BOZEMAN — Corey Widmer flew all the way from Australia to Montana to be near this weekend’s Football Hall of Fame ceremonies in Billings, where the former Bozeman High standout and Montana State All-American was to be one of the inductees.
But Widmer, who spent eight years in the NFL with the New York Giants as a middle linebacker, declined the honor months ago.
His reason? Concussions.
In an interview Friday at a Bozeman hotel, Widmer told 406mtsports.com he means no disrespect to the Hall of Fame but added he can’t in good conscience lend his name to any event related to a sport that has caused great suffering among his friends and he believes is endangering our children.
Instead, Widmer, 49, is seizing it as an opportunity to speak publicly in his home state, especially to mothers, after avoiding the sport since retiring in 1999 because, he says, “it destroyed my life.”
“When I refused entry I had to give an explanation, and my explanation is concussions,” said Widmer, who estimates he’s had roughly 400-500 such football-related injuries himself and suffered a third-degree concussion in 1998 that "changed everything across the board".
“I can’t even be associated with it. Honest to God, if you gave me a million dollars a year to talk about football, I’d pass it up. I could use the money, but I wouldn’t touch it with a thousand-foot pole.”
Widmer talked at length about his experiences, including the blow that stopped a game for a lengthy period and had him, he says, in one of the league’s early unofficial concussion protocols. He remembers being in such a state of agitation two days later he tossed a marker at a computer screen and cursed a female researcher from the University of Pennsylvania before storming off in a way he still can’t fathom.
“Immediately after that I was angry about everything,” he recalled. “I was willing to fight anybody about anything at any time. For some guys this is how it transpires in families. You take everything to the 10th degree. That’s the moment where the guy’s got his wife by the throat and the kids are watching. Now, think about that type of energy and that type of anxiety, and apply it to gambling. Or drugs.”
When Widmer retired after eight seasons at middle linebacker with the Giants, he said he wasn’t giving much thought to concussions. He and his friends in the league were painfully aware of the legacy of divorce, spousal abuse, drug abuse, bankruptcies, violence and prison sentences or of players simply "buying a farm and driving a tractor around” to isolate themselves, but he says he thought of it simply as “The NFL Syndrome.”
He only knew that once out of the game he needed continued adrenaline rushes and also had an urge for isolation.
Widmer said he broke up with his live-in girlfriend of three years, gave away his dog and traveled the world tackling daredevil activities, most notably paragliding in such places as Switzerland, Costa Rica, Peru, Chile, New Zealand and Australia.
He said he has “selfies” of himself paragliding so close to a Marriott Hotel he could see his reflection in a window and remembers thinking he was sure to die crashing into a chairlift in Switzerland until catching a thermal so high he recalls looking down upon two cruising military jets.
“The concussion thing hadn’t really come out (in the NFL), and I hadn’t put one-and-one together about why I enjoyed this type of activity,” said Widmer, who was interviewed on the topic by Psychology Today in 2012. “I just thought I had an outgoing personality — the daredevil, explorers’ personality. I had no idea. I think that’s what a lot of players do. They have no idea why they’re in these types of behaviors. It’s not that they have outgoing personalities. No, it’s in their brains.
“That was the way I filled the void — with reckless behavior.”
The genesis of his recent epiphany was in 2007, when he broke his back paragliding in the Andes Mountains near Iquique, Chile. Widmer, then 38, lost two ribs, severely fractured a vertebrae and was considered fortunate to escape paralysis.
He says he has a titanium cage and two rods piecing his body together. Today measured steps carry his still-robust but softened 6-foot-3 frame, which is topped by salt-and-pepper hair.
“I look back at the accident as kind of a blessing in disguise,” said Widmer, adding that he had a spiritual awakening of sorts during his lengthy convalescence. “I really took a step back. I still didn’t know about concussions. But I couldn’t taking surviving such a traumatic event again. I’d be taking it all for granted if I put on that paragliding suit again.”
After recovering, Widmer returned to the States, bought rental properties, fixed them up, rented them briefly and then sold them in Florida and Montana. The pursuit was the perfect fit, he said, because he had some business acumen and he could work on his own schedule during what he calls “a withdrawal phase.”
“With what was happening in my brain, I didn’t think I’d be able to hold down a full-time job,” he said. “The rentals kind of let me work around my moods. That’s been the only way I’ve been able to remotely be back in society.”
By then, Widmer was convinced that his rollercoaster moods were related to concussions and potentially Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy, a degenerative disease of the brain associated with trauma. Ever since 2002, when a Nigerian doctor named Bennet Omalu performed an autopsy on former Pittsburgh Steelers standout Mike Webster, who died at age 50, the NFL has been at the center of a CTE storm.
