It's not many players who retire five years into their career, but that's the case with Montreal Alouettes' guard Andrew Woodruff; the team announced Wednesday that he's chosen to hang up his cleats. His loss is a significant one for the organization, as solid Canadian guards aren't easy to find, and he'll leave a major hole on their line. However, it's the reason why Woodruff is exiting the CFL that seems particularly notable. He missed all but two games this season after suffering a concussion off a collision with Winnipeg Blue Bombers' defensive end Kenny Mainor in the Alouettes' second game July 4. Woodruff told The Gazette's Herb Zurkowsky in October that concussion led to him having a horrible night:
“I had a headache. Things were blurry. I was hearing things. My mind was racing,” said Woodruff, 28, in his fifth season with Montreal. “I couldn’t look at a computer screen or do anything to wind me down. My eyes hurt. My ears were popping, ringing a little bit. I was on edge, a little paranoid about my own condition at the time.
“There are images and moments of my memory that are there,” he added, “but I don’t remember specific details. It’s a bit scary.”
Woodruff’s eyes were sensitive. He couldn’t look at a computer screen, couldn’t turn any lights on in his apartment. Come morning, he went outside, without sunglasses, and was overwhelmed by the light and noise. The headaches persisted.
“It was hard for me to put sentences together,” he said. “If I were to have this conversation with you a few months ago, I’d have asked you a few times what we’re talking about. I would ramble on.”
The lights in his apartment, other than a lamp he keeps in the corner of his bedroom, remained off, constantly. Woodruff slept with sunglasses every night, for when he awakened and opened his eyes.
One day, he walked to the corner store but got dizzy. Two weeks after being concussed, he and his wife went to a coffee shop one-half block from the apartment. Within 20 minutes, Woodruff had to return home.
“The cars, people, being out in the sun was too much — with a hat and sunglasses,” he remembered.
It didn't stop there, either. Woodruff had improved somewhat by October, but told Zurkowsky he was still suffering from headaches and panic attacks at that point, and he had a hard time being around groups of people. Even at that point, it sounded like he was already considering retirement:
Woodruff doesn’t need football, having graduated with a degree in history. He hopes to eventually pursue a career in kinesiology.
“If the doctors say this is too much or you need more time ... I love football and want to play, but I have to think about what’s best for my life,” he said. “If it comes to that point, I won’t be stupid.
“If it’s there, I’ll take my chance. But we’re very aware of the risks.”
Players definitely need to be aware of the potential injuries that can come with football, and Woodruff's case shows that concussion recovery can be a long and complicated process (as we also saw with Montreal teammate Anthony Calvillo). The effects of some head injuries never completely subside, and that's why they're such a crucial issue for the CFL. Woodruff's loss is a notable one on the field, too; the 28-year-old Canadian guard from Victoria, B.C. had been with the Alouettes since they drafted him out of Boise State in the second round of the 2008 draft, and he became a key part of their offensive line over the last couple of years. Top non-import talent isn't easy to find, and Montreal will have a difficult time replacing him.
Still, it's the impact of Woodruff's story that may be particularly important here. Before the concussion, he was a crucial contributor on the Alouettes' offensive line; since then, he spent months struggling with post-concussion symptoms, and now he's given up football entirely. Head injuries can do that, and they can affect your entire life afterwards in some cases too. Football's a dangerous sport, and cases like Woodruff's showcase that; they also show the need for a continued focus on trying to make the sport safer. Woodruff's time in the CFL appears done, but his story should be a reminder to all current players of the dangers of head injuries, and an example of how much damage concussions can do.