Sports of The Times: A Giant Laid Low by Too Many Blows to the Head

DENVER — Tall and imposing, indomitable even, 6-foot-8 with shoulders and a back broad enough to push a pickup truck.

He was a star lineman on a state championship team in high school and for the University of Colorado Buffaloes, where he set a team record for starts and minutes played. He was an Associated Press third-team all-American and played three years in the N.F.L.

Yet the word that jumps most quickly to mind when talking to Ryan Miller is “fragile.”

Hits, concussive and subconcussive, have laid him low. Head bursting, nausea rising, please shut off the lights, please. I interviewed Miller twice, our talks separated by 22 months, and he is doing better, which is not to suggest this thoughtful and soft-spoken 29-year-old is anywhere near what he wants to be.

When I met him in 2017 Miller had spent the previous hour in a darkened room, breathing slowly. He would get into his car and sit for hours, trying to remember where he intended to go. He would walk into airports, and lights and noise and crowds made him want to curl into a fetal ball. Since then he has gotten better with therapy and diet, and he has lost a lot of weight. He’s healthier, and yet. …

“I don’t live as much in fear of what will happen next, and it’s been a year since I have had a seizure,” he told me. “It’s been a long road. It still is a long road.”

The brutality of the N.F.L. and its malefactions and lack of care for players’ bodies and minds are well known. But the time a player spends in college, including Miller’s tenure in the savage trenches of an offensive line, wreaks great damage, too, and that raises a pointed question: How can universities, places of higher learning that are devoted to the development of young minds and that in some cases spend millions of dollars researching the ill effects of brain injuries, justify running multimillion-dollar football machines that put those brains at risk of lifelong damage?

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Ryan Miller’s University of Colorado helmet is on a wall in his home.CreditRyan David Brown for The New York Times

The University of Colorado is in measurable ways better on health than some top-ranked college programs. Yet former Buffaloes players have suffered brain and emotional damage, and some have taken their own lives. The roll call of the Colorado dead includes running back Rashaan Salaam, at age 42; linebacker Drew Wahlroos, 37; and tight end Tennyson McCarty, 32. Much evidence points to the likelihood that these men suffered emotional and cognitive problems as a result of too many hits. Wahlroos’s brain was donated to the Boston University Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy center. Results have not yet been released.

Some Colorado regents have begun to ask questions. “Football as played in America is a brutal 19th century sport that is highly destructive to the human brain,” Linda Shoemaker told fellow regents. “I don’t believe it has a place in the academic enterprise that is the University of Colorado.”

I will return tomorrow to their challenge to the college football industry. Today the focus is on a man consumed with a search to feel normal again. I first found my way to Miller’s suburban home southwest of Denver, the snow-capped Rockies glimmering in the distance, after reading about him in The Denver Post in 2017.

He hails from an athletic family and took up tackle football in grade school. He adored it, the running, the playmaking, the hitting. Robert Cantu, a doctor who helped start the C.T.E. Center at Boston University, studies the brain health of athletes and says the risk of emotional and cognitive damage is three times higher for those N.F.L. players who played tackle before age 12.

Miller played continuously until, as a 285-pound teenager, he became the core of a legendary high school offensive line, the “Great Wall of Columbine.”

“To have size and weight and skill advantages over all those poor high school kids, man,” he said. “I don’t want to toot my horn, but we were talented.”

He smiled distantly at old conceits. “Yeah, well. You reap what you sow, right?”

By which he meant he reaped lots of head whacks for years on end. He had at least one concussion in high school. “I sat out a day or two and played the next week,” he said.

Miller sustained a concussion during the Cleveland Browns’ training camp in 2013. CreditJohn Kuntz/The Plain Dealer, via Associated Press

Miller has had 10 concussions in all, and that is to understate his battering. The brain sits in fluid inside the armor of a skull, and even nonconcussive whacks can result in brain colliding with bone. A couple of hard hits can come to resemble a concussion. The average football player, according to Cantu, takes 600 to 800 hits in high school and 800 to 1,000 in college.

The Buffaloes were not highly ranked, but Miller faced off against young men no less big and strong, many of whom went on to pro careers. He played 2,548 snaps, missing a total of two in three years. And that’s not to mention practices and spring football. Did he get concussed? He shrugs. “A couple. It didn’t feel great.” Another pause. “I mean, I always played the next game.”

Miguel Rueda, the University of Colorado’s associate athletic director, said graduating players are given a medical work-up, including a session with a doctor. That’s fine. But those who study concussions speak of a cumulative toll, like a woodpecker tap-tapping at a skull.

You don’t know you’re in trouble until one day. …

The Cleveland Browns drafted Miller 160th over all. A year later he was in summer drills, took a hit and fell to the turf as if shot. He lay motionless and unconscious for five minutes before being strapped to a gurney and taken to the hospital.

“It took me six months to feel normal again,” he said.

The Browns cut him loose, and he became an itinerant lineman, signing with San Diego, Denver and Dallas. He was in the Cowboys camp when it happened again, on a move he had made a thousand times before. “Face to face,” he says. “A normal hit, just like in high school or college.”

Miller’s football jerseys from the Cleveland Browns, the University of Colorado and the All-Star College Shrine Game on a wall at his home.CreditRyan David Brown for The New York Times

That night he called his wife and bawled hysterically, hung up and began to vomit. He quivered, unable to stand, unable to see. “My head felt the most incredible pressure, like lava and sulfur coming out of my ears. It was like someone was hitting me with an anvil. I wanted to die. I thought I was dying.”

Miller began a trek to doctor’s offices. “Doctors said one more hit like that and you might not wake up,” he said. “A lifetime was catching up to me.”

He was denied disability benefits. He had sustained concussions at the University of Colorado, with the Browns and the Cowboys. But how to put a finger on the fateful hit?

University of Colorado officials spoke to me of their hope to make a safer helmet. Would that have helped?

Miller sighed. “You just become a better missile,” he said.

He’s not a college football abolitionist, not quite. He loved the camaraderie and the strategy and the athleticism even as he knows the bottom line. “You are there to make money for the university. You are a lesser priced whore.”

Our talk turns to his future. Miller has announced plans to donate his brain to the Boston University concussion center. But that’s no morbid flag of surrender; he plans to climb out of this hole. He sounds hopeful, sort of.

“There’s still quite a few blank pages. I don’t tell the same story seven times over,” he said. “Some days I feel like a young man, and some days not.”

Ryan Miller outside his home in Parker, Colo.CreditBenjamin Rasmussen for The New York Times

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