By Jim Schutze
By Rachel Watts
By Lauren Drewes Daniels
By Anna Merlan
By Lee Escobedo
Couple times a month Derrius Bell has trouble sleeping. Maybe it's more that he has difficulty waking up.
Or, in reality, is it merely that he can't comprehend—much less detail—the full effect of multiple concussions suffered through the years on the football field?
"I've tried to explain this to doctors, but I can't really do it," Bell said over the phone last week. "It's like I'm sleeping, in a sleeping mode, but I can't snap out of it. I'm awake and I want to wake up. I can hear me telling myself it's time to wake up. I'm fighting to wake up, but I can't. Then all of the sudden I just pop awake and I'm not sure what happened."
While the sleep disorder remains a mystery, it's clear that the SMU cornerback is making the right decision to follow doctors' orders and quit football. When your brain somehow wakes up before your body, something is amiss.
"Maybe it's a dream. Or symptoms from the concussions. I don't know," Bell said. "But I don't like it. It's real scary."
While the National Football League enacts stricter rules to protect players with concussions, Bell is a living, breathing example of better safe than sorry. Gone are the days of Dallas Cowboys' tight end Jason Witten heroically galloping down the field against the Philadelphia Eagles sans helmet, as plays will be immediately whistled dead when a ball carrier loses his headgear. And gone are the days of Bell, a fearless 5-foot-10, 170-pound tackler, getting knocked unconscious on the field.
After two concussions last year, Bell was told two weeks ago by two Dallas neurologists that he is susceptible to further concussions and possibly long-term damage to his brain. As SMU opened spring practices last week at Ford Stadium, Bell struggled to digest his difficult decision.
"I didn't cry, but I was quivering," he said of his doom-and-gloom meeting with the neurologists. "I want to play football. I was born to play. It's the only thing I'm really good at. But they're right, I have a lot to lose and I'm lucky I walked away from those injuries with a good future ahead of me."
Everyone who has played football has had his bell rung. It's that moment when you become the hittee instead of the hitter in a head-to-head collision. Your helmet protects your cranium, but it can't stop your brain from violently slamming into your skull. The result isn't far from those cartoon characters knocked woozy, disoriented and seeing fuzzy, rotating stars.
From afar, the results are sometimes comical, with players trying to run to the sideline instead falling awkwardly to the ground. In the 1993 NFC Championship Game at Texas Stadium, Cowboys quarterback Troy Aikman was knocked out with a concussion. Helped to the bench by trainers, Aikman was asked by doctors if he knew where he was.
"Of course," Aikman responded. "Henryetta. Now let me get back out there."
Aikman, who played high school football in the tiny Oklahoma town, didn't finish that game. But he was allowed to start Super Bowl XXVIII just seven days later despite persistent headaches and blurry vision that stemmed from his being so out of sorts that he routinely put his contact lenses in the wrong eyes.
In the wake of studies that show a correlation between concussions and Alzheimer's in some of its retired players, the NFL is attempting to further protect its current players. Last year Cowboys tight end Martellus Bennett was forced to sit out two games while exhibiting lingering symptoms of a concussion. Eagles star running back Brian Westbrook missed eight games after two concussions forced him to wrestle with the decision to retire or return.
Albeit grudgingly, Bell admits he's making the right choice. And, deep down, he realizes he's lucky to have a choice.
"Because I've had concussions, bad ones, I would be prone to getting more," Bell said. "It would be dumb to put myself in that position again."
Turns out that even if the neurologists would have cleared Bell to play, his head coach might not have allowed him back. June Jones, whose Mustangs enjoyed a winning season and bowl game victory last year, still cringes when he flashes back to Bell's biggest collision last fall.
"I am glad we didn't clear him, because if we had cleared him after we saw what happened to him on the field at UAB [University of Alabama at Birmingham], I would not feel good about playing him," Jones said after a practice last week. "I have never seen a concussion that severe before. I think it is a blessing that he was able to walk away from that."
Undersized and over-ambitious, Bell was always the little kid in the middle of the big hits. While playing high school ball at Wilmer-Hutchins, Grace Prep Academy and Hillcrest, he said he suffered two concussions as a result of poor tackling form.
"Coaches were always telling me to be more careful," Bell said. "But that's my game, being reckless. I'm always one of the smallest guys out there, but players know I'm a headhunter."
After a promising freshman year at SMU, Bell was slated for significant playing time at cornerback in 2009. After missing the season opener with swine flu, on September 12 he met Alabama-Birmingham fullback Justin Brooks (who outweighs him by 45 pounds) in a goal-line collision.
"He hit me so hard I don't remember falling to the ground," Bell recalled.
Though he said last week that he believes he suffered a concussion on that play, Bell was cleared to stay in the game and on SMU's next defensive series he rushed UAB quarterback Joe Webb on a blitz. Just as Bell launched himself into the air toward Webb, Brooks again intervened. The violent but legal block knocked Bell out before he hit the ground. He was transported by ambulance to a Birmingham hospital.
"I remember waking up, not having feeling in my arms and being real dizzy," Bell said. "I didn't even know I was in an ambulance."
Bell missed the following week's game but, after CT scans returned to normal, he was cleared to play October 3 against TCU. On his first play, Bell, Frogs receiver Ryan Christian and the ball arrived at the same point at the same time. The collision knocked out both players, and ended Bell's career.
"I wanted to go back in, but then I was all dizzy and my neck hurt and I had a headache," Bell said. "The coaches hid my helmet anyway."
In essence, Bell suffered three concussions in the span of five plays. Discretion, as if we need reminding, should always trump valor.
"Giving up football is the hardest thing I've ever done," Bell said. "I have trouble even talking about it. But I've got to consider the rest of my life. If the doctors told me tomorrow I could go back out there without risk I'd go in a second. But I'm doing the right thing."
Bell seems at peace with his future.
Now if he could just get a good night's sleep.