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The Whole Story with Anderson Cooper
Hard Hits, Can Football Be Safe? Aired 8-9p ET
Aired September 10, 2023 - 20:00 ET
THIS IS A RUSH TRANSCRIPT. THIS COPY MAY NOT BE IN ITS FINAL FORM AND MAY BE UPDATED.
WIRE: Ever been, and it's going to likely continue to get safer trends, Paula. It's almost game time so it's time to buckle up, you know. It's time to buckle up and get ready to play some ball. Our documentary is starting now. Let's go.
REID: I love that. And anyone who is with a toddler needs to live wearing a helmet.
All right, Coy Wire, thank you so much.
The all-new episode of "THE WHOLE STORY WITH ANDERSON COOPER" is next right here on CNN.
I'm Paula Reid. Have a great night.
ANDERSON COOPER, CNN HOST: Welcome to THE WHOLE STORY. I'm Anderson Cooper.
Every September millions of Americans look forward to the start of the NFL season. Whether you measure it by the blockbuster broadcast ratings or the billions of dollars in revenue it generates, football remains America's favorite sport. According to a Nielsen survey about 200 million viewers watched the last Super Bowl. That's 60 percent of all people in the United States.
In addition to the NFL, there are now multiple pro-football leagues like the XFL which is co-owned by Dwayne "The Rock" Johnson and you'll hear from him shortly, but football also has more than its share of controversy and tragedy. Injuries are common. Some of them life- threatening.
Is playing such a high contact sport worth it?
Over the next hour CNN's Coy Wire who spent nine seasons playing in the NFL gives us an inside look at what football can do to a player's body and mind, and what's been done to try to make it safer. He also sits down with championship winning coaches, current and former players, and takes us to the sidelines to report on how the game has changed.
ANDY SCHOLES, CNN SPORTS CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): The NFL draft kicked off tonight from Kansas City. An estimated 300,000 fans are going to be there.
UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER: Millions of people tune in to watch their teams pick their favorite football players.
COY WIRE, CNN SPORTS ANCHOR AND CORRESPONDENT (on-camera): It's a three-day event that is part live lottery drawing, part fashion show, part circus. One of the biggest spectacles of all of sports and not a game is being played. The picks are about to be made.
SCHOLES: The Panthers taking Alabama quarterback Bryce Young with the top overall pick.
BRYCE YOUNG, PANTHERS QUARTERBACK: We put our (INAUDIBLE) and then, you know, dealing with stuff on the field, whatever it may be, you know, it's tough.
WIRE (voice-over): This game is really tough. The average player's career is just 3 1/2 years. And football comes with huge risks to the body and brain. But for most of the guys who step on that gridiron, the risks are absolutely worth the rewards.
(On-camera): What do you think it is about the game that fans just love this sport?
ANDY REID, KANSAS CITY CHIEFS HEAD COACH: It encompasses what we all go through. There are challenges in life. There's challenges on the football field. There's a camaraderie and excitement. You get to see all the different races, religions, brought together. And that's celebrated.
WIRE (voice-over): And make no mistake about it, football is a way of life for many Americans.
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Go, go, go.
WIRE: From Pee Wee leagues and flag football. To high school football's Friday night lights. And colleges and universities all across this country, people are obsessed with football.
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Touchdown.
WIRE: And the proof of the popularity is in the numbers. In the 2022 season, leaguewide revenue hit $18 billion. Billion with a B. And the money just keeps rolling in as media contracts keep getting bigger and bigger.
Get this, 82 of the top 100 most watched TV programs in 2022 were NFL games. An additional five were college football matchups.
SEAN MCDERMOTT, BUFFALO BILLS HEAD COACH: That period on our calendar every year, that's like late summer, early fall, it's like the smell of cut grass means it's football season, something special.
UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER: Coy Wire is live for us in Tokyo.
WIRE: Long before I became a CNN sports anchor and reporter -- UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Coy Wire, number 22.
WIRE: -- I was this kid. From a small town in Pennsylvania with a big dream.
(On-camera): When I first put a helmet on, that's when I knew I wanted to play in the NFL.
RICK WIRE, COY WIRE'S FATHER: Well, when he was playing Pee Wee football, he would run for three, four touchdowns every Sunday.
WIRE: My family went to great lengths to help me pursue my dream.
