Football, the sport that has served David Bruton so well, wasn’t on his radar as a youth. The Miamisburg native was talked into playing by his father for the first time as a seventh grader. His season ended with a broken leg.
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He played sparingly as a freshman and was talked into returning to the field as a sophomore “because I wasn’t going to come out.”
The skinny but fast kid who didn’t initially warm up to football joined a trending pattern last week of those who leave the highest level of play. Now 30, he retired from the NFL after eight rewarding if not spectacular seasons, all but one with the Denver Broncos. Despite multiple injuries over the years, it was the fear of more concussions that prompted his exit.
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By coincidence, Bruton’s farewell was the day after a landmark study on concussed brains was published in the New York Times. The study focused on 202 donated brains of former football players who participated at various levels and durations. An alarming 87 percent were diagnosed as having CTE, a degenerative traumatic brain injury that’s linked to repeated blows to the head.
A defensive back first at Miamisburg, then Notre Dame, the Broncos and finally the Redskins, Bruton said he’s had six documented concussions and many more injuries. The end for him was after a knockout blow against the Browns last October. He knew his playing days were done before teammates had helped him to the bench.
“That put retirement in forward motion,” he recalled.
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He resides in Denver and has returned to school at the University of Colorado-Denver, taking prerequisite courses in hopes of being admitted into a physical therapy program.
Here’s what the 6-foot-2, 225-pound former Broncos special teams captain had to say about all that and more.
Q: Is football at a crossroads?
A: People love football. It brings in the most money of all the sports in the United States. These concussions, it becomes the responsibility of the league but also on the players to take advantage of the protocol we have to follow. Take advantage of the times we have to rest and take a break. If you jump back on the field after just having a concussion too early, then you’re apt to get another one and another one. The next thing you know, you’re one of those brains that was studied and has CTE.
Q: What about peewee football? It that too early to play?
A: I’m not a big fan of it, by any means. I think you should definitely wait until you start to get involved in (middle school) sports. You see the damage that it’s done to older guys and our brains are much more developed that those who are in first grade or sixth grade. It’s definitely something that should be taken seriously. You always want the best chance educationally and I don’t think football and banging heads is your best option.
Q: You’re back in school. What’s that like?
A: The first couple months were rough. That could be from being out of school forever or having concussions. I have to basically re-learn how to study, teach myself and get extra help, just to make sure I’m successful and have a competitive GPA when it comes to applying to (physical therapy) school.
Q: What other football injuries have you had?
A: Concussions. Achilles tendinitis. TCL (tibial collateral ligament) sprain. I’ve broken my hand and my fingers. I’ve torn and dislocated my fingers. I broke my leg in a Super Bowl year (2014). Hamstring stuff and back. I’ve broken ribs and had neck sprains. I’ve lost a tooth and had to have a tooth implant. Groin stuff. Plantar fasciitis. Hyper-extended elbow. Dislocated shoulders.
Q: Was all that worth playing football?
A: Yeah, I’d do it again. I’m not saying I regret playing football at all. I loved what it has done for me and I love what it has done for my family and the doors it has opened for me. I loved the platform it gave me to make a difference in the community, whether it was in Denver or Washington (D.C.) or in Dayton. I loved everything about it besides the concussion thing. I don’t regret playing ball and I don’t regret my decision.
Q: Still have the dreadlocks?
A: I cut it back in April. I have a high-top and it’s short on the sides. I would always think about cutting them for a few years, now, but they’ve done me well in football. It’s extra padding under the helmet. I just thought, you know what? I’m gonna go cut my hair, then I went and did it the next day. If I would have put any more thought to it, I’d still have dreadlocks right now.
Q: Could you still play at an NFL level?
A: It’s not about my physical ability as far as me retiring. It’s a mental thing. I know I can still run and jump with the young guys. I just mainly have to ice a little more and stretch a little longer than what I used to. You ever see a cheetah stretch before he goes to catch his prey? That’s exactly how I used to feel. No stretching; just get up and go.
Q: Alter High School grad Chris Borland rocked the NFL when he unexpectedly retired from the 49ers after an outstanding rookie season. Did that resonate with you?
A: I try not to base my decisions on anybody else. I have to make that decision and I have to be able to live with it. It’s definitely courageous on his part. Who wants to leave a job that you’ve been doing your whole life, you’re making great money and it’s opened so many doors for you? It takes a lot of courage to say, you know what, I want to be able to do stuff with my family. I want to be able to run and jump and have a life after football. It’s very admirable of him because he was definitely on the cusp of making a big contract after that type of season.
Q: Are you still a prodigious reader?
A: During the season I could get through three-four (books) in a month. In the offseason it would be up to five or six. It’s slowed down since I’m in school, but it doesn’t mean I’m not reading, that’s for sure. I’m just reading different material. I read all the time. Whether it’s a textbook now or something else, I’ve always done that. I was always reading in the cold tub or hot tub or on the training table or at my locker. I had to let my mind get away from football.
Q: You don’t sponsor a youth football camp, but you have Bruton’s Books (partnered with United Way at Denver and Dayton, providing books to inner-city youth). What’s that about?
A: I wanted to do something different, something innovative. I wanted to do something with what I love and that’s education. Me going back to school is a true testament that I think education is important.