Cleveland Browns linebacker Scott Fujita is about as courageous and outspoken an athlete as there is on the contemporary sport’s landscape. His wife, Jaclyn Fujita, is at least as sharp and strong-willed as her husband, but has made the choice to not be as outspoken as Scott, until now. Jaclyn Fujita was pushed to write something about the realities of NFL life, after a dear friend was diagnosed with ALS (commonly known as Lou Gehrig’s disease and believed to be linked to repeated concussions). This tragedy invaded their lives in the same awful recent weeks when former NFL player Kevin Turner was diagnosed with ALS and Chicago Bear legend Dave Duerson took his own life by shooting himself in the chest instead of the head so his brain could be studied for the effects of post-concussive syndrome. Jaclyn didn’t originally write the following for publication, just catharsis. But many have asked her to put it out there with the hope that fans could understand why the NFL players have chosen to say that safety and security are non-negotiables.
The Wish of an NFL Wife
by Jaclyn Fujita
I am a pro football player’s wife and my husband has been knocking heads for the last twenty-plus years. We choose this path. The burden—whatever it may be—rests on our shoulders. This was the dream we decided to chase.
Honestly, though, I don’t know that we were fully aware of the ultimate reality of the National Football League. We learned the hard way that he would work his ass into the ground, playing every defensive down and special teams, and would be the lowest paid man on the roster. That he would experience multiple concussions, but remain on the field. That he would suffer full ligament tears and shouldn’t have been walking, but team doctors would tell him it was a “minor sprain” and should still play. That even though you have given your heart and soul to a team, they can easily replace you with a rookie who has never played in the NFL before.
My husband could have lost his life to a staph infection. His NFL doctors and trainers were heating/icing/stemming his knee for a bursa-sac rupture and ignoring all the major signs of infection, while his body was screaming that something else must be wrong. He ended up in an emergency operation weeks after symptoms began. Following five nights in hospital isolation and many weeks beating back the infection, he was ready to play for the city we love and a team we built our life around. He would help them win the coveted Super Bowl Championship. Less than a month later he would be gone, feeling completely expendable and replaceable as if his blood, sweat and tears did not matter.
Now I know many don’t want to hear our complaints: we made our bed and now we have to lie in it. But what about the pro football players of tomorrow who have no idea what they are stepping into? Boys who are playing football because they love it and have found something they are really good at? They see the pride on their family’s faces every time they strap on that helmet, but these young men have no idea of the pain they will endure or the true uncertainty of their career choice. They have no idea how long they will work or when their bodies will say “no” to the abuse. What these men need to know is that as they step on the field and risk major injury—while generating billions of dollars for this industry—the billionaires who write the checks are not looking out for them. They need to know that they are going to be lied to. They need to know that when they suffer an injury they will be told they should buck up and play.
But the day will come when they decide to walk away from the sport they played for the last twenty years of their lives. The sport which taught them to play through pain, to never complain, to never stop, to yell, to scream, to hit, to fight, to destroy the man in front of them, to work until they puke, to lay their body on the line every Sunday and just hope that they walk off that field and aren’t carried. That day will come when they leave this game—the game that used them and abused them, yet the game they loved so passionately.
Each man will walk away thinking that if his knees are to give out, hopefully it happens in the next five years before his health coverage expires. And if he has to cover himself with money from his own pocket, he will hope it doesn’t break him. Insurance companies aren’t looking to cover the ten-year veteran pro football player with the pounding migraines and ALS or severe depression that could be lurking just around the corner. His knees and back are sure to give out faster than the average person, and he may lose his mind due to all the concussions.
And here they are, simply asking the men who profit from their work, to please look after their health, as they should have done throughout their career. They ask this so that someday, the young boy who chooses this path knows he will be protected the way he deserves. So his mother, wife, or child will know that even though that hit looks awful, there is someone on the sideline with his best interests at heart. So future NFL wives who watch their husbands unable to get out of a chair on a Tuesday, yet still strap it come Sunday, will be taken care of. So the man who is sacrificing his body and mind for the thrill of the game can be confident that his work will not go unnoticed. He will not be forgotten. He will not go unprotected. He will have earned the right to be taken care of for life. He will be kept safe from his damaged body and mind. For it was those bodies and minds of fifty-three men on thirty-two teams who every year generate billions of dollars for this industry. They deserve to be cared about.
That is my wish for tomorrow’s boys, men, mothers, fathers and wives who will build their lives around this American pastime. They will have something when their money runs out. And when their aches and pains become unbearable, they will have the comfort of knowing that their blood, sweat and tears will carry them for the rest of their lives. They did not sacrifice their health and well-being for nothing. They will not be forgotten.