The question was one Hunter Hillenmeyer didn't want to answer.
It was 2010, and the Bears had just placed him on injured reserve after the third publicly documented concussion of his eight-year career. After meeting with reporters at Halas Hall, he was asked how many concussions he had actually suffered.
"Now isn't the time to discuss that," Hillenmeyer said.
Sixteen months later, the time has come as he wages a fight to receive what the NFL Players Association says is $900,000 due him according to the collective bargaining agreement after two doctors, one the independent neurological consultant for the Bears, recommended he no longer play football.
"It makes me sick to see (the league) claim it is driving concussion research and putting player safety first," he said.
"The whole system is designed to do one thing: make owners money. …
"The fact that a case as black and white as mine can't even get resolved is indicative of a much, much deeper truth. Owners know what the game is doing to players, but once they fully acknowledge it, the gig is up."
The league, some charge, has not adequately addressed how it deals with those who have suffered brain injuries. Hillenmeyer is part of what the NFLPA says is a growing number of players who have had career-ending head injuries but have been denied benefits or salary due them as outlined by the collective bargaining agreement.
The players union says that despite independent neurological consultants warning players such as Hillenmeyer that it is too dangerous to play again, teams have tossed these players aside after their concussion symptoms dissipate and cognitive test scores return to a baseline level. The stance of the clubs is that they have no salary obligation or cause to pay injury benefits.
If a player suffers a debilitating knee injury, MRIs will make a case for a clear financial resolution. When it comes to the gray area of the gray matter of the brain, it's far more complicated.
"We are going to remain aggressive," said DeMaurice Smith, the executive director of the NFLPA. "There are benefits in the collective bargaining agreement that clearly apply to players who were injured during the course of football, especially when there is medical justification to indicate that it would be dangerous for them to continue to play."
Medical documents show Hillenmeyer suffered five concussions as a member of the Bears, the first in training camp in 2005, the last during a preseason game against the Cardinals on Aug. 28, 2010, when he was coming off a block and was hit — a play he has experienced hundreds of times a season.
"It shouldn't have caused a concussion," he said.
That's a serious problem, said Dr. Robert Cantu, one of the nation's foremost authorities on concussions and the co-director of the Center for the Study of Traumatic Encephalopathy at Boston University. Cantu says that when concussions are caused by less severe blows it's more worrisome.
"In some instances you really see a guy get creamed and you look at the videotape and say, 'No way he's not going to get concussed,' " Cantu said. "Believe it or not, that is better than somebody who just simply had a hard blow to their back that whiplashed their head backward and now they're on queer street for a week. We worry much more about those that take minor blows that have symptoms, and we also worry most about those who have symptoms for a very long period of time."
Two weeks after his concussion against the Cardinals, Hillenmeyer knew he wasn't right from the season-opening kickoff against the Lions at Soldier Field. At halftime, he informed the medical staff of his symptoms. Two days later, he was placed on season-ending injured reserve. He hasn't played since.
Hillenmeyer received his pay for the 2010 season.
The Bears terminated his contract Feb. 28, 2011, one month after the team's concussion consultant, Dr. Elizabeth Pieroth, a board certified clinical neuropsychologist, examined him and recommended he no longer play.
"Hunter is a very bright young man with an unfortunate history of multiple concussions from football," Pieroth wrote in her report. "Given this history, his apparent increased susceptibility/vulnerability to concussions, increased recovery time, and position as a linebacker, it is my recommendation that he consider retirement from professional football."
That is where the NFLPA sees what should be an open-and-shut case for Hillenmeyer. The Bears cut him with one year and $1.8 million remaining on his contract. According to the union, Article 45 of the collective bargaining agreement stipulates Hillenmeyer is eligible for an injury protection benefit of 50 percent of his base salary up to $1 million, meaning he should be able to collect $900,000.
Former general manager Jerry Angelo and senior director of football administration and general counsel Cliff Stein rejected his claim for benefits. "We are represented by league counsel and cannot comment on a pending legal matter," Scott Hagel, the team's vice president of communications, told the Tribune this week.
The Bears denied the claim even though Hillenmeyer seemingly meets the criteria in the CBA of having "been physically unable, because of a severe football injury in an NFL game or practice, to participate in all or part of his club's last game of the season of injury."
"I was told by the Bears' own independent neuro-psych doctor that I could not continue playing football," Hillenmeyer said. "Just to be sure I was covering all my bases, I went to see Cantu. … He gave the same diagnosis: No more football.
"I filed the (injury protection benefit) paperwork thinking it was a pretty open-and-shut deal. Now, I can't point the finger directly at Cliff or Jerry because they might have just been following orders from the (NFL Management Council), but they could have just agreed to the claim and it would have been done.
"At first I was pretty upset — with Jerry in particular — that someone who had played above my pay grade for him for eight years would be getting squeezed like this on the way out the door. In hindsight, given the murky and evasive correspondence from the league office, I would think that he was just following orders."
Now, the 31-year-old Hillenmeyer is in the middle of a grievance process against the Bears and the NFL. He has been in his post-football career since September, serving as the director of corporate development for OpenChime.com, a service that connects consumers with their neighborhood's service businesses.
