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NFL free agent Cribbs 'dying' to play, despite concussion history

Ben Schmitt
| Monday, April 18, 2016, 9:00 p.m.
Former NFL wide receiver Josh Cribbs
Getty Images
Former NFL wide receiver Josh Cribbs

CLEVELAND

It's not easy to get a room full of journalists to collectively gasp in agony: We've seen a lot, heard a lot and been through a lot.

Josh Cribbs found a way by sharing his football stories.

During an April 8 discussion at the national conference of the Association of Health Care Journalists, the former NFL wide receiver and return specialist spoke in raw and uncut fashion about the head injuries he endured.

“I love the sport so much; I would die for it,” he told us. “I've been dying for it.”

First gasp.

He spoke about seeing triple, not double, after being hit hard by an opposing player. After one in-game collision, he regained consciousness and couldn't remember which opposing team he was playing against.

Second gasp.

NFL players get paid millions to play, so “we will go to great lengths to pretend as though we don't have a concussion,” he said.

The faking part came easily.

Cribbs, who played for the Cleveland Browns, New York Jets and Indianapolis Colts, detailed how he frequently deceived the league's concussion protocol system in order to stay on the field.

When Cribbs took his concussion baseline tests, he purposely spoke slowly knowing he'd want to replicate that pace of speech during injury.

“I know the tests like the back of my hand,” he said.

When team doctors checked him after a hit, they'd give him a list of words to repeat while checking his coordination and asking him about days of the week and months of the year. In the interim, Cribbs repeated the words in his mind until doctors asked him to say them.

“I would always get three out of five of those words, which were enough for me to enter back into the game.”

You may remember a 2010 hit from Pittsburgh Steelers linebacker James Harrison that knocked Cribbs out cold .

There's a price to pay for his hefty paychecks.

Cribbs recently had a brain scan. He said a doctor told him he had a healthy brain — for a person in his 50s. He's 32.

Third gasp.

“These hits that we're taking, there is a link,” he said. “Not everyone will have the same severity, but there is a link.”

In March, an NFL official for the first time publicly linked football to the debilitating brain disease chronic traumatic encephalopathy, better known as CTE.

“The NFL is a business,” Cribbs said. “CTE scares the business.”

The movie “Concussion,” based on the work of a Pittsburgh forensic pathologist who discovered a link between football and CTE, horrified Cribbs.

“If there was a CTE test, I'd probably test positive,” he said. Cribbs, who is a free agent, began playing football at 7 years old. If the right team calls, he said he might still suit up and play next season.

He's married with two children and said his family wants him to retire.

Why would he play again?

“Knowing the cost, that's how much I love the game.”

Last gasp.

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