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Former Chargers center Nick Hardwick taking proactive approach to post-NFL brain health

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Peter King is on vacation until July 15, and he lined up some guest writers to fill his Monday spot on Football Morning in America. Today, it’s Nick Hardwick, former Chargers center and current San Diego radio analyst.

This has been anything but a typical NFL offseason for me. If you follow me on either Instagram or Twitter, you know I recently undertook an intensive, six-week brain treatment protocol at the Brain Treatment Center where I live in San Diego. It’s an affiliate of the USC Center for Neurorestoration, a progressive brain health clinic focusing on the intersection of physics and neuroscience.

Upon retiring in February 2015 after 11 seasons as an NFL center, all of them spent with the Chargers, I did my best to follow the counsel I received from coaches, the players union, and former teammates who had smoothly transitioned into the next phase of their post-playing lives.

For starters, I almost immediately lost a good chunk of my playing weight. It wasn’t necessary to carry 295 pounds on my 6-4 frame, because I no longer was tasked with routinely fighting some of the baddest humans on the planet for three hours-plus. I dropped the weight fast and got down as low as 208 pounds at one point, but my wife, Jayme, didn’t really favor that version. So I regained some muscle and currently weigh a very comfortable 230 pounds or so.

To keep busy and stay close to the game, I went to work almost immediately on the radio in San Diego, including at iHeart Radio, where I’ve hosted my own show since 2016. As part of the gig, I got to serve as the Chargers radio sideline reporter in 2015, and I spent the following two seasons in the booth as the team’s radio color analyst.

Those roles kept me engaged, and helped me challenge myself mentally. I felt as healthy as I had ever been since my freshman year of college, the year before I walked on and made the football team at Purdue. But I still felt I had more cognitive ability left untapped, because my brain wasn’t necessarily firing on all cylinders.

Fortunately I was able to function because over the years I had hard-wired my mentality to continue to persevere through pain, discomfort, less than ideal situations and, to be honest, some states of depression I now recognize. I knew a certain amount of mental endurance was required after playing the game so long.

But I also realized toughness alone wasn’t the answer. I came to realize and accept my fate that as a former football player, I had accumulated somewhere around 25,000-plus head hits over the course of my playing career, all at least equivalent to boxing jabs, with the occasional straight punch and uppercut thrown in for good measure.

How did I get to that 25,000-plus estimate? I played 11 NFL seasons, for about 1,000 game snaps per year. Add in another 1,000 snaps during training camps, not counting our offseason practices. And don’t forget the three years of college football I played, with similar snap totals, but rougher practices.

It’s easy to see the hits accumulate quickly at the position I played. I was diagnosed with six verified concussions in the NFL, but I still never missed a game due to one of them, a gut-it-out approach I would not recommend to kids or anyone else. During the 2008 season in Kansas City, I was knocked out cold on the field for about 12 minutes, waking up on the X-ray table at Arrowhead Stadium with the technician asking me to turn on my right side for reasons I didn’t understand.

“What?!’’ I thought for a moment I had broke my neck, but it turned out I had caught a hip to the head, delivered courtesy of Chiefs linebacker Rocky Boiman, whom I was blocking on a screen pass to Chargers fullback Jacob Hester.

While I accepted the damage that came with playing football for a living as part of the price paid, something hit home and came to a head for me at Super Bowl LIII in Atlanta this past winter. I was there covering the weeklong event for my radio station, XTRA 1360, and despite being at the NFL’s glamor event, surrounded by the league’s football community, I found myself in one of those emotional troughs that occasionally came.

I knew then that I had a decision to make and some sort of action to take. While there was no erasing the time I had spent banging heads and colliding with defenders—and I wouldn’t take it back if I could any how, because it was the time of my life with so many lessons learned—it wasn’t enough just to plow through the low ebbs in life.

Read more from Football Morning in America here

Why Texans need to trade for Redskins’ Trent Williams now

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Three Things I Think

GREEN BAY, Wis. — Three quick thoughts:

1. I think my everlasting memory of this trip will be watching J.J. Watt steam in from Aaron Rodgers’ left side on a live pass-rush drill (well, full-speed, but no hitting the quarterback in a camp practice) in the Texans-Packers joint practices. He jousted with left tackle David Bakhtiari, dipped to the outside, got half a step on the left tackle, and sprinted at Rodgers. Watt meant it. As did Rodgers, who sprinted up the right side and evaded Watt. First time Watt ever stepped foot in Wisconsin to play pro football (though a practice), and he got emotional about it, and it meant a lot to him. Two Hall of Fame players going at it on a Monday morning in northeast Wisconsin. Loved it.

2. I think the Texans need to trade for Washington left tackle Trent Williams, who is unhappy in Washington and threatening to not play this year. Houston’s time is now. Watt turns 30 this year. So much of this team is in its prime. They could get three or four more years out of Williams, who turns 31 next Monday, and he’d strengthen the only true weak point of this team.