A first team Academic All-American at Vanderbilt, he earned a Kellogg MBA at Northwestern by taking classes during the offseason.
Citing his ongoing litigation, he declines to talk specifically about his experiences with post-concussion syndrome.
Hillenmeyer is not alone. On Jan. 18, the NFLPA sent a memo to agents warning them of multiple cases in which the NFL Management Council denied players' claims under the CBA. Further, in a Jan. 5 memo to agents, the NFLPA said that the Falcons and Redskins are attempting to force players with any history of concussions to sign a waiver and release in regard to head trauma. Agents were warned by the NFLPA, the governing body for contract advisors, that agreeing to such terms would subject them to strict discipline.
Former Bengals tight end Ben Utecht has an ongoing grievance case. The 6-foot-6, 250-pounder was knocked unconscious in a routine training camp blocking drill Aug. 5, 2009. He was taken to the hospital as a result of the fifth concussion of his career. Less than 3 1/2 months later, after the Bengals supervised Utecht working out for two weeks, the club waived him.
He was in the second year of a three-year, $9 million contract. Utecht said he needed eight months to feel better.
Utecht spent the first four seasons of his six-year career with the Colts and was a member of their Super Bowl XLI championship team. He declined to talk specifically about his grievance but is candid about what he's going through at age 30.
"I have had some pretty scary instances where parts of my past, really recent past, has just disappeared," he said. "It's hard to explain."
Utecht cites visiting friends last summer and lamenting not being able to remember why he could not attend their wedding. Not only was he at their wedding, he performed in it.
"Even after seeing the pictures, I can't tell you anything about it," Utecht said. "I can't remember the song I sang. As a father of three little girls, this is why I am an advocate of this now. It's a very dangerous injury. At 30, having to be concerned with some memory loss and some cognitive disabilities is a scary thing. I try not to think about it and I think as a family we pray that it doesn't get worse over the years. That's what guys are facing every single year."
Hillenmeyer, Utecht and others — citing confidentiality, the NFLPA declined to reveal the identities of other players in similar situations — fear what their worlds will be like in 20 years.
Athletes who have suffered repeated head trauma have been found to have suffered CTE (chronic traumatic encephalopathy), a degenerative brain disease. Former Bears safety Dave Duerson was found to have CTE after his suicide last year. Doctors determined former Blackhawks enforcer Bob Probert, who died of heart failure, also had CTE. It was found in former Eagles safety Andre Waters, who committed suicide, and Steelers offensive lineman Justin Strzelczyk, who died after hitting a tanker truck at 90 mph while driving the wrong way to elude police.
A lawsuit was filed Jan. 19 in Philadelphia by former players alleging brain injuries that are the result of concussions from their playing days. According to the Associated Press, at least eight related lawsuits have been filed recently in other states claiming the NFL hid evidence linking concussions to permanent brain injuries. Bears Super Bowl XX quarterback Jim McMahon and fullback Scott Dragos, a member of the team in 2000 and 2001, are part of these suits. Add it all up and you are talking about hundreds of former players and potentially millions of dollars in claims. The NFL is seeking to have the cases consolidated and has vehemently denied the allegations.
Publicly, the NFL is saying all the right things when it comes to head injuries, and the league is implementing policies to better monitor and treat players who suffer them. Commissioner Roger Goodell has frequently discussed the issue in public, including during an Oct. 3, 2011, appearance at the Congress of Neurological Surgeons' annual meeting in Washington.
The NFL has promoted concussion legislation across the country that would require education on head injuries for coaches and parents and put protocols in place for a return to play in all youth athletics. Goodell pointed to one of several measures in the new CBA addressing concussions, including the commitment of $100 million over the next 10 years to medical research.
"The vast majority, I can assure you, will go to research on brain injury," he said. "We want to make a difference.
"There is nothing more important to the NFL than the safety of our players, and there is no issue of greater importance when it comes to player safety than the effective prevention, diagnosis and treatment of concussions. Concussions are a complex injury. There is still a lot we don't know, but we are learning."
But some feel the league and its 32 owners simply want players like Hillenmeyer and Utecht to go away quietly.
"Absolutely, they do," Hillenmeyer said. "The problem is that the stakes have been raised because there are former players with lawsuits and because all of these things are sort of hitting them at the same time, where if they acknowledge the problem relative to us, then they are also sort of by implication acknowledging that they didn't realize what they were doing to players back then."
The NFLPA is digging in to battle an NFL position it calls "profoundly disappointing." Smith has been in communication with Goodell, but there is no sense a resolution will soon be forthcoming.
"When our players are injured in the game … we are going to remain aggressive in the way in which they are able to obtain benefits," Smith said.
Now that his playing career is over as his fight with the Bears and NFL goes on, the most vexing question for Hillenmeyer might be: If he has a son, will he allow him to play football?
"I love the game," he said. "It teaches people tremendous life skills outside of football, but … I just want to make sure people at all levels understand the risks they're taking."
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