JANE WIRE, COY WIRE'S MOTHER: We went to the junk yard, took seat belts out of a car and I sewed them together and he would drag a tire behind him and run. When he got older those tires kept getting bigger.
WIRE: My goal is to be the best. When I do, I'm going to do whatever it takes.
My parents really preached to me, think about what happens if you get hurt. What happens if football is not there for you anymore.
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Here's Coy Wire, and he breaks free, and look at this. They just can't tackle and Wire is all the way down into the end zone.
WIRE: Going to Stanford and be able to get a great education, it wasn't just a four-year decision. It was a lifetime decision.
To make it to the NFL, you have to outwork everyone every single day.
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Boy, Coy Wire played last week with a banged-up shoulder. At times he couldn't even lift his arm. It was one of the gutsiest performances you'll ever see.
WIRE: Dream came true. I got drafted in the NFL. I remember coming through the tunnel here in Buffalo. It was a culmination of all those life moments and all those recollections of all the sacrifices you made. It was magical. I played six seasons in Buffalo, and they're some of the best years of my life.
My sixth year in the league, I was playing linebacker for the Bills, and we were playing the Jacksonville Jaguars and this huge man put his huge helmet right on top of mine and I felt my arm go numb. And I would eventually need a titanium plate and four screws put in my neck and I thought my career was over.
I think about the hits that I've taken, the injuries I've had and I worry about my future and I lose my keys, and I'm wondering is that because I had too many hits in the head. Everyone loses their keys.
Football is always going to be a violent game and it's not for everybody but I think we'd be foolish if we didn't do our best to make the game as safe as it could possibly be.
(Voice-over): January 2nd, 2023, "Monday Night Football" on ESPN with that iconic intro music. Buffalo Bills and Cincinnati Bengals.
MCDERMOTT: There was a lot of ramifications going into that game and so the game was of high importance.
WIRE: But on this night, it wasn't the outcome of the game that mattered.
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: That is Damar Hamlin. A big piece of this defense for Sean McDermott. He got up and just went right back down to the ground.
WIRE (on-camera): When did you first know that something had gone horribly wrong?
MCDERMOTT: Being in the NFL, being around football, you see injuries. You see people go down and I knew then that this was different.
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: We're going to need everybody. All call. All call.
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Bring everybody. We need the air-way doc, everybody. Bring the cot with the medics, all of you. And get wheels out here.
DON DAVIS, FORMER NFL PLAYER, 24 SUPER BOWL CHAMPION: As a football player I literally was thinking, wow, we have our first in my lifetime death on an NFL field, wow, like, this changes everything.
WIRE: What were your thoughts when you saw the NFL's emergency action plan and the people jump in to action?
MCDERMOTT: We talk about execution in this game and running a play perfectly, the execution by the medical staff was elite.
DAVIS: No less than 30 medical professionals are on the field at every game. There's trauma specialists that are specifically there to jump in.
JEFF MILLER, NFL EVP OVERSEEING PLAYER HEALTH AND SAFETY: The people who worked with Damar Hamlin, the training and medical staff, the emergency action plan, the things that we have put in place with the players association, it all worked because we had rehearsed and rehearsed and rehearsed to handle anything.
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: They're going to try to continue to play this game. John Smith has gone over to each head coach. The two head coaches you can see got together and they'll have five minutes to warm up. I've never seen --
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: No.
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: -- anything like this.
WIRE: At one point players started warming up and it looked like the game was going to go on but then it wasn't. It was suspended and then canceled.
MILLER: Well, I think the first step there was to allow players to take a breath. The only conversations we were involved in. How is he? And then what's the reaction on the field? And so there was no move to try to restart the game that I'm aware of.
UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Hamlin received CPR on the field before being driven out of the stadium in that ambulance.
UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Many of the players openly wept and bowed their heads in prayer.
WIRE: When did you know that I got to go be with Damar at the hospital?
MCDERMOTT: I just felt it was more important that I was there because if it was my son or my daughter in that situation I would want the coach to care enough to go there and put his health and his care over the game at that point.
WIRE (voice-over): In an unprecedented move with the world watching and Bills head coach Sean McDermott and players on the field leading the way, the game was suspended and eventually canceled.
JOSH ALLEN, BUFFALO BILLS QUARTERBACK: Some people are going to be changed forever after being on the field and witnessing that and feeling those emotions.
