ARLINGTON, Texas -- Davante Adams wore a backpack as he stood against a locker room wall and looked like he had just finished a leisurely walk to the neighborhood bookstore. Other than a scratch above his left eye, the Green Bay Packers receiver revealed no hint of the occupational hazards he is paid to navigate on a weekly basis.
He had just beaten the Dallas Cowboys with his second touchdown catch, this one in the back of the end zone in the final seconds of Sunday's matchup, and Adams was giving reporters a clear-eyed account of the process. Aaron Rodgers had thrown him the same pass on the previous play, a pass that fell incomplete, and the receiver returned to the huddle and told the quarterback to run it again.
"And he gave me that look," Adams said.
Rodgers threw this ball a little higher on the next play, and Adams turned to track it a little earlier, and suddenly the Packers had all but replicated their dramatic divisional playoff victory nine months ago in the same supermall of a ballpark, AT&T Stadium. Adams fired the ball into the crowd to punctuate the moment. It was a 34-31 Packers win in January and a 35-31 Packers win Sunday, and everybody on the visitors' side went home happy.
"That's what we do," Rodgers barked as he entered the locker room. "That's what we do, baby."
Rodgers immediately passed a sign on his left that was headlined, "CONCUSSION," in bold, capital letters, with this message beneath it: "A Must Read for NFL Players. Let's Take Brain Injuries Out of Play."
That sign perfectly explained why the hero of the game, Adams, didn't belong on the field in the first place.
Adams passed the same sign moments after Rodgers did. It defined a concussion as "a brain injury that alters the way your brain functions." On the list of reasons why players should report symptoms, two in particular stood out. "Your brain is the most vital organ in your body," read one. "Unlike other injuries, there may be significant consequences to 'playing through' a concussion," read the other.
Adams had suffered a concussion on a brutal hit to the head by Bears linebacker Danny Trevathan during Chicago and Green Bay's Week 4 matchup, and there the receiver was 10 days later, throwing himself back into the violent fray. Adams suffered a concussion last year on another hit to the head by Cowboys linebacker Sean Lee and played four nights later against the Bears. Four.
Not only did Adams play against Chicago last October, he scored two touchdowns and had career highs with 13 receptions and 132 yards. In both cases, the team doctors and independent neurologists who cleared Adams appeared to be vindicated by the receiver's performance on the field.
"Well," Adams said Sunday through a smile, "just something about those concussions, I guess. I don't know. God allowed me to come out here and play to the best of my abilities. Obviously, it was a great win for us, and I'm just happy I came out healthy."
On many levels, Adams is a credit to his profession and to the test of will and manhood that has been the historic Packers-Cowboys rivalry. Vince Lombardi would have loved Adams. Tom Landry, too.
Back in their day, long before anyone ever heard of the brain disease known as CTE, real men played through severe headaches, dizziness and nausea caused by head shots. Under those old-school terms of engagement, you didn't get a concussion. You merely got your bell rung.
But that was then, and this is most definitely now. Research released in July on 202 deceased former football players revealed evidence of a brain disease linked to repeated head blows in nearly all of them. Many donors or their families contributed because of the players' repeated concussions and troubling symptoms before they died. These players include men who were barely functional in their final years. Men who were broken physically and emotionally. Men who committed suicide.
So a player who suffers a brain injury should never be allowed to participate in his next scheduled game, or two. All the guardians of professional football -- from owners to league commissioner Roger Goodell to team executives and head coaches -- talk and talk about wanting to make the sport safer in the age of CTE, and yet nobody stopped Adams from suiting up and signing up for another three hours of collisions.
Go back and replay the Trevathan shot to Adams' head. The helmet-to-helmet impact is devastating, sending the receiver's mouthpiece flying. Almost as soon as Adams hit the ground, players on both teams started frantically waving for medical personnel to race to his aid. He was taken off on a gurney, and the frightening images strongly suggested we wouldn't be seeing him back in uniform for a while.
Trevathan was suspended for Monday night's matchup with the Minnesota Vikings. The player who caused the brain injury would miss a game, but the player who suffered the brain injury would not.
Adams said he was cleared to play Friday afternoon after going through the league's concussion protocol. He said he recalled everything about Trevathan's hit, and that after being "a little loopy" on the field, the memories started flooding back to him as he lay in a hospital bed. Adams reported that he felt no headaches during the week, and that family members and team staffers were "kind of shocked" he didn't experience any lingering symptoms.
"It's tough, but the team relies on me to be out here," Adams said. "And I definitely wouldn't have come out here today if I didn't feel 100 percent. I felt great, so I just gave it a shot, and it was worth it."
Asked later if he considered taking off a game out of concern for his own health, Adams said: "You always consider it, but there's no point in sitting out when you feel great. ... You're not going to keep taking DayQuil if the cough is gone."
This is no indictment of Adams, a tough, resilient athlete who is clearly accountable to his teammates. This is an indictment of the league elders who have failed to implement a policy calling for a mandatory missed game for anyone who suffers a brain injury. A senior NFL executive, Jeff Miller, has already publicly acknowledged a link between football-related head trauma and CTE. New York Giants owner John Mara, a member of the league's competition committee, has already conceded brain disease represents the most serious issue confronting the league and that it is clear "repeated concussions can have a very serious long-term effect [on players]."
The NFL needs to do more about it, too. A lot more. Pro football will always be a dangerous place, and you didn't need to watch what happened to Odell Beckham Jr. in the Meadowlands to remember that. But just as the sign in Green Bay's locker room said, the brain is the body's most vital organ. The league has to protect it at all costs.
Asked by ESPN.com if he favors a mandatory missed game for concussed players, Packers president Mark Murphy, once a Super Bowl-winning safety for Washington, said: "I think it has to be a medical decision. Just talking to the neurologist, each concussion is different. Players come back differently. I think it has to be a medical decision just like any other injury."
I think it has to be a league decision for this simple reason: It isn't just like any other injury. We can't condemn the NFL's relative inaction in the CTE crisis in one breath and then celebrate Adams' courage in the next without asking this question: How can it possibly be a good long-term idea for a receiver to play four days after one concussion (last year) and then 10 days after a second caused by one of the most vicious head hits in recent memory?
Green Bay was too busy enjoying another breathless victory over Dallas to weigh that one. Rodgers was Rodgers in the endgame, and he nailed down his 94th regular-season victory, tying the career total of Bart Starr, the quarterback who won the most memorable Packers-Cowboys game of all, the 1967 Ice Bowl. A series of late-life strokes and seizures have robbed Starr of nearly every memory of his iconic career, and his wife, Cherry, believes the hits her husband accumulated over the years are at least partly responsible for his physical and mental state.
For pro football players, it's no fun growing old. Adams won a big game Sunday and looked and acted perfectly fine afterward. It still didn't feel right. Imagine what would've been said about the NFL and its concussion protocol had he taken another big shot to the helmet against Dallas.
As much as Adams earned his moment, the writing was quite literally on the wall. The sign in the Green Bay locker room said it's time to "take brain injuries out of play." In other words, it's time for the NFL to give those injured brains at least one Sunday off.