Austin Collie feels phenomenal. That's the word he chooses: phenomenal. It is a profoundly unambiguous adjective, leaving no room for interpretation. And Collie does not invoke it just once. He says it while sitting on a couch in the ramshackle beachfront apartment he and his family have rented for his four weeks of rugged off-season workouts at a high-performance training center in Southern California. He says it again while leaning over the kitchen sink next to his wife, Brooke, stabbing pieces of fresh fruit from a bowl. And he says it while cradling his four-month-old son, Nash, in his arms and looking out through a morning fog at the frothy waves of the Pacific. Phenomenal.
It's a revealing semantic choice, both visceral and calculated. "My body feels great, my head feels great," says Collie. "I don't want the label." The label. Collie, a second-year wide receiver for the Colts, suffered two concussions, six weeks apart, during the second half of the 2010 NFL season. On both occasions he was knocked unconscious. He played in one game between the concussions and left in the second quarter suffering from dizziness. After the second concussion he was placed on the injured reserve list with two weeks left in the regular season.
He is back now, cleared by the Colts' medical staff to resume playing. He has been training since February, awaiting the resumption of a career that began with great promise: In his first 25 games as a professional Collie caught 118 passes from Peyton Manning and scored 15 touchdowns, developing into a tough and reliable slot receiver. He can see it coming. "I don't want to be the poster boy for concussions," he says. But over his objections, he will most certainly have the label.
Collie arrived in the NFL at a time of groundbreaking research into the long-term effects of concussions and other brain trauma. Several former NFL players have died tragically young. Super Bowl--winning safety Dave Duerson of the Bears, 50, and defensive back Andre Waters of the Eagles, 44, both committed suicide; Steelers Hall of Fame center Mike Webster, 50, died of heart failure after suffering from dementia and depression for years. Waters and Webster were found to have suffered from chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE), brain damage likely caused by repeated blows to the head; Duerson's brain is being tested for CTE. Many other former players are struggling with cognitive problems. Rules have been changed to protect players. Institutional, public and media sensitivity are acutely heightened.
Last Christmas Eve, five days after Collie's second, season-ending concussion, respected columnist Bob Kravitz of The Indianapolis Star wrote, "If Collie was my kid, I'd suggest it's time to contemplate another line of employment." Kravitz was not alone. NFL-related message boards lit up with fans pleading for Collie to retire at age 25.
Collie's journey underscores the complexity of an evolving science in an emotionally charged arena. Waters and Webster were deeply harmed by CTE; Duerson suspected he was. Yet NFL Hall of Fame quarterback Steve Young, who played football at Brigham Young with Collie's father, Scott, was by his own count concussed three or four times in a 15-year NFL career and has not felt long-term effects. "I had [concussions], I did not have any side effects, I rested for a little bit, went back and played, and up to today I'm fine," says Young, 49. "Austin's father called me, and I said, 'Make sure you take enough time and listen to the Colts' doctors.' I've been out of football 10 years, and the number of guys I meet who are suffering is alarming."
When the 6-foot, 200-pound Collie took the field in Philadelphia against the Eagles last Nov. 7, he was in the midst of a terrific second pro season, with 44 receptions in six games. (He'd missed one game after thumb surgery.) He had a reputation as an explosive route-runner and a tireless worker, which did not surprise those who knew him at BYU, where he returned from a two-year Mormon mission in 2007 and caught 162 passes in two seasons. "He had a ton of want-to," says Brandon Doman, the Cougars' offensive coordinator. "And he's just fearless."
With 2:29 left in the second quarter in Philly, Collie ran up the field from the left slot and caught a Manning pass in stride. He was hit in the shoulder by the Eagles' Quintin Mikell and in the head by Kurt Coleman's helmet (Coleman was penalized 15 yards), and he fell motionless to the turf. Henry Feuer, the Colts' consulting neurosurgeon, who has been with the team for 26 years and on football sidelines for 40, immediately jogged onto the field.
"Austin was unconscious for 30 to 45 seconds," says Feuer. "In 40 years I've never had a guy out that long. But then he starts to wake up and sees all these people around him, and says, 'I'm O.K. My neck is fine.' But he was nauseous. He's lying there, and he says, 'Don't sit me up, or I'll throw up on you.' So we kept him down."
Collie, who says he'd never before been concussed, was down for almost 10 minutes before being wheeled off on a stretcher. The stadium had fallen silent. Coming three weeks after the NFL's Black Sunday—when a series of brutal head shots forced the league to administer heavy fines and readdress its policy on hits—it was a somber moment.