WIRE: Stopping in the middle of a game and not resuming it later had never happened before. That's because each NFL team only plays 17 games in a season, so every matchup is crucial.
(On-camera): 2007, I was playing on that field and my teammate Kevin Evert, we were covering a kick together. He was paralyzed. You know, same scene as Damar, guys crying and huddled around him in prayer and the ambulance came on the field and -- but the difference was he got taken away and they said, all right, buckle up, pat you on the butt. It's time to go.
How much change have you seen from days of the past?
MCDERMOTT: It's significant, significant. You know, every year the NFL puts in so much time into researching things that can make the NFL better, and one of those areas that they spent a lot of time in is player safety. As we saw executed that night on the field with the medical team, but you're also seeing it in the way that there's advances in equipment, making it safer and in doing so making it better.
This press conference is about Damar Hamlin.
REID: Sean McDermott, how he handled it, I think, sends a message to the world saying, listen, there are people that care about your kids and your players, and whether it's a medical staff right there doing a phenomenal job, whether it's a coach who's saying I got to go be with my guy, there is a human part of this that maybe we haven't seen before, that was kind of hidden behind the tough guy image of the game. And all of a sudden now it's out there.
WIRE (voice-over): Seven months after his cardiac arrest, which all experts agree was incredibly rare, Damar Hamlin returned to the field at full speed in a preseason game against the Colts.
DAMAR HAMLIN, BUFFALO BILLS SAFETY: I made the choice that I wanted to play. Making that choice I know what comes with it. And you see my cleats laced up and my helmet and shoulder pads on there ain't going to be no hesitation.
WIRE: Coming up, football's deadly history, and --
(On-camera): Can your data potentially predict when a player might get an injury?
(Voice-over): And later, the Rock, Dwayne Johnson.
(On-camera): Nice haircut, dude.
WIRE (voice-over): 2012, just two years after quarterback Drew Brees led New Orleans to victory in Super Bowl XLIV.
WOLF BLITZER, CNN ANCHOR: The major scandal, NFL coach is accused of paying players extra money to injure their opponents.
BROOKE BALDWIN, FORMER CNN ANCHOR: Knock out a player, get some cash.
BRIAN TODD, CNN CORRESPONDENT: According to a league investigation, the New Orleans Saints had a bounty program that paid players for injuring opponents, $1500 for a knockout that took an opposing player out of a game. A thousand dollars for a so-called cart off when a player had to be carried from the field.
WIRE: One of the Saints' coaches was at the center of controversy.
GREGG WILLIAMS, FORMER NFL HEAD COACH, CURRENT XFL DEFENSE COORDINATOR: Make sure we kill Frank Gore's head. We want him running sideways. We want his head sideways.
WIRE: That's Coach Greg Williams. He was the Saints' defensive coordinator on audio tapes released by a documentary filmmaker in 2012.
WILLIAMS: We're going to kill the (EXPLETIVE DELETED) head.
WIRE: After a two-year investigation, the NFL suspended him for what became known as "Bountygate."
WILLIAMS: Every single one of you before you get off the pile, affect the head, early affect the head. Continue to touch and hit the head.
WIRE: Those were haunting words especially in 2012, the early days of the league's reckoning over brain trauma, concussions and the brain disease CTE in some former players. Coach Williams drafted me into the NFL back in 2002 when he was the head coach for the Buffalo Bills.
WILLIAMS: Make sure there's no regrets.
WIRE: This is Coach Williams in 2023. After his "Bountygate" suspension, he was reinstated into the league in less than a year. Eventually even becoming an interim head coach for the Browns. Now, after three decades of coaching in the NFL, he's the defensive coordinator in the XFL for the D.C. Defenders.
(On-camera): Coach, so proud of you, my man.
(Voice-over): I caught up with him the night before his team played in the championship game.
(On-camera): It's wild to me to think that I was part of a mindset and a mentality where I wanted to go out and I wanted to take someone out. It was like this group think mentality where that's just what football is and how it's always been.
WILLIAMS: The game has come a long way, and it is so much better and there's so much that's been going on from a health standpoint, a mental standpoint. It's been fun for me to be a part of it through the evolutions.
WIRE (voice-over): Hard hits have always been a part of football. So does Coach Williams think that he was scapegoated or singled out during "Bountygate"?
