Former 49’ers defensive tackle, George Visger, talks about his hundreds of concussions, 9 emergency brain surgeries and “NFL bullsh*t”
In 1980, George Visger was a 6th round NFL draft pick by the New York Jets. He ultimately went on to play defensive tackle for the San Francisco 49’ers for two years. However, his athletic career was cut short by a series of head and knee injuries that forced him out of the sport in his mid-20’s.
The NFL and the consequences of his tenure with the league have remained a daily focus for him.
Since leaving the league, Visger completed his college degree in Biology; became a recognized expert on traumatic brain injury and concussions; a vocal advocate for retired players and a thorn in the side of the NFL leadership and owners.
He recently spoke with The Good Men Project on a wide range of issues including the hundreds of concussions he sustained; how he lost everything as a result of those injuries; the culture of greed that puts players at risk and common sense rule changes to make the game safer.
The following Q&A is a transcription of the first half of an interview Visger had with GMP Contributor/Sports Editor, Tor Constantino.
Q: Tell me about your career in football?
VISGER: I started playing at age 11 and played three years of Pop Warner. I suffered my first and probably worst concussion my third year of Pop Warner when I was 13 years old, when I was knocked unconscious and hospitalized after a “bull-in-the-ring” drill.
Parents need to know what coaches are doing at that level. That was a worthless drill that they should have never had the kids running at that age.
[Editor’s Note: the bull-in-the-ring is where a player stands in the middle of a circle of teammates. The coach calls out the number of a player lining the ring who is intent on hitting the player in the middle of the ring, after the first hit, another number gets called immediately until the player in the middle gets knocked down.]
I then went on to play every year in high school and went on to play in college for Colorado, majoring in Biology. We won the Big 8 my freshman year and played Ohio State in the 1977 Orange Bowl.
I was a three-year starter in college as a defensive tackle, and was originally drafted by the New York Jets in 1980. I was cut at the end of pre-season and then got picked up by the San Francisco 49’ers where I played my entire NFL career.
Q: Can we talk about your injuries sustained as an NFL player?
VISGER: Actually the first play of my first game as a 49’er was against the Dallas Cowboys, and I suffered a major concussion in that game.
Later in the week when my memory came back, the 49’ers team doctor laughingly told me that I went through more than 20 smelling salts during that game to keep me on the field. That was pretty standard back in those days.
After my rookie year I blew out my knee in mini-camp and again in preseason. They operated on it, which is when I started noticing the first symptoms of something wrong with my head.
Major headaches every day, projectile vomiting in the evening, my hearing would come and go in sync with my heartbeat, episodic bright lights in front of either eye for no apparent reason.
I went to the team doctor who told me it was high blood pressure, and he put me on pills to control it. Little did I know then it was actually a brain hemorrhage.
We played the Chicago Bears that day. The next day I was at our team facility doing rehab on my knee, and I went back to the doc’s office near the locker room where he said, “What now?”—like I was some kind of cry baby or something.
I told him it wasn’t high-blood pressure because during the night, my arm curled across my chest and became paralyzed for several hours. I also told him that during the night I was unable to sleep due to excruciating headache pain that felt like my head would explode.
Additionally, I lost all hearing except for the whooshing of heartbeat-driven blood pushed through my skull, and I couldn’t see anything except painful bright lights even in the darkness—but those symptoms all improved in the morning, so I could drive to the training facility.
So the doctor gets out his retina scope and takes one look in my eye and exclaims, “My God, your brain is hemorrhaging.”
He scribbled some numbers of an address on a piece of paper and told me to drive myself to a hospital in Stanford—which was about 15 minutes away.
When I got to the hospital, they had to do emergency brain surgery—before the surgery, the doctor couldn’t believe I had driven myself.
After the operation I was in intensive care for 14 days, and not one single player or coach, other than my two roommates—not even my position coach—came in to see me.
Regardless, the docs had installed a shunt, a pressure value and permanent tubing beneath my skin to my stomach where my excess spinal fluid has drained ever since.
That allowed me to get back on the field and play.
Q: So, you had internal bleeding in your skull, plus spinal fluid buildup that caused paralysis, vision and hearing loss as well as a permanent tubing system installed in your body to reduce fluid pressure on your brain – and you wanted to get back on the field?
VISGER: You have to understand the mentality of the sport or of athletes that perform at an elite level. If you’re given the OK to play—you’re going to play. It’s not like you’re going to go to them and say, “Maybe I shouldn’t play with this plumbing in my head.” They were the professionals, and I was a 22 year old kid.
Who was I to question professional surgeons and medical doctors back then?