3. I think I marvel at DeAndre Hopkins and found it compelling to just watch him practice in Green Bay. He even dropped a pass over the middle. Consider that last year he became the first receiver since drop stats were kept—at least 13 years—to catch at least 110 balls without a drop. “Why do you think people don’t really know that?” he asked me after practice, a bit annoyed. I don’t know, but I do know Hopkins is the best wideout in football by almost any measure. “There are games, like against Philly last year, when he gets his jersey ripped off,” coach Bill O’Brien said. “Teams are so physical with him. What makes him special is so many plays are contested. People are draped on him, and he comes down with it.” With wideout injuries last year, Houston saw a weird three-man coverage at times on Hopkins, “cut coverage,” O’Brien called it, with a linebacker undercutting him near the line of scrimmage before he would get out in the open field and face two cover guys. I asked Hopkins how he worked on his hands as a kid. Jerry Rice tossed and caught bricks with his dad, a mason. Hopkins: “This is something I haven’t told many people, because it’s embarrassing,” he said. “We always used to catch flies with our hands. I was the only one who could catch ‘em. One-handed, two-handed. I actually studied flies. I’d watch ‘em. How do you catch flies? They fly up. If I can catch that, I can catch anything.”

Why Antonio Brown is crazy to fight NFL over helmet issue

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Regarding the Mike Silver/Adam Schefter-reported stories Friday about the melodrama surrounding the Oakland receiver—or, I should say, the receiver employed by Oakland who is not currently playing for Oakland—the overriding thought I have is a simple one. The NFL and the NFLPA have teamed up to research helmet safety and helmet technology through exhaustive, independent studies since 2016. All players were told in 2017 they’d have to wear new helmets—league and union-approved—by 2018, with a one-year grandfather period pushing the absolute deadline to don correct helmets to 2019. I did a podcast about the helmet in May, and over the previous seven months talked to 14 players about the helmet issue. Several of the players weren’t crazy about making the change, including 49ers tackle Joe Staley, who’d worn the same model of helmet for 15 years (though it had been updated at least once) and admitted to me he would not have changed unless forced.

“It’s something that needs to be done,” Staley told me last fall, “and I think I’m a perfect case study of why it needs to be done. I wouldn’t have changed my helmet unless they made these rules changes.”

For Brown to be fighting this is just crazy. According to Schefter, Brown had a two-hour grievance hearing Friday with an independent arbitrator, arguing that he should be able to wear a helmet he has been wearing for more than 10 years. (That, in itself, makes the helmet illegal; the NFL mandates that helmets worn for at least 10 years be replaced, regardless of their condition.)

There isn’t much the league and players union agree on without reservation, but the current helmet protocol, the outgrowth of a $60-million investment by NFL owners in 2016 to improve helmet technology and reduce head trauma in players, is one of those things. If Brown wins, he would be the lone player out of 2,016 active and practice-squad players in the NFL this season who would be wearing a helmet—the Schutt Air Advantage, in his case—not approved for use by NFL and NFLPA testers. And this helmet is so old that it’s not even been tested by the league and the union. I’m told unquestionably it would fail any test for helmet safety, as would virtually any helmet not made in the last four or five years.

A few other thoughts on this nutty story:

• Brown has to grow up, or he’s got to get some help. Someone in his life, if anyone has a scintilla of influence over him (and that is in doubt), needs to say to him: The Raiders could void your contract for this behavior, and you’d be out $30.1 million in guaranteed money, and what team would pay you even a fraction of that after? You walked out on the Steelers and then turned into a child on the Raiders and boycotted them too—in the span of nine months!

• The Steelers have to be the happiest team in the league right now. They don’t have a great player, but they do have a sane, undivided training camp.

Jon Gruden has to defend Brown, which he did Saturday night after the Raiders’ preseason win over the Rams. But anyone who knows Gruden knows he’s got to be frustrated over his best offensive weapon being disabled because of the freaky frostbite injury and fuming at Brown being AWOL because the NFL is trying to make football safer for him.

• To be a fly on GM Mike Mayock’s wall. He’s a football purist, and his first season piloting a storied franchise might be sent over a cliff by the weirdest controversy in years that has incredibly little to do with real football.

• Mike Silver’s 20-tweet thread detailing the Brown story Friday was exquisite. Best football thread I’ve seen, full of rich detail and information about the dysfunctional Brown/Raiders/helmet thing. What was great about Silver’s long social screed: It was essentially an 800-word news story, broken in real time on Twitter instead of being broken on NFL.com with a Twitter link to the story. Whatever the reason for doing it that way (NFL.com I’m sure now regrets the loss of traffic on a heavily read story), I found it easy to digest just by scrolling up on my phone. Silver had the helmet stuff solid, and this piece of information that can’t go on in team meetings: “Brown, according to witnesses, typically glances at the screens of several tablets and his smart phone during meetings, distracting himself by engaging in activities which include perusing his bank accounts and ‘liking’ photos on Instagram.” Social media is still the Wild West, but Silver showed you can break news with a story broken into 20 easy bites.

• “Hard Knocks” is either going to show a slice of this Brown story this week, with some real video and team reaction, or it’s Pravda. And I know Ken Rodgers of NFL Films, the curator of this show. He will want to show the real story, very much.

I’ve been around a lot of crazy stories in the NFL in my 35 years covering the league. But the last nine months in the life of Antonio Brown is right up there.


One more thing from Kearse: “The NFL changed the rules to prevent more head injuries and more head contact. But at the end of the day it’s a full-contact sport and guys are kind of making quick decisions, and you want to be able to have a product that’s going to be able to protect you. I think the NFL wants this league to last. They’re going to have to continue to keep digging deeper to improve. It’s an uncontrolled environment where things can happen and for me personally, I want to have the best protecting me out there.”

Someone’s got to get to Brown, and fast.