WILLIAMS: That was something that was commonplace with all 32 teams and that was something that was done high school to college to the NFL. And it wasn't something that was portrayed correctly. It wasn't something that was trying to physically harm people, but it was about just like inside the ring when you're boxing, OK, what's a knockout in professional sports, and I do take great pleasure in understanding that the game has gotten better.
DAVIS: That was a different time and a different era.
JIM TROTTER, THE ATHLETIC NATIONAL COLUMNIST: Remember ESPN used to have this thing, you got jacked up.
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: He started to run. Decided not to, take the --
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: He got jacked up!
WIRE: In the 2000s, long before YouTube and social media were the places to watch the week's biggest hits, there was ESPN's "Jacked Up."
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Let's get it on.
TROTTER: You loved the violence. You would look forward to that, right? And they weren't just watching it, you were feeling it. You were celebrating it.
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: The helmet, the mouthpiece, the ear guard. All out.
WIRE: That type of violence and the potential long-lasting irreversible effects have caused some former players to speak out. Pro-football Hall of Famer Harry Carson testified before Congress on brain injuries.
HARRY CARSON, PRO FOOTBALL HALL OF FAMER: Given what I know now would I do it all over again? I'd say hell no.
I told my daughter, my grandson will not play football.
WIRE: Super Bowl winning coach and player Mike Ditka on "Real Sports with Bryant Gumbel."
MIKE DITKA, FORMER NFL COACH AND PLAYER: If you had an 8-year-old kid now, would you tell him you want him to play football?
BRYANT GUMBEL, HOST, "REAL SPORTS WITH BRYANT GUMBEL": I wouldn't. Would you?
DITKA: That's sad. I wouldn't. My whole life was football. I think the risk is worse than the reward, I really do.
WIRE: Super Bowl MVP Troy Aikman also on "Real Sports."
TROY AIKMAN, FORMER SUPER BOWL MVP: If I had a 10-year-old boy I don't know that I'd be real inclined to encourage him to go play football in light of what we are learning from head injury.
BRETT FAVRE, HALL OF FAME QUARTERBACK: Fighting depression, struggling to keep my thoughts straight. I can become violent, even towards my own children.
WIRE: In this PSA, Hall of Fame quarterback Brett Favre advocating for flag football instead of tackle for kids under the age of 14.
FAVRE: My three grandsons, I have one who is 8. I'm not going to encourage him to play football. How do you make the game safer? You don't play.
TROTTER: At its core, football is a violent game, not a physical game, it is a violent game. You're never going to make this game 100 percent safe. You just can't do it.
WIRE: Today's game is nothing like it used to be.
JOHN KENDLE: PRO FOOTBALL HALL OF FAME: You go back to 1905 and football was extremely brutal and even deadly. So this helmet here is actually from the early 1900s here.
WIRE: John Kendle is vice president of Museum and Archives at the Pro Football Hall of Fame.
KENDLE: In 1905, 19 deaths in football and hundreds of severe injuries.
WIRE: Back then, football had at least 45 player deaths within a five- year span according to this 1905 "Washington Post" article. Interestingly, the term concussion of the brain appeared in print more than 115 years ago.
KENDLE: Teddy Roosevelt really loved what the sport taught, but he didn't like the brutality of it. Ultimately his son became a player at Harvard and suffered a very serious injury while playing.
WIRE: December 1905, the White House in a move that still echoes today, President Theodore Roosevelt called a summit of Ivy League coaches and others to figure out how to make the game less brutal.
KENDLE: One of the big things that came out of that was the rule change of legalizing the forward pass to spread the game out making it safer for its participants.
WIRE: From those earliest kickoffs to more than 100 years of pro- football, the game is ever evolving.
MCDERMOTT: Years ago it was very macho. It was very, hey, you make it to the NFL or you're a football player overall, man, you're an alpha male. You don't need anybody else's help. Well, I think that's changed tenfold. One of the things we try and do here is provide for mind, body, and spirit of a player.
REID: That's different. It was a very violent game my first started off. Very violent game at all levels, but there are ways of getting a nice hit on somebody where you're not damaging each other. You know, at the extent of taking knees out and shoulders and heads, and so I like the direction that it's going.
WIRE: Coming up, the $100 million effort to make the game safer.
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Family on three, one, two, three.
WIRE: Before every NFL season's high-flying passes, touchdowns, tackles and sacks, comes this. Training camp.
