The unretiring of Tom Brady has done more than fuel talk of whether he can win another Super Bowl with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers.
It’s also stirred discussion about the health risks involved in his return to the NFL.
Brady will be 45 when the 2020 season begins, setting him up to become the oldest NFL player to start at quarterback.
During 22 NFL seasons, he has avoided major injuries, with the exception of a torn ACL he suffered in the 2008 season opener. But he has acknowledged having had multiple concussions.
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“My hope is that the law of averages doesn’t get to him because he’s been great, he’s been healthy,” said Randall Cunningham, the retired quarterback who was a four-time Pro Bowler. “I just hope he stays healthy, and that’s what I’m going to be praying for.”
Cunningham knows about comebacks.
So does former NFL quarterback Steve DeBerg.
As does former heavyweight boxer George Foreman.
USA TODAY Sports spoke to all three of those athletes – and two other people familiar with the rigors of the NFL – to gain insight into Brady’s decision and the health risks.
“I believe that Tom can come back and get the MVP again,” Cunningham said.
In his prime, Cunningham was arguably the most dynamic quarterback in the NFL. But after a series of injuries, he was relegated to a backup role with the Philadelphia Eagles and retired at 32.
Temporarily, that is.
One year later, he was back. At 35, he won the starting quarterback job with the Minnesota Vikings and went 13-1 with 34 touchdowns and 10 interceptions for 3,704 yards during the 1998 season.
He retired for good at 38.
“I applaud (Brady) for sticking with the craft because, I mean, he’s the best,” Cunningham said. “When you’re the best, what do you do, shut your company down? So he’s not shutting the company down.”
Cunningham said his comeback hinged on a sign from God.
“I said, ‘Lord, if it’s your will for me to go back and play, have teams call me,’” he said, adding that teams started calling just days later.
Brady, by contrast, was under contract with the Bucs when he retired.
“If it’s still in his heart, then he’s going to be fine,” Cunningham said. “And there came a time when the NFL didn’t want me. So it’s different from him. The NFL wants him, the public wants him. So it’s kind of like, if in his heart that’s what he should do, he should keep on going.”
The oldest quarterback to start an NFL game is not Tom Brady. Not yet anyway.
The record belongs to Steve DeBerg, who was 44 years and 279 days old when he started for the Atlanta Falcons against the New York Jets Oct. 25, 1998. DeBerg, who lives in Tampa, said he will not be surprised to see Brady eclipse his record.
“I was surprised he had announced he was retiring in the first place,” DeBerg said. “He was so good this year, one of his best years.”
DeBerg initially retired at 39.
“I felt fine,” he said. “I considered continuing to play but I was almost 40, I was healthy and I kind of felt like I had beat the odds having played that long.”
After serving as an NFL assistant for two years, he returned to the NFL at 44 in the quasi role of player/coach.
Appearing in eight games, he set another record: At 45, DeBerg became the oldest player on a Super Bowl roster when the Falcons played the Denver Broncos in the Super Bowl following the 1998 season. They lost 34-19.
DeBerg said he planned to play the following season until he suffered a knee injury during a motorcycle accident. It was one of many injuries for DeBerg – most of them football-related.
“I just had my knee replaced and I’m probably going to have my other knee replaced,’’ said DeBerg, 68. “Both my shoulders have rotator cuff tears and my right elbow has bone chips in it.’’
Despite his own ailments, DeBerg sounds optimistic about Brady’s ability to avoid serious injury.
“There’s always that chance for anybody that plays football,” he said. “It’s harder when you’re older. It’s harder to rehab and all that stuff. But because of the style of play, he reads the defense so fast, he knows where the weakness is, he knows where the mismatch is and he gets rid of the ball so quick.
“Against the best pass rushers, he’s able to throw the ball before they can get to him. You know, he’s not going to hold the ball. He’ll throw the ball away.”
Brady also will be served well by today’s NFL rules, according to DeBerg.
“Quarterbacks are protected,’’ he said. “It’s not like it used to be.”
In announcing he was ending his retirement, Brady referred to “unfinished business.” But Foreman, the retired heavyweight champion, said he thinks there’s another reason Brady is rejoining the Bucs.
Brady is due to be paid $25 million for this upcoming season.
Foreman referred to John D. Rockefeller, the American tycoon in the early 20th Century, when he said, “Someone once asked Rockefeller, ‘How much money is enough?’ And he said, ‘Just a little bit more.’
“And you can believe that’s what it’s all about.”
He’s speaking from experience.
Foreman retired at 28 and came back at 38. But he said the real crossroads for him came at 44 after losing a unanimous decision to Tommy Morrison in 1993.
Following the defeat, Foreman said, he began working on a TV show in Los Angeles and considered giving up boxing. Then promoter Bob Arum called.
“He said, ‘You want another title shot, don’t you?’” Foreman said. “I said, ‘Yes,’ and then before you know it people are saying, ‘Hey, we got a $10 million purse for you.’ I couldn’t let that go.’
“People look and you and say, ‘Man, why don’t you just walk away?’ I said, ‘How can I walk away from this?'”
On Nov. 5, 1995, at 45, Foreman became boxing’s oldest heavyweight champ when he knocked out 26-year-old Michael Moorer.
“I could still do it and not get hurt,’’ said Foreman, who retired in 1997. “They didn’t hit me hard because they were moving away. And I get a little swelling, but it didn’t hurt me.’’
Foreman suggests the same will be true of Brady, explaining, “He knows how to play football.’’
But Kendra Stabler Moyes, daughter of legendary NFL quarterback Ken Stabler who played from 1970-84, expressed more concern.
She said she has seen firsthand the suffering caused by concussions. After Stabler died at age 69 from colon cancer, his brain was examined by researchers at Boston University, who determined Stabler had had high Stage 3 CTE, on a scale of 1 to 4.
“My dad hid it really well and cancer took his life before CTE would have,’’ Stabler Moyes said. “But he definitely suffered immensely from it.’’
Of Brady’s unretiring, Stabler Moyes said, “That’s such a personal decision, and I’m sure it wasn’t taken lightly for him to go back.
“At the same time, Tom Brady plays in such a different era than my father did. They can barely touch the quarterback anymore. You know, my dad was getting annihilated out there and never came out.
“They can barely touch these guys anymore without getting a flag. It is such a different game.”
But a football player’s odds of developing chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE) increase by as much as 30% each year they play, said Chris Nowinski, co-founder and & CEO of Concussion Legacy Foundation, citing data from the VA-Boston University-Concussion Legacy Foundation Brain Bank.
CTE can cause problems with memory, behavior and personalityand can result in dementia, Nowinski said, adding that the more concussions one suffers, the greater their risk of long-term symptoms, including problems with mental health and some neurological disorders.
“NFL quarterbacks are more protected than ever by recent rule changes, but there are still risks to playing,” Nowinski said via email. “It is important that players choose to play knowing the risks not only to themselves, but how those risks may impact their family in the coming decades.”