With one act of humanity and one public display of perspective, Packers receiver Donald Driver did more than a thousand studies or a million speeches. He accomplished what no one had yet managed to do in this era of heightened awareness of head injuries in the NFL: He made it OK for a teammate to leave the game because of a concussion.
Nine days ago, when Driver told quarterback Aaron Rodgers that he didn't look right, that he should leave the game and that his future as a human being was more important than another play, he committed the single most important act in an NFL game this season.
The fact that Driver's actions served to greatly diminish his team's chances this season -- and his own individual statistics -- only accentuates the significance of what he did. Throughout the Year of the Concussion, anybody with an interest in football has asked the same question: How will we know whether they're making progress?
Donald Driver showed us.
This is what progress looks like: On Dec. 12 against Detroit, in a game vital to the Packers' playoff hopes, Driver walked behind his team's bench after Rodgers had taken hard shots on consecutive plays, and leaned down to tell his quarterback, "This is just a game. Your life is more important than a game."
Rodgers stayed out. The Packers lost. There's a good chance they would have won if Rodgers had been able to continue. The next week, Rodgers wasn't cleared to play against the Patriots on Sunday night, and the Packers lost again. Matt Flynn played well, but he missed on a few passes and threw a costly pick near the end. It's not a stretch to say the Packers would have won that game had Rodgers played.
In fact, given Green Bay's utter lack of a running game, the list of quarterbacks most valuable to their teams right now breaks down like this:
1) Peyton Manning.
3) Tom Brady.
What Driver did was bad for the team but good for the person. You know how much easier it would have been for him to sit back and hope Rodgers could clear his head fast enough to get back into the game? That's what Rodgers wanted to do, and it seems as if the Packers' trainers were either unaware of the situation or otherwise occupied immediately after the injury. Rodgers didn't want to hear what Driver was telling him, so he stood up and stared back at him.
What Rodgers saw -- legitimate concern from a respected veteran who cares about him -- was enough to make him realize Driver was right.
The importance of Driver's actions can't be overstated. The NFL should be trumpeting Driver as the league's man of the year. It should be booking him on every halftime show of every NFL Network game from now 'til the end of the season. Somebody should be filming a public-service announcement with Rodgers and Driver, as soon as Rodgers feels better. Their picture should be on the door of every locker room before the playoffs start.
Trainers tell players to police themselves. They encourage teammates to get a player who doesn't look right in the huddle off the field, or to at least tell the training staff. The buddy system is a big part of the initiative to educate players on the dangers of head injuries, including the serious danger of multiple concussions. (This was Rodgers' second this season.)
But it doesn't always work. Players are competitive. They're also stubborn and independent. They believe they should have a say over whether they can play with an injury, working under the premise that no one can look inside their heads and determine how they feel. That libertarian streak does not lend itself well to looking down the huddle and telling a teammate to leave the field because his eyes look a little glossy.
It's the sport, it's the culture, and it's the people who reside within it. The biggest obstacle to the NFL's concussion policy is persuading players to leave the field or seek treatment when they know they -- like Rodgers -- will be finished for that game and quite possibly the next. The blackout concussions are an easy call because there's no hiding them. Brett Favre flat-out on the frozen plastic of TCF Stadium, for example, can be diagnosed from the living room. But those that are less severe, when a player gets his bell rung but manages to hide it well enough to stay in the game, present a loophole that can lead to multiple concussions and more serious problems.
Up 'til now, the public faces of the NFL's new rules were: 1) the Cowboys' Jason Witten fighting with training staff on the sideline to get his helmet back, and; 2) the Steelers' Hines Ward publicly excoriating the policy when he was forced out of a game.
Driver changed all that. He created the break that makes it possible for players to save face and themselves. He did more for concussion awareness than any autopsy or congressional hearing ever could. He put a face on it and injected it with a level of humanity the sport needs.
Maybe attitudes are changing.
"It's not about being tough anymore," Driver said.
Well, he's wrong there. It can still be about toughness, just a different kind. The toughest guys are the ones who are clear-headed enough to speak the truth, and the guys who listen to them.