(On-camera): We're here at Giants training camp. Players are fighting to make their dreams come true.
(Voice-over): During camp and before the start of the regular season, all 32 teams whittle their rosters down from 90 players to just 53. (On-camera): But training camps today look and sound a lot different
than years past. Not as many pads popping, helmets cracking, or players breathing snot bubbles but it's all part of the plan to keep today's players safer and there's a lot of science and research to support it.
(Voice-over): From those padded guardian caps on helmets, to a ramp-up phase before the full speed and full contact.
MILLER: We've learned over the last few years, going hard from the opening bell the first day, the two a day, contact practices, staying on field as long as players used to, that's a thing of the past. It doesn't optimize health and safety.
I'm just saying it's a symbol of what happened.
WIRE: Jeff Miller oversees player health and safety for the league.
JOHN BERMAN, CNN ANCHOR: For the first time the NFL is acknowledging a link between football and the chronic brain disease CTE.
WIRE: In 2016 Miller made headlines when he became the first NFL senior official to publicly acknowledge the connection.
UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Do you think there is a link between football and degenerative brain disorders like CTE?
MILLER: Well, certainly Dr. McKee's research shows that a number of retired NFL players are diagnosed with CTE so the answer to that question is certainly yes.
DR. ANN MCKEE, DIRECTOR, BOSTON UNIVERSITY CTE CENTER: Now we're getting into players and usually around their mid-20s.
WIRE: Dr. Ann McKee is director of the Boston University CTE Center. By 2023 their research found that 92 percent of 376 former NFL players studied had the brain disease.
MCKEE: That's a destructive problem.
WIRE: But one caveat, those families who donated the brains most likely suspected CTE in their loved ones.
I met up with Miller at BioCoRE, an NFL funded research lab in Charlottesville, Virginia, to test out some of the league's cutting- edge innovations as they seek to make the game safer.
(On-camera): I am seeing some helmets that are super old school and some that look like a Lamborghini. The helmet that I wore in my last years in the NFL, 2008, 2009, 2010, these are all now banned by the league.
MILLER: Last year for the first time we saw position specific helmet designed for linemen. They have more hits to the front or the crown of their head. This year for the first time we're going to see a quarterback specific helmet. It's frequently because the back of their head hits the ground.
UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Three, two, one.
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Good job.
WIRE: What force was that?
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: That's on the lower end of what would cause a concussion.
WIRE: As awesome as that was, it was scary as hell. Now I understand why after game days I felt like waking up I had been in a car crash. For me thinking back to that's what I did back when I used to hit wedges when they were, you know, legal.
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: With us and here we go.
WIRE (voice-over): NFL data shows the kickoff rule changes including eliminating the wedge formation reduced concussions by 38 percent on that play alone. It's just one of the upwards of 50 rule changes over the last two decades all made in the name of player safety.
MILLER: The stuff that we move in the game every year from analyzing the data and looking at tape, and speaking to the competition committee and hearing from players, practices, drills, games, it all changes.
WIRE (on-camera): Can your data potentially predict when a player might get an injury?
CHRISTINA MACK, ENGINEER AND EPIDEMIOLOGIST: Absolutely.
WIRE (voice-over): Christina Mack is an engineer and epidemiologist. She presents data to the NFL's Competition Committee. The group that reviews league rules and any potential changes every year.
MACK: If you rank teams over five years, where the Super Bowl trophies are. It's a winning strategy, your players are more available, they're performing where they want to be performing and they're not getting reinjured.
WIRE: That's just some of the NFL's big data crunching. From high-tech body scanning that's being used at the NFL combine.
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: One, go.
WIRE: To tracking body movements to optimize performance and detect imbalances that could potentially lead to injuries. To sensors on the bodies, inside helmets and mouth guards.
(On-camera): Turning me into a video game.
JEFF CRANDALL, BIOCORE CEO: We're having you go through a set of drills where we track all your motions. WIRE (voice-over): That's biomechanical engineer and lab CEO Jeff
Crandall and his BioCoRE research team.
(On-camera): All right. I'm all censored up and the idea is that they will be able to see, am I favoring any part of my body? Are there any anomalies, imbalances. Stadiums in the league this year will have dozens of these cameras that will be able track players' movements. That way if there is an injury on game day they can go back and look at the data before that.
