like I didn’t know what I was doing. I think a lot of the blame is being overblown.”
The NFL culture: In retirement, Sorensen is learning things that he never thought of as a player. For instance, when he applies for disability claims, there are questions about proof.
“I knew hitting your brain is probably not a good thing,” Sorensen said. “It’s a weird dynamic in the NFL. When I was playing in the NFL, and definitely before that, I didn’t report so much stuff. I can show the tapes of games when I was helped up (by teammates). If you want to play, guys suck it up and play, no matter what. You get that mark on your resume if you don’t. It’s a strange dynamic. Do you report it to trainers or not?”
In four years with the Browns, two plays involving Sorensen are etched in my mind. One was in Jacksonville in the 2008 season, when he broke up a pass in the end zone on the final play, preserving a Browns win.
“I had a minor concussion making a tackle on a kickoff earlier in the game,” Sorensen recalled. “I remember Jason Wright picking me up and walking me off the field. Then before the final play, I tackled someone and got smacked on the head. I came off the field. I was playing against my old team so I’m like, ‘I’m fine. I’m fine.’ I went back in and got to make that last play.”
Then there was the exhibition game in Detroit in 2010. Sorensen collided into a double team on a kickoff. The violent play knocked him out and resulted in him being strapped to a wooden board and taken to a hospital.
“They told me a week later I was unresponsive for two to three minutes,” Sorensen said.
Sorensen returned to play during the 2010 season. It would be his last. When his contract with the Browns ran out, nobody called to sign him. New kickoff rules reduced the value of players like Sorensen running down on kicks to make tackles. Plus, a new labor agreement reinstituted the salary cap at levels three years prior. Players making the 10-year NFL minimum salary were replaced by entry-level players out of college making $500,000 less.
Sorensen kept working out hoping for the phone call that never game. While the migraines persisted, he declined to see a specialist.
“The thing that was in my mind was if I report this, some team will hear about it and not sign me,” he said. “I’m pretty sure that’s how every player looks at it. The game is too much fun. You get paid well. I wouldn’t have changed anything.”
Moving forward: Sorensen says he has no intention of adding his name to one of the 60-plus concussion lawsuits filed by more than 1,600 former players against the NFL.
“I believe in personal responsibility,” he said. “I believe that’s gone nowadays. I don’t want to blame anybody. I was getting paid very well. There are some disability programs available and I’m going to use them. I don’t believe I’ll go beyond that.”
Sorensen recently attended a three-day seminar at Georgia Tech University in Atlanta organized by the NFL Player Development Department. The Career Transition Program, established by the league in 2010, seeks to educate newly retired NFL players on how to transition to their next career.
“They had specialists to help you with your resume, to kind of figure out who you are as a person rather than as a player,” Sorensen said. “I didn’t sign on to sue the league. I will go through this process. I learned more in 15 minutes about disability benefits available to me than I ever did in 10 years from the players union. You’re not educated on those things as a player, and you really don’t care at the time.”
Sorensen and his new wife had a son 17 months ago and are expecting another in July. As a family, their lives are just beginning. He hopes to get into coaching some day. He has a lot more knowledge of the game to share now.
Tony Grossi covers the Browns for ESPN 850 WKNR, ESPN 1540 KNR2 and www.espncleveland.com.
He has covered the Browns with distinction since 1984 and is one of 44 voters for the National Football League Hall of Fame. Email your “Hey Tony” questions to firstname.lastname@example.org
Follow Tony on Twitter @tonygrossi
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