DENVER — Tall and imposing, indomitable even, 6-foot-Eight with shoulders and a again broad sufficient to push a pickup truck.
He was a star lineman on a state championship workforce in highschool and for the University of Colorado Buffaloes, the place he set a workforce report for begins and minutes performed. He made second-team All-American and performed three years in the N.F.L.
Yet the phrase that jumps most shortly to thoughts when speaking to Ryan Miller is fragile.
Hits, concussive and sub-concussive, have laid him low. Head bursting, nausea rising, please shut off the lights, please. I interviewed Miller twice, our talks separated by 22 months, and he’s doing higher, which isn’t to recommend this considerate and soft-spoken 29-year-old is anyplace close to what he needs to be.
When I met him in 2017 Miller had spent the earlier hour in a darkened room, respiration slowly. He would get into his automotive and sit for hours, making an attempt to bear in mind the place he meant to go. He would stroll into airports, and lights and noise and crowds made him need to curl right into a fetal ball. Since then he’s gotten higher with remedy and weight loss program, and he has misplaced a number of weight. He’s more healthy, and but …
“I don’t live as much in fear of what will happen next, and it’s been a year since I have had a seizure,” he advised me. “It’s been a long road. It still is a long road.”
The brutality of the N.F.L. and its malefactions and lack of look after gamers’ our bodies and minds are well-known. But the time gamers spent in faculty, in addition to Miller’s tenure in the savage trenches of an offensive line, wreaks nice injury, too, and that raises a pointed query: How can universities, locations of upper studying devoted to the improvement of younger minds, that spend thousands and thousands of researching the ailing results of mind accidents, justify operating multimillion-dollar soccer machines that put these brains susceptible to lifelong injury?
The University of Colorado is in measurable methods higher on well being than some top-ranked faculty applications. Yet former Buffalo gamers have suffered mind and emotional injury, and a few have taken their very own lives. The roll name of the Colorado useless contains operating again Rashaan Salaam, 42; linebacker Drew Wahlroos, 37; and tight end Tennyson McCarty, 32. Much evidence points to the likelihood that these men suffered emotional and cognitive problems as a result of many too many hits. Wahlroos’s brain was donated to the Boston University Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy center. Results have not yet been released.
Some Colorado regents have begun to ask questions. “Football as played in America is a brutal 19th century sport that is highly destructive to the human brain,” Linda Shoemaker told fellow regents. “I don’t believe it has a place in the academic enterprise that is the University of Colorado.”
I will return tomorrow to their challenge to the college football industry. Today the focus is on a man consumed with a search to feel normal again. I first found my way to Miller’s suburban home southwest of Denver, the snow-capped Rockies glimmering in the distance, after reading about him in The Denver Post in 2017.
He hails from an athletic family and took up tackle football in grade school. He adored it, the running, the playmaking, the hitting. Robert Cantu, a doctor who helped start the C.T.E. Center at Boston University, studies the brain health of athletes and says the risk of emotional and cognitive damage is three times higher for those N.F.L. players who played tackle before age 12.
Miller played continuously until, as a 285-pound teenager, he became the core of a legendary high school offensive line, the “Great Wall of Columbine.”
“To have size and weight and skill advantages over all those poor high school kids, man,” he said. “I don’t want to toot my horn, but we were talented.”
He smiled distantly at old conceits. “Yeah well. You reap what you sow, right?”
By which he means he reaped lots of head whacks for years on end. He had at least one concussion in high school. “I sat out a day or two and played the next week,” he said.
Miller has had t10 concussions in all, and that is to understate his battering. The brain sits in fluid inside the armor of a skull, and even non-concussive whacks can result in brain colliding with bone. A couple of hard hits can come to resemble a concussion. The average football player, according to Cantu, takes 600 to 800 hits in high school and 800 to 1,000 in college.
The University of Colorado Buffaloes were not highly ranked, but Miller faced off against young men no less big and strong, many of whom went on to pro careers. He played 2,548 snaps, missing a total of two in three years. And that’s not to mention practices and spring football. Did he get concussed? He shrugs. “A couple. It didn’t feel great.” Another pause. “I mean, I always played the next game.”
Miguel Rueda, the University of Colorado’s associate athletic director said graduating players are given a medical work-up, including a session with a doctor. That’s fine. But those who study concussions speak of a cumulative toll, like a woodpecker tap-tapping at a skull.
You don’t know you’re in trouble until one day …
The Cleveland Browns drafted Miller 160th over all. A year later he was in summer drills, took a hit and fell to the turf as if shot. He lay motionless and unconscious for five minutes before being strapped to a gurney and taken to the hospital.
“It took me six months to feel normal again,” he said.
The Browns cut him loose, and he became an itinerant lineman, signing with San Diego, Denver and Dallas. He was in the Cowboys camp when it happened again, on a move he had made a thousand times before. “Face to face,” he says. “A normal hit, just like in high school or college.”
That night he called his wife and bawled hysterically, hung up and began to vomit. He quivered, unable to stand, unable to see. “My head felt the most incredible pressure, like lava and sulfur coming out of my ears. It was like someone was hitting me with an anvil. I wanted to die. I thought I was dying.”
Miller began a trek to doctor’s offices. “Doctors said one more hit like that and you might not wake up,” he said. “A lifetime was catching up to me.”
He was denied disability benefits. He had sustained concussions at the University of Colorado, with the Browns and the Cowboys. But how to put a finger on the fateful hit?
University of Colorado officials spoke to me of their hope to make a safer helmet. Would that have helped?
Miller sighed. “You just become a better missile,” he said.
He’s not a college football abolitionist, not quite. He loved the camaraderie and the strategy and the athleticism even as he knows the bottom line. “You are there to make money for the university. You are a lesser priced whore.”
Our talk turns to his future. Miller has announced plans to donate his brain to the Boston University concussion center. But that’s no morbid flag of surrender; he plans to climb out of this hole. He sounds hopeful, sort of.
“There’s still quite a few blank pages. I don’t tell the same story seven times over,” he said. “Some days I feel like a young man, and some days not.”