MILLER: Bottom line is with all the information that's available to us, camera angles or sensors or injury data we're going to get to the place where we understand risk and maybe someday be able to predict with some degree of certainty which players are more likely to be injured than others so we can intervene beforehand.
WIRE (voice-over): As for me, how did I do more than a dozen years after I left the NFL?
CRANDALL: We see both knees and the left hip. It's causing too much load to go through your knees. Maybe work on your glutes.
WIRE (on-camera): I didn't tell you anything on me that was bothering me, but each day when I wake up neither knee feels great and my left hip is off.
CRANDALL: The good news is if we look at you overall, we've normed all the players relative to the NFL population. You're right in the middle so you sort of still got it.
WIRE: Still got it?
CRANDALL: Still got it.
WIRE: OK. All right.
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Go.
LEIGH WEISS, NY GIANTS DIRECTOR OF REHABILITATION: It's no longer, hey, get out of the training room, it's, hey, get in the training room, take care of your bodies.
WIRE: That's huge because when I played you can't make the club in the tub.
WEISS: Yes, that's an old adage we don't use anymore. Clubs now are spending hundreds of thousands on dedicated recovery and rehabilitation tools.
WIRE (voice-over): Huge investments from all 32 teams individually. And at the league level, hundreds of millions of dollars on player health and safety since 2016.
DAVIS: It's not just the NFL out of the goodness of their hearts deciding to write a check for research, right? A lot of that is driven by the union and the player.
TROTTER: The cynical will say hey, it's about revenue and I get that and I agree with that but I also believe, too, it is about player safety, too.
WIRE (on-camera): There are people out there who say the NFL is still not doing enough. The NFL is just lip service. It's just pennies that they're throwing at this thing. What do you have to say to that crowd?
MILLER: When you see that helmets are improving at nine times the rate that they were improving before, publishing in medical journals and saying this is what we're doing, tens of millions of dollars in scientific research to take a look at the long-term effects of concussion or how to prevent hamstring injuries, pain medication.
Now we're never totally right but for our critics to come and learn what we're doing then share with us why they think we're not doing the right things, that I welcome. That's fine.
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Let's go.
WIRE (voice-over): Coming up, Dwayne "The Rock" Johnson and his league of second chances.
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Late night football from the Alamodome, home of the XFL Championship.
WIRE: The first ever championship game for this spring football league and their new owners, the XFL, and it has some major star power behind it. Co-owners Dwayne "The Rock" Johnson and Dany Garcia, athletes who met back in college in the early '90s.
DWAYNE JOHNSON, XFL CO-OWNER: We love the league, the NFL. That was the dream was to get to the league. I was at the University of Miami, full scholarship. Freshman year, we're the reigning defending national champions, right? You know, that was a hell of a team we had back then. My coach calls me in, said you're going to be the only freshman to play.
It's going to be, this is amazing, keep working hard. That was the last day of practice in pads, completely tore my shoulder. Had to get a complete reconstruction done. Tailspinned out. Fell into depression. I just met Dany.
WIRE: Long before he became the Rock, he was known as D.J. and Dewy to his teammates and then girlfriend Dany. D.J. eventually recovered and played 39 games with the Hurricanes.
JOHNSON: That draft in '95, that was the draft that we were hoping like this is it. This is the shot. We're going to get drafted. That call never came on first draft day, never came on the second draft day. WIRE: But they didn't give up on their dream. After graduation,
Johnson played for the Canadian Football League. But he was cut two months into the season. That's when he turned to wrestling and became the Rock. He and Dany got married in 1997, had a daughter and separated amicably in 2007. Now they're longtime business partners.
JOHNSON: We are hungry, we are humble.
DANY GARCIA, XFL CO-OWNER: And no one will outwork us.
JOHNSON: We're lovers of football. Stewards of football. 53 men on an NFL roster, I was always number 54. That's really the essence of our league. We have an opportunity to create this opportunity for all these other players.
WIRE: And it seems to be working. According to the XFL, more than 100 players have received NFL contracts or invitations to NFL training camps.
(On-camera): Kickoffs in football can be extremely dangerous, full speed collision, powerful impacts. Well, the XFL is looking to reimagine the kickoff in the name of player safety. Teams start just five yards apart and no one can move until the receiver touches the ball.
(Voice-over): With the potential for lower injury rates, the NFL is considering adopting the XFL-style kickoff as part of the two leagues' player safety partnership.
