As he attended an early movie screening a few weeks ago, Pierre Woods felt his eyes well up.
“Concussion” hits hard for football players, especially former players.
“I almost cried,” Woods said. “My eyes teared, because I identified with it. You’ve got to see the movie. I’m not going to give the ending away.
“At the end of the movie, it touched me. It was very emotional to me.”
In the movie, which will be released nationally Friday, actor Will Smith plays Dr. Bennet Omalu, whose research into the degenerative brain disease chronic traumatic encephalopathy initially was dismissed by the NFL.
Woods played at Michigan (2002-05) and in the NFL primarily with the New England Patriots (2006-10). He also spent time in arena and semipro football.
So he understands the dynamic of the sport, the treatment of injuries and the interaction with medical personnel.
The movie, set in 2005 when Woods was finishing at Michigan, resonated in a way he never expected.
“If I’d have seen this movie when I was in high school (at Cleveland Glenville), my freshman year, I would have never played football,” Woods told the Free Press, after he was interviewed by ESPN for an “Outside the Lines” special to air Sunday morning. “And anybody that knows me knows I love football, absolutely love it, have a passion for it, would run through a brick wall just for football. But the repercussions … we all know playing you can get injured. But after watching that movie …”
His voice wavered. He considered conversations with former NFL players, who watched the movie with him near his Cleveland-area home.
And he thought about Paul Oliver.
Woods recalled hosting a recruiting visit at Michigan on Nov. 1, 2002, when Oliver, the nation’s No. 1 cornerback, was visiting U-M with Ryan Mundy and others. They stood in front of Touchdown Cafe, a popular campus bar, for a photo.
Oliver landed at Georgia, in his home state, and Mundy attended Michigan. Oliver played in the NFL with the San Diego Chargers (2008-11).
“He killed himself,” Woods said.
Oliver, then 29, shot himself in front of his wife and sons in September 2013. He received a CTE diagnosis, and his wife and sons sued the NFL for wrongful death, alleging his suicide was a “direct result of the injuries, depression and emotional suffering caused by repetitive head trauma and concussions.”
“For a guy like that to kill himself and go through the depression he went through, it’s crazy,” Woods said.
The challenge for Woods is pushing aside those thoughts — and the ones about his former New England teammate Junior Seau, who also shot and killed himself.
Woods said he has considered “hurting” himself, but he always has been stopped by the consideration of his four children and what their life would be like without a father as a role model.
Counseling for other parts of his life has helped address some of his football-related concerns and has pushed him into living as an optimist, forcing himself to “avoid negative thoughts.”
But history might have already done irreversible damage. Growing up was a struggle in Woods’ world. Living in the projects as a kid, he would inflict his own pain every time his father left the family, banging his head into concrete.
Judging from all the times he did that to himself — without a helmet — plus more than a decade of high-level high school, college and pro football, Woods knows he’s a prime candidate for CTE.
He remembers a U-M game against Washington where he hit the wedge on the kickoff. He said he knocked himself out on his feet and still made the tackle.
“I don’t think I knew I had a concussion,” he said. “I was woozy. But I got back up and was like, ‘Whatever.’ “
Then there was the game in the NFL when he tackled Pittsburgh’s Heath Miller and Miller’s helmet hit him under his chin, causing a hairline fracture in his jaw.
He said he felt like he got hit by Mike Tyson, Evander Holyfield and George Foreman “at once with one uppercut.” His body tingled for 10 seconds.
As an NFL special-teams player, he loved the camaraderie and the bonding among that group of players, as they’d tell each other, “We’re all we have.”
They said it to unify for football at the time.
Now, their careers over, it’s a rallying cry for their lives as they battle uncertain futures.
“I don’t know how deep it is, because it’s a secret in a sense, a secret society in the NFL,” Woods said. “I can bet colleges are almost the same way. You make so much money for these universities and these pro teams, and they turn around and they don’t want to give the guys the help they need.”
After watching the movie, he’s sure Smith deserves an Oscar for his portrayal.
“It definitely should help people,” Woods said. “A lot of parents are going to definitely go see this movie if nothing else, a lot of people who have kids that play ball. I would recommend it if they didn’t, but a lot of them also are saying, ‘This won’t happen to my son.’
“You just don’t know.”
For Woods, looking back isn’t regret. It’s education.
“You know better, you do better,” he said. “I will never tell anyone, ‘Don’t tell your kid to play.’ But I will be honest about my opinion. It’s mine. It’s not yours. After watching this movie, it’s a very powerful movie. Everybody is talking about ‘Star Wars,’ and ‘Star Wars’ is going to make all this money tonight. Everybody needs to go and support this movie the way they support ‘Star Wars.’ “