I went back to the team and I was placed on injured reserve. While I didn’t suit up for games I still worked out hard and rehabbed my knee to get back in game-ready shape.
You have to continually prove yourself every week in the NFL.
What people don’t realize is that once you get past the final-cut day in preseason, it’s still open-season for any player to get cut at any time all year long.
The 49’ers made 20-or-so roster changes during my rookie season after the final-cut day.
Here’s how it would work. During that actual season, after the team played a Sunday game we would watch the film on Mondays. Tuesdays were your day off in the NFL. That’s when the coaches would bring in other guys to work out to fill possible positions from injury or poor performers.
So on Wednesdays when the team would get back together for full practice, there would be anywhere from 1-to-3 new guys on the team who replaced players who had been cut that week.
It’s a revolving door. There was no job stability. If you didn’t play or prove yourself continually—you’d be out.
Q: What about the multi-year contracts for multi-millions of dollars that are trumpeted by the media for signed players?
VISGER: Well first off, when I played there weren’t giant contracts—my rookie year in the early-1980’s I signed for $35,000 back then, a lot of players had jobs during the off season in those days.
Secondly, even today there are very few—if any—guaranteed contracts. If there are they are only for a handful of skill players. Here’s what happens now, when one of these kids today signs a “huge” contract.
The team brings him in and if he isn’t any good that first week he usually gets cut. In that instance, the team only owes him 1/16th of that first year salary and that’s it. All the rest of the contract is just paper except for a signing bonus—if he was able to negotiate that.
Q: Over the entire duration of your career, how many concussions did you endure – any idea?
VISGER: There are five or six incidents where I know I lost consciousness and don’t have recollection of events for days following the trauma. But here’s the problem with your question.
When most concussions occur, you’re the last one to know. You don’t know it.
However, when I look back now over those years and apply the symptoms they currently use to diagnose a concussion—getting up and walking sideways; throwing up; seeing stars, which is your brain concussing against your skull—I’ve had those experiences hundreds of times at least, possibly thousands.
I mean I played football hard for about 13 years. I would have hits like that daily. We were coached that if you weren’t seeing stars, you weren’t hitting hard enough.
Q: So, what was the outcome of all these injuries and surgeries?
VISGER: I was forced out of the NFL—I couldn’t play anymore. Since I left, I’ve had a total of 9 NFL-induced brain surgeries as a result of my two-year stint with the 49ers. Even though the NFL generated more than $9.5 billion in revenue last year, I still don’t qualify for any NFL benefits.
Q: Well, based on your experience who is to blame for this? No one forced you to play football, correct?
VISGER: Blame should be spread all over, we all played a role. But this is what gets me, the NFL acts like this is all news to them now. If I had been a boxer in the 1960’s and was knocked unconscious in a ring—like I’d been in that Dallas game—I would not have been able to box for a couple months.
In the NFL, I was back in the same game and also played the rest of that rookie season.
Think about it, way back then if a professional boxer was knocked unconscious he wasn’t out there sparring the next day like we were in the NFL.
It’s complete B.S. that they claim they didn’t know until later.
I mean I’m brain damaged and even I know that a concussion is a brain injury. If I had a bad ankle I wouldn’t have played on it. Why was it OK to make us play with an injured brain?
Honestly, it’s all about the money. You have greed driving the owners. The owners are pushing the coaches to win or the coach is out of a job. If the doctors want to keep a guy out of a game, there’s pressure on the docs to keep players on the field.
That mentality washes down to the players who have to be dragged off the field or who say they can still play even when they’re hurt—it’s the way we’re wired. I know that everyone has a choice, but it starts with the owners and their greed.
To be continued…..in Part 2.
That’s the first half of the interview, the remainder of this interview will be posted on Tuesday November 18th, 2014.
For more Good Men Project Sports coverage of the recent issues coming out of the NFL, check out:
- Is the NFL’s Culture of Violence Causing a Crisis of American Masculinity? (November 10, 2014)
- Athletes’ ‘Killer Instinct’ – In Words. In Pictures. And In Your Face (November 5, 2014)
- The End of Football for Men and Boys? Readers and Experts Discuss Where We Go From Here (Oct. 5, 2014)
- The NFL’s Concussion Problem Just Got A Lot Worse (Sept. 30, 2014)
- Roger S. Goodell, Will You Please Go Now? (Sept. 22, 2014)
- We May Be Right. We May Be Crazy: Musings on the NFL’s Violence Problem (Sept. 16, 2014)
- The National Football League: Too Big To Fail? (Sept. 13, 2014)