(On-camera): I was back at the XFL championship game, Jeff. Will the NFL adopt this kickoff?
MILLER: Well, here's the bottom line on the kickoff. It needs to change.
The concussion rate on the kickoff is twice that any other play. So XFL, where the players are lining up a little bit closer to one another, much closer which decreases the amount of speed in those blocks is something we're studying.
JOHNSON: When we go into our XFL, we look for ways to make the game safer, how can we protect the players?
GARCIA: We have athletes, and they love to play the game but that never takes away the fiduciary responsibility that you have to take care of this player who is giving you everything. You know, yes, it's a tough game, yes, they make that decision, but we can do everything possible to make sure we're honoring them by making it as safe as possible.
WIRE: When it comes to the perception of an injured athlete, how much has the game changed since you played?
JOHNSON: There's more care. WIRE: Right?
JOHNSON: I think you know that, right? There's more sensitivity and, again, not a knock to how things were back then, so, yes, I think the game has changed in a good way.
ALISYN CAMEROTA, CNN ANCHOR: A star quarterback is recovering from his second health scare in three months.
WIRE (voice-over): In the case of Tua Tagovailoa, showcases the game's constant adjustments and changes, balancing the brutal nature of the sport and safety. In September 2022, Tua's head hit the turf on a passing play then he stumbled on the field.
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Tua, ooh, he is woozy.
WIRE: He underwent an in-game concussion evaluation then was cleared to play in the second half. After the game Tua blamed a back injury. Just four days later, he took the field again and then this moment.
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: And down he goes. Slung down on his own 48-yard line and uh-oh.
UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: He laid motionless on the field for several minutes before getting loaded onto a stretcher. That concussion came just days after a separate head injury where he was allowed to continue playing in the game.
WIRE: The incident led the NFL to update the league's concussion protocol right in the middle of the season. Tua was cleared to play again, but three months later coach Mike McDaniel took action.
UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: The team says he displayed concussion symptoms after Sunday's game against the Green Bay Packers.
MIKE MCDANIEL, DOLPHINS COACH: I care very deeply about each and every player. It's about the human being and making sure he's squared away.
WIRE: Tua sat out the rest of the season, but he's set to play for the Dolphins this coming year.
(On-camera): Tua Tagovailoa was cleared to get back on the field after having a concussion but his head coach pulled him aside, playoff implications, he said, something doesn't look right, Tua, sure enough, he wasn't fit to play yet. That would have never happened back in the day, right? What do you think that says about the culture of the game in regards to player safety and player well-being?
GARCIA: The most important thing it says to me, yes, the league ownership is taking responsibility, but the other thing is that the players are getting more agency.
JOHNSON: So, you'll find that players are less apt to say, excuse my language, man, (EXPLETIVE DELETED) this, I got to go do it. I'm just going to push through. Shoot me up, I'm going to go, get back in the game. There's less -- there's that still, right, that old-school mentality, but the new-school mentality, the evolution to that is, let's take care of you first, let's take care of your health, the game is an amazing game. But there's so much more game afterwards and that's the game of life that you got to play for here.
WIRE (voice-over): And it seems like that new mentality might be here to stay.
FREDRICKA WHITFIELD, CNN ANCHOR: For the second weekend in a row, the NFL decided to call off the rest of the game.
WIRE: First New England Patriot Isaiah Bolden then Miami Dolphins' Daewood Davis both carted off the field.
MCDANIEL: I know that was the right call so I'm proud of the collective group for doing the right thing.
WIRE (on-camera): Before Damar Hamlin's injury no NFL games had ever been called off mid game due to an injury. Now two more this preseason alone.
(Voice-over): Coming up, the future of football.
WIRE: The Atlanta Falcons, training camp 2023. I went through four preseasons on these fields from 2008 to 2011. This team gave me my second shot in the NFL after a football injury led to a titanium plate and four screws in my neck.
(On-camera): I thought my career was over.
R. WIRE: You told me you had a couple years left in you. You end up going down to Atlanta, and it was training camp.
WIRE: I just had the surgery six months prior, I'm like, well, what if it's not in securely and I'm paralyzed. I was like, I'm so scared. I don't know if I want to get back out there.
R. WIRE: And you said, Dad, I can't do it. I said, go, if you leave now, you'll never play in the NFL again.
WIRE (voice-over): I stayed and made the team, playing linebacker for the Atlanta Falcons for three seasons. That made it nine years in total in the league.
