Colin Cloherty was a seldom-used tight end for the San Francisco 49ers, his third team in his first two years in the NFL, when the league locked out its players at the start of a long, contentious labor showdown in 2011.
A former standout at Brown, where he double-majored in history and political science, Cloherty pored over every memo the National Football League Players Association sent to its players after the union decertified and sued the NFL, and he listened intently during every conference call.
Sometime in the middle of the NFL lockout, he realized he was one of the relatively few players who were actually interested and invested in the legal process.
"I was like, 'Maybe I should think again about this law school thing,' " Cloherty, 26, said Friday.
Nearly three years later, Cloherty is a first-year law student at the University of Maryland Francis King Carey School of Law. And Friday, the now-retired tight end was one of a handful of speakers at a symposium on the state of concussions held at the University of Maryland's Baltimore campus. The symposium, which was sponsored by the Journal of Business & Technology Law, facilitated an interdisciplinary discussion on the effects and consequences of concussions throughout all levels of sports.
While Cloherty was diagnosed with just two concussions in his life — once while playing high school baseball and another at a college football practice at Brown — he was able to share what it was like to play through pain to keep a fading football dream alive.
In five years in the NFL, Cloherty received more pink slips (seven) than passes (five).
After the Indianapolis Colts invited him to training camp as an undrafted free agent in 2009, Cloherty spent time with five NFL teams. As a rookie, he was on the sideline, inactive, as the Colts lost to the New Orleans Saints in Super Bowl XLIV. His lone NFL start was in 2011, after the Jacksonville Jaguars already had churned through 12 other tight ends.
"I ended up being lucky enough to play in the NFL," he said. "But after I got cut by the Jaguars [in 2012], I got bored and took the LSAT. I started to apply to schools and got interested, and once I started that process, I realized that this was something I want to do."
The day after he paid his first deposit for classes at Maryland last year, the Atlanta Falcons came calling. He would be cut in August — for the seventh and last time — before he had to decide whether he would attend law school or play another professional season.
"It was pretty obvious that I was going to have to beat out [10-time All-Pro tight end] Tony Gonzalez to get a spot on the team," he joked. "Needless to say, that didn't happen."
On Friday, Cloherty, wearing a charcoal suit with a black tie, blended in with his fellow law students as they left one panel and headed to the cafeteria for lunch. At 6 feet 2, he is tall but not towering, and he has shed a significant chunk of weight since his playing days, when he was listed at 252 pounds.
But when he spoke during one panel — along with Sylvia Mackey, the wife of late Baltimore Colts legend John Mackey, and Dr. Eleanor Perfetto, the widow of former NFL lineman Ralph Wenzel — about the effects of concussions on players and their families, it was clear that Cloherty had taken a much different path to Maryland than his classmates.
Cloherty told a story of how he fell asleep during a team meeting at Brown, not knowing he had had suffered a concussion in practice. He talked about how he believes there is a stigma about concussions among NFL coaches and front-office executives. And to provide an example of the need to play through injury to last in the NFL, he pointed to his former team, the 49ers, who gave their starting-quarterback job to backup Colin Kaepernick in 2012 after Alex Smith suffered a concussion.
"I want to provide the athlete's perspective," the Chevy Chase native said. "I think a lot of the time, there isn't a lot of carryover between professional athletes and that locker room mentality to what you see in academia in med schools and law schools, the people doing the research. I'm kind of in a unique position where I can be kind of a bridge to help the two sides communicate."
Sylvia Mackey, who first started championing the cause for the NFL to take better care of its retired players after her husband was diagnosed with and later died from frontotemporal dementia, said symposiums like the one that hosted more than 100 people Friday help raise awareness about concussions and head trauma.
"I think they are making progress. It will never be fast enough," she said. "But I think it's good, what is happening today."
Still, despite everything about concussions he has experienced firsthand and learned while researching the topic, Cloherty said at the end of his presentation that he would still let his kids play football one day if they want to. The tight-end-turned-law-student offered a caveat, though.
"I would prefer if they ended up playing golf," he said.