Several players have committed suicide, most notably former San Diego Chargers great Junior Seau, who gave Widmer some pointers at middle linebacker before a preseason game during his rookie season out of MSU, where he had been drafted in the seventh round as a nose guard in 1992. Seau shot himself in the chest, and it is widely believed he did so to preserve his brain for study.
Another player, former Chicago Bears standout Dave Duerson, also shot himself in the chest at age 50 and left a note pleading, “Please see that my brain is given to the NFL’s brain bank.”
“Even the way Junior passed away … he was still looking out for people,” Widmer said. “That guy’s like a hero.”
A movie about Omalu, starring Will Smith, gave the subject even greater attention in 2015. And then came a report last year from the medical journal JAMA that CTE was found in 110 out of 111 brains of deceased NFL players.
“So how do I eliminate myself from a 100 percent group of people? I don’t, and it scares the shit out of me,” said Widmer, who turns 50 on Christmas Day. “I look at my hand sometimes and my thumb will be shaking and I’ll think, ‘What is it?’ It’s one of those things as you get older you question yourself. Is this going to get worse?
“You have doctors willing to diagnose, but that’s after the fact. There’s no cure whatsoever for CTE. So I’ll possibly stay the same or get worse.”
As Widmer became more aware of concussions and micro-concussions, and more empirical data became available, he began to get more engaged. He joined litigation on a suit by former friend and Philadelphia Eagles fullback Kevin Turner, who had the most advanced stage of CTE when he died of Lou Gehrig’s disease at age 46 in March 2016; the players involved reached a $1 billion settlement.
Nevertheless, Widmer said he was mostly content to work on rentals out of his Manhattan, Montana, home and continue traveling the world, albeit more sedately, until he heard from the Montana Hall of Fame about inducting him several months ago.
The more he thought about football and CTE, the more he thought about the children.
As a former Montana high school player, he remembered not only the jarring collisions but the frozen ground of November, and how often he saw heads whiplash off unforgiving turf. He thinks of pee-wee players butting heads with helmets and says, “I almost want to go out there and stop practice.”
“They emulate what they see on TV, and they see pro athletes running full steam into somebody else and knocking them down, and they get up. They don’t see the residual effect. At that age, it’s almost like a magic helmet. The adults they trust are giving them the helmet. The child does not have enough life experience to make the decision. It’s usually the father who wants to live vicariously and see his pride and joy run around the field.”
So Widmer wants to talk to the mothers of Montana.
Don’t let your kids play tackle football at least until high school, he urges, and even then perhaps wait until they’re seniors. If they have the speed and strength to play college football and beyond, they’ll be discovered. Once they're adults, he says, "if he wants to put himself out there and destroy his brain, as long as he's fully informed ... that's America."
Until then? Flag football.
His message is direct, blunt and, he realizes, likely unpopular among those who love football. He is undeterred.
“I don’t want people NOT to talk about it,” he said. “I don’t want two years to go by and all of a sudden (full-contact) pee-wee football numbers are up. They should be zero. They really should be.
“A parent that lets a child play in fifth, sixth, seventh or eighth grade — it’s borderline child endangerment, OK? It’s almost reckless child endangerment. But it is child endangerment when you look at kids getting hurt. It really is the right decision. I don’t think any parent should take risks with a child’s health for entertainment. And that’s what it is — entertainment.”
Widmer said his goal is to make parents fully aware of the risks, especially mothers. He said he believes the only reason full-contact pee-wee football still exists is because parents aren’t fully aware of the consequences.
So he speaks graphically about what happens to blood vessels in the brain when helmets are crashed.
“That is the way I talk to the mother,” he said. “She sits back there with her eyes open, and there’s no way the husband is going to be able to veto her vote. She turns into the super-president of the house after I talk to her about this.”
Even so, Widmer said he wasn’t sure how to reach out to a broader audience in Montana, describing himself as “petrified” about opening up and feeling like “a guy with a stick in a room that’s dark.” As late as Friday, after a week in his hometown of Bozeman, where he graduated in 1987, he thought about flying to Hawaii or to Australia, where he had a front-row seat for the Commonwealth Games.
Then he opened a Bozeman newspaper and saw a story about the 16-year-old Belt High School student who suffered a concussion in a 2014 game and collapsed on the sideline a week later. The boy remains nearly paralyzed, is unable to speak and requires 24-hour care.
After reading that, Widmer reached out to 406mtsports.com to share publicly why he declined his induction into the Hall of Fame.
“That was a moment that made me understand,” he said. “Before I went to Australia, I told the Hall of Fame I wanted my name out. I thought I’d just escape and walk away from everything. I didn’t want the drama. But when I got over there I just got this overwhelming guilt, anxiety and was not sleeping. Every day I was waking up thinking about this. I didn’t have a plan … but the canary in the coal mine has died.
“I felt like it was something I had to do.”