Jake Matthews is in his 10th year with the Atlanta Falcons. He's a proud dad to baby Beckett.
(On-camera): I saw you out there with young Beckett, man. If he shows interest in football someday, do you have any, sort of, hesitation or concern about him getting into this sport?
JAKE MATTHEWS, ATLANTA FALCONS LINEBACKER: Not in the slightest.
I don't think there's another sport or anything I could have done as a kid to teach me more about discipline, doing what you say you're going to do. I would, without hesitation, allow my kids to play football.
WIRE (voice-over): Little Beckett could potentially add another generation to an already incredible legacy. There are a record eighth Matthews men over three generations who played pro.
MATTHEWS: This is how my dad put it. God's given us bodies that can take a beating and just keep coming back.
WIRE: His father, Bruce, is a Hall of Famer, who played in over 300 games over 19 seasons.
(On-camera): This game looks a lot different than it did when he played. Do you ever get together with dad at family reunions, or is he telling stories about, back in my day?
MATTHEWS: He actually made it out to a practice the first week of training camp last year and joked that he could have played 25 years with the way we were practicing now. I definitely think the game has changed in a way. I think it's all been for the better.
WIRE (voice-over): A potentially better, definitely safer, albeit still violent game. Make no mistake, there's no shortage of critics when it comes to football. Some calling out the ethics of playing such a dangerous game, noting that fewer American kids are competing in 11- player high school football now than at the turn of the century, arguing that potential for injury is a big factor.
I decided to visit my old high school and former team to get a glimpse of what's happening at the youth level.
(On-camera): Has anyone in here had to convince their parents that you want to play football, like they're worried about health and safety? Anyone?
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: My mom didn't want me to play football because she thought I would get hurt.
WIRE: She thought you would get hurt? What did mom and dad say?
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: They were concerned about like head injuries because you can't always predict them. Like you can get blindsided.
WIRE (voice-over): And there is reason for concern. Boys' football has the highest game-time injury rate and the highest concussion rates compared to other high school sports.
R. WIRE: If we were to do it all over again, I think young kids today should play flag football up until a certain age.
WIRE (on-camera): Yes, they have that now.
R. WIRE: To at least 12 or 13. If you were my little boy today, knowing everything we know now, having no contact. Like what you played, play flag football, learn technique and all that, but no contact.
WIRE: Now we have women's flag, college scholarships for women. Ren and Ruby are going to be beasts.
DESTINY AROCKO, DAUGHTER PLAYS FLAG FOOTBALL: Football is just kind of like a safety concerning sport to begin with when it comes to concussions, the blows, so I think easing in the flag football is nice. It's not so much contact. There's no tackling.
WIRE (voice-over): There's better awareness of brain injury risks, and all 50 states have adopted concussion rules in schools. And flag football is on the rise for younger kids.
MEGAN GONZALES, SON PLAYS FLAG FOOTBALL: As we develop and evolve, the safety of our players is only going to get better. That as parents, we can sit back and enjoy the game, as opposed to not being worried about the kids' safety.
WIRE (on-camera): Do you find yourself seeing what you've seen, maybe being more concerned about your son playing as a dad?
MCDERMOTT: Man, yes, I do. My son and maybe my young daughter would want to play football one day. We'll see. It's a physical sport, and it's a fast sport, but there's also collisions. Trying to go about those collisions the right way, I think, is important.
WIRE (on-camera): Football is a great risk. People know what football is now. And you do have to weigh those risks and rewards.
DAVIS: Bottom line, the game today is safer than the game that I played.
MILLER: It's going to get safer yet, and it's going to get more exciting yet.
KENDLE: There has never been as much excitement around every single game as there is today.
WIRE: When you look at the future of football, what do you have to say to those who are skeptical, who'd say that maybe the rewards aren't worth the risks?
MCDERMOTT: The NFL is a trailblazer in the way that they handle growing the game. And growing the game not just in scoring points and making the game attractive to the eye, but also making the game safe because they have to go hand in hand or else we will have no game.
COOPER: Last season, the number of game-time concussions actually went up after two seasons of trending down. The NFL claims those higher rates are due, in part, to better detection and concussion evaluations on the field.
Thanks for watching. I'll see you next Sunday.