Jonathan Brown of the Lions.

'Browny' spent his career attacking contests from positions that left him extremely vulnerable. Photo: Chris Hyde

Watching Jonathan Brown receive the knock to his head that effectively ended his career got me thinking about concussion and wondering how we – long-serving AFL players who’ve worn a whack or two – will all be feeling 20 or 30 years from now.

The physical toll we all accept, but how will our memory serve us? Will we remember our grandkids’ names? And how to find our way home after a trip to the shops? 

I’ve copped many glancing blows, cut eyebrows and black eyes in my 10-year-plus career but, luckily, I've had only one really serious knock to the head. One in which the lights went out for several minutes.  

Tom Lonergan of the Cats suffers a hit on the head as he comes in contact with Leigh Adams of the Kangaroos in round 10.

Tom Lonergan of the Cats suffers a hit on the head as he comes in contact with Leigh Adams of the Kangaroos in round 10. Photo: Getty Images

I did not play for a few weeks, but the effects lasted much longer. My next six months of football were well below par; I would attribute that partly to the concussion I received the previous year.  

I find it difficult to pinpoint exactly the effect concussion had. Suffice to say, I was less inclined to put my head over the ball and I didn’t look for body contact in the manner I had previously.  

It got to the point where the coach and I had a quiet word. Not that I wasn’t playing good footy; more that I was playing in a slightly different manner and possibly avoiding body contact. This was something I was unaware of at the time. It was subconscious.   

I was a bit shocked to hear that appraisal, but the coach was right: the collision and the resultant concussion had altered the way I played football. So while the physical scars might have healed, the psychological scars remained. 

One of my teammates - who is a good friend - was involved in a massive collision several years ago. He hit the ground with a thud, and didn’t move for ages. He was applauded for his courage. And rightly so.  

He came back on to the field in the latter stages of the game – amazingly - and finished the last quarter. He didn’t miss a game from the collision. Yet he was not the same player and not himself for at least a month. You could just tell he was not as sharp, mentally or physically. He suffered in silence because he’s a tough bloke – and because that’s what players did then.  

I’m not afraid of a lot on the field. What does scare me, though, is the unknown. 

And when it comes to concussion, much is unknown. For example, how will a player who has received multiple concussions be affected in later life?  

A severe knock to the head, or even an innocuous bump at an inopportune moment, has the ability to cause brain trauma. We know that much. 

For the most part, I have been very lucky with injury, and have missed only a few games.  

But on the occasions when I have limped from the field, it’s the period of time before being accurately diagnosed (which these days includes having a medical scan) that I dread. How bad is my knee? Should it move that way when you poke and prod, push and pull? Will I miss next week? How long will I be sidelined?  

Automatically, my mind gravitates to the worst. Fortunately, with regards to knees and other structural injuries, the medicos have a great deal of experience and resources when it comes to diagnosing and plotting the next course of action. 

For concussion, we do not. 

There is a fine line between courage and stupidity. To Jonathan Brown’s credit, it is a line he walked for the entirety of his career. He attacked contests from positions that left him extremely vulnerable. He knew full well there might be a massive collision, but went ahead and did it anyway.

It takes a special athlete to do that repeatedly. It’s certainly not something I could do.  Browny is an icon to the game and he was the Lions' spiritual leader, yet all that means nothing if he cannot care for his young family. And now he’s called it a day. Many people close to him, such as Leigh Matthews and Michael Voss, have expressed their happiness that Browny has seen sense and bowed out before he did any more damage to himself. And it’s true: what more does he have to prove to anyone? 

American sport, especially American football, has played a large educational role since some alarming stories of the effects of multiple concussions have been made public in recent years. Some players are said to have suffered dementia, depression or Alzheimer’s. The severity of the issue was brought to light this time last year when the NFL and former players agreed to a $765 million settlement over concussion-related brain injuries. 

Pleasingly, we have seen industry-wide change regarding concussion in the AFL. No longer are players encouraged - or applauded – by their peers for taking the field again after leaving the ground following a heavy head knock. Gone are the days the coach would turn a blind eye to concussion in favour of having his star player back on the field. There is now a much greater understanding. 

But I fear this message is not being heard as clearly at football's local level. Without the medical experts on hand, players are pushing the trainers away and continuing to play the game out. Only to realise at game’s end that they have no recollection of which team they were playing for, or if they won. 

The AFL – perhaps mindful of the NFL experience - has realised very quickly the importance of protecting the player. Everything that happens at the AFL level trickles down to grass roots, and the treament of concussion is no different. 

If a player as tough as Greg Williams, a dual Brownlow medallist, has admitted he now suffers from memory loss and mood swings, and has called on the AFL and the AFL Players Association to be much more pro-active on this issue of player welfare, then I think we’d all do well to heed his message. 

The Secret Footballer is a current AFL player.