The toughest decision that awaits Quincy Enunwa

CLEVELAND, OH - OCTOBER 30: Quincy Enunwa #81 of the New York Jets makes a catch during the third quarter against the Cleveland Browns at FirstEnergy Stadium on October 30, 2016 in Cleveland, Ohio. (Photo by Jason Miller/Getty Images)
CLEVELAND, OH - OCTOBER 30: Quincy Enunwa #81 of the New York Jets makes a catch during the third quarter against the Cleveland Browns at FirstEnergy Stadium on October 30, 2016 in Cleveland, Ohio. (Photo by Jason Miller/Getty Images) /

The New York Jets got hit with a devastating injury to wide receiver Quincy Enunwa but he has a tough decision to make when it comes to deciding whether or not to play again.

As most of us know by now, New York Jets wide receiver Quincy Enunwa re-injured his neck during a recent practice, which will force him to miss the entire 2017 season. Not only is this injury extremely unfortunate for him, the team, and Jets fans alike, but also is a sobering reminder that football is a dangerous sport.

Nowadays, players are stronger, faster, and quicker. On every play an intense collision can be expected with smashing helmets, flying and flailing bodies, broken bones, you name it. So yes, we can expect injuries in football.

Yet it is interesting to point out that in Enunwa’s case, the injury occurred during a “non-contact” drill. This leads one to ask a more probing question, such as why was Enunwa allowed to practice at all? Head coach Todd Bowles acknowledged that Enunwa’s injury was related to a similar injury he had in the spring. Given the sensitivity of the neck area, should Enunwa have been sidelined for longer until he received a clean bill of health?

To be fair (and let’s be honest), there is no such thing in professional sports as a “clean bill of health,” especially in football. This is because we can reasonably assume that every player is dealing with some type of injury to varying degree, making it difficult for team doctors (especially coaches) to decide if players should be “cleared” for practice and to play on game days.

Undoubtedly, professional athletes learned early in life that a) pain comes with the territory, b) they must adapt to it, and c) if they don’t play with pain, then someone else is ready to take their place. All these factors lead athletes to push themselves to extreme levels. Athletes are freaks of nature whose recovery times and pain thresholds are much higher than the average human being.

Team doctors also recognize that there has to be a degree of injury that is allowable, otherwise, there wouldn’t be enough players eligible to practice and/or play. But with neck injuries, permitting an athlete to play with pain doesn’t necessarily apply, thus the decision-making process requires a much more intensive consideration. In Enunwa’s case, the diagnosis is that he has a bulging disk in his neck, and as Bowles admitted, an injury that was known to the Jets. In that sense, Enunwa was fortunate that this injury did not occur during live game action. It’s a scary thought that the injury could have easily been more severe.

But now the most critically important question for all involved is whether Enunwa should ever step on a football field during live action again? The reason behind this question is obvious; if Enunwa’s injury is serious enough that it will require him to be sidelined for an entire year, then it also seems fair to wonder what this injury means for his career? Arguably it may end much sooner than he—or the Jets—ever anticipated.

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To be clear, ultimately the decision to continue to play football rests with the player, in consultation with his family, friends, mentors, coaches, doctors, and so on. Enunwa has spent an entire lifetime to reach this point in his career.

As good as he’s been so far, clearly there is even more untapped potential here. But in the blink of an eye, all that is now in jeopardy.

If it were up to me—and of course I don’t suggest this lightly—I’d remind him that football, for all its glory, lucre, fame and fortune, simply isn’t worth a serious debilitating injury. At what point do “yellow” flags become “red” flags?

I’m fairly certain that there will be lots of various opinions. Some will minimize the extent of the injury, claim that the surgery has been “successful,” that he is still a young player, and with proper attention, the severity of the condition can be minimized. Others will assert that a player with a history of neck injuries should never be allowed on a football field. And the fans, as they always do, will weigh in on the matter. Some of these opinions will be informed, but for the most part, the fans will likely want to see Enunwa playing despite the injury because he is so good.

One must also keep in mind that there is a broader concern operating in the background. Specifically, the NFL is grappling with chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE) issues related to former, current, and future players. While Enunwa’s particular injury isn’t CTE, still, the scrutiny surrounding football injuries particularly around the head and neck areas has reached a fever pitch (and rightfully so). Even Boomer Esiason, one of the most recognizable ambassadors of the NFL, emphasized the criticality of CTE-related issues.

I realize that to make a suggestion for Enunwa to retire now is problematic. Last year, he had a breakout season, catching 58 passes, scoring four touchdowns, and blossomed into one of the de facto leaders of the offense. Coming into this year, Enunwa was the clear top receiver on the Jets wide receiving depth chart. And on a team with little-to-no star power, and younger unproven players, Enunwa was perhaps the one player that fans have come to depend on and appreciate.

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In fact, he’s one of my personal favorites on the team. But the health and well-being of the player must outweigh these factors. Put simply, a neck injury is not a typical thing, and therefore must be considered more serious than other types of injuries. I recognize the dilemma; calling it quits right when your career is beginning to blossom must be agonizing. But on the other hand, playing with a known neck injury puts the player at an extreme risk. Whatever his decision is, I hope that he strongly considers his future health conditions above all other opinions.

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