Baugh’s concussion history coincided with his introduction to football
— his first occurred during his freshman year of high school. “I
played the whole game but don’t remember any of it. I just ‘woke
up’ after the game in the locker room with my uniform still on.
The coach came in to turn off the lights and I was the only one left.
He asked me what was wrong, and I asked him who won the game. He told
me I probably had a concussion, but I should probably be all right.”
He went on to play center at Southern Illinois University, where he once
suffered a concussion so severe the symptoms lasted for three weeks. “You’re
in a fog. You don’t even know what you’re doing,” Baugh
says of being concussed. “You’re there, you’re existing,
you’re living… but you’re not making conscious decisions.
You’re just acting out habit or whatever.” Jeannie remembers
Baugh being so dazed after the hit that he nearly stepped in front of
an oncoming train. “We had a train track in town, and we had to
sometimes cross to get to our classes,” she says. “And the
bell would be ringing and he’d be crossing — just oblivious
to a train coming.”
Baugh’s play, though, was unaffected — he was selected by the
Kansas City Chiefs in the fourth round of the 1986 draft, exceptional
for a player from a Division I-AA school.
In all, Baugh remembers 15 times over the span of his football career (high
school and college included) when a hit left him with severe dizziness
or some degree of amnesia — telltale signs of a concussion. Like
many players from his era, Baugh felt pressured to play through these
injuries, as he described in a journal entry about his time with the Chiefs:
Head injuries are scary when you get them but there is no sympathy in the
NFL. … A seemingly wimpy thing like a concussion that goes away
after a short while (I’ve had some last 3 days) simply isn’t
valid reason to be left off the hook. In fact you would probably be released
from the team if you admitted to having them. So nobody admitted it. We
just carried on as if it was a hangnail. … I bet I played maybe
2–5% of my NFL plays in an altered state from concussion.[All sic.]
Baugh’s last concussion came in the summer of 1990. After three years
with the Chiefs, Baugh spent a disappointing season with the Cleveland
Browns before getting cut just before the start of the 1990 season. The
Detroit Lions quickly signed Baugh off waivers, and he reported to Lions
training camp in July. There he underwent the standard physical for new
players, and his only health concern at the time was the tendonitis in
his right knee. “They bend every finger, joint, knee, ankle,”
Baugh says, but they mostly neglect one major organ: “They didn’t
give you a brain physical.” The extent of the Lions’ brain
injury assessment was a single line on a one-page questionnaire asking
if Baugh had suffered any previous concussions. He reported having had
four in college, and the Lions cleared him to play.
Baugh was thrilled. “I’m pretty excited about going to Detroit,
mostly because I’m getting out of Cleveland but also because I have
another shot at another year of big money,” Baugh wrote in his diary
on July 16, 1990. “Who knows, maybe it will turn into a job that
lasts for years? I hope so because I know that I’m better than many
of the centers in the NFL.”
Less than a month later, he was out of the league for good.
Baugh doesn’t remember the hit that ended his career. All he knows
is that it happened on August 9, 1990, during the Lions’ first preseason
game against the Houston Oilers. “I realize there was a game, and
I realize I was in it. When the concussion happened or how it happened,
I don’t remember.” According to the Lions medical file on
Baugh, which Baugh provided for this story, the Lions’ head trainer,
Kent Falb, recorded Baugh was experiencing “mild retro-grade [sic]
amnesia” in the fourth quarter and allowed him to continue playing.
After the game, Falb wrote Baugh was “negative” for concussion
symptoms and pledged to reassess him the following day. But Baugh says
the follow-up never took place.
Two days later, Baugh reported to the Lions’ training facility, where
he says he was confronted by a Lions employee he had never seen before.
“Some young kid came up to me and said, ‘Here, they want you
to sign this,’” Baugh recollects. He read the document, and
was puzzled by one line in particular: “‘The Detroit Lions
will no longer be liable for my head injuries.’ I said, ‘What
does this mean? If I’m in a coma on the 50-yard line my wife’s
gotta pick me up, or what?’ And the kid didn’t know anything
about it. He kinda shrugged his shoulders, and I said, ‘I’m
not signing this.’”
At that, the employee presented a second document, Baugh claims. It was
a letter detailing his release. Baugh says he signed it, ending his tenure
with the Lions.
“I might be more damaged than even I want to admit, at least I didn’t
sign my head away,” reads Baugh’s journal entry from that day.
After the Lions released Baugh, Falb entered the following into Baugh’s
medical file [emphasis added]:
This player was released from the Detroit Lions at 9:00AM on this date.
The player had received a blow to his head in the ball game on 8–9
with some retrograde amnesia. Post game the player was asymptomatic with
normal vision and no headache reported. Player was not seen for any reason
on 8–10 which was the players day off.
when the player was terminated he was, to the best of our knowledge, asymptomatic. He was suffering from no other known or reported physical injuries or
fully capable of participation in professional football. [All sic.]
If true, the Lions’ actions were incongruous: The waiver implies
the team was not only worried about the long-term effects of Baugh’s
brain injuries, but actively tried to shield itself against potential
damages. Meanwhile the Lions’ training staff was prepared to rule
Baugh safe to play (just as long as the team wouldn’t be held responsible
for any head injuries he might suffer). That is, the Lions deemed Baugh
healthy even though their actions suggest they knew his brain was at some risk.
Falb declined to answer any questions about Baugh’s version of events,
saying he didn’t want to rehash an event from more than 25 years
ago. The NFL did not return repeated requests for comment, and the Lions
say they are not permitted to discuss the matter due to the
Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act (HIPAA), which bars the organization from sharing its employees’ medical
Baugh says he was given a copy of his medical record upon release, but
he did not hold onto the waiver. “If I had those documents today,
I’d be a multimillionaire,” he says.