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Doug Robinson: Did Niners do Collie a favor?

Published: Friday, July 31 2015 3:58 p.m. MDT

Newly-signed San Francisco 49ers wide receiver Austin Collie stretches during NFL football training camp on Friday, Aug. 2, 2013, in Santa Clara, Calif.  (Marcio Jose Sanchez, ASSOCIATED PRESS) Newly-signed San Francisco 49ers wide receiver Austin Collie stretches during NFL football training camp on Friday, Aug. 2, 2013, in Santa Clara, Calif. (Marcio Jose Sanchez, ASSOCIATED PRESS)

When Austin Collie was cut a few days ago by the San Francisco 49ers, it was difficult not to make a connection with NFL news that broke two days earlier — the announcement that the league agreed to spend nearly $800 million to diagnose and compensate retired players who suffer from brain injuries as a result of collisions on the field.

The settlement ends a class-action lawsuit by 4,500 former players and/or their estates who are dealing with concussion issues. Players are paying the price for their love of the game — and ours.

The irony is that there probably aren’t many among those 4,500 who would’ve ended their playing days early if they had been warned of the potential dangers of repeated concussions. Most of them would feel the same way as Brian Urlacher, the recently retired NFL linebacker who has said on a couple of occasions that he would still lie to cover up a concussion.

Denver Broncos quarterback Peyton Manning, left, talks with San Francisco 49ers wide receiver Austin Collie, right, before  an NFL preseason football game on Thursday, Aug. 8, 2013, in San Francisco. (Ben Margot, ASSOCIATED PRESS) Denver Broncos quarterback Peyton Manning, left, talks with San Francisco 49ers wide receiver Austin Collie, right, before an NFL preseason football game on Thursday, Aug. 8, 2013, in San Francisco. (Ben Margot, ASSOCIATED PRESS)

Players will do anything to play the game. It stands to reason that if athletes are willing to inject steroids in their bodies, despite myriad warnings about health risks, and play with other injuries (see RGIII), they’ll play through headaches.

So maybe the 49ers did Collie a favor by cutting him, given his history of concussions. He hopes to get another chance, and he probably will get one, but maybe he should talk to those 4,500 players, those with dementia, Alzheimer’s, depression, chronic headaches, memory loss and so forth.

Maybe he should talk to the wife of the late John Mackey, the former NFL great whose dementia became so severe that he had to be placed in a fulltime assisted living facility. He died at 69.

Maybe he should talk with fellow BYU alum Jim McMahon, who battled suicidal thoughts and continues to experience early-stage dementia.

Wide receiver Austin Collie #17 of the Indianapolis Colts makes a reception and picks up a first down as as Ryan Diem #71 of the Colts blocks Nate Jones #33 of the Denver Broncos at INVESCO Field at Mile High on September 26, 2010 in Denver, Colorado. The Colts defeated the Broncos 27-13.  (Doug Pensinger, Getty Images) Wide receiver Austin Collie #17 of the Indianapolis Colts makes a reception and picks up a first down as as Ryan Diem #71 of the Colts blocks Nate Jones #33 of the Denver Broncos at INVESCO Field at Mile High on September 26, 2010 in Denver, Colorado. The Colts defeated the Broncos 27-13. (Doug Pensinger, Getty Images)

"I always knew that my body would be beat up — you know, my shoulders, my knees, my back, stuff like that — but nobody ever mentioned the head," McMahon told ESPN, "and I think that's what brought that lawsuit about.”

Maybe Collie should talk to scientists at the Boston University School of Medicine who studied the brains of 34 former pro football players posthumously and found disease in 31 of them.

Collie’s story is a sad one, but not as sad Mackey’s and others who suffer from brain injuries. His professional career began in storybook fashion and pretty much ended with him unconscious on the field.

Even 10 or 15 years ago, Collie’s problems might not have drawn much attention, but with all the media focused on concussions in recent years he became, in his own words, the poster child for the C word.

Indianapolis Colts wide receiver Austin Collie, right, lies on the field after being injured as teammate Reggie Wayne, center, looks on, while back judge Todd Prukop walks nearby during the first half of the Colts' NFL football game against the Philadelphia Eagles, Sunday, Nov. 7, 2010 in Philadelphia.  (Miles Kennedy, AP) Indianapolis Colts wide receiver Austin Collie, right, lies on the field after being injured as teammate Reggie Wayne, center, looks on, while back judge Todd Prukop walks nearby during the first half of the Colts' NFL football game against the Philadelphia Eagles, Sunday, Nov. 7, 2010 in Philadelphia. (Miles Kennedy, AP)

After leaving BYU a year early and being drafted in the fourth round, Collie had a fabulous rookie season with Peyton Manning and the Colts in 2009. He played in all 19 games, counting three playoff games. In the regular season he collected 60 catches for 676 yards and 7 touchdowns. In the postseason he had 17 catches for 241 yards, 2 TDs, including 6 catches in a Super Bowl loss to the New Orleans Saints.

It was an ideal situation for Collie, playing the slot receiver spot in an offense suited for his skills and with a quarterback who ranks as one of the greatest in history. The future seemed unlimited.

Collie began his second season the way he left off. Through the first three games he led the league in receptions (27), receiving yards (359) and TD catches (4), topped by an outing against the Broncos in which he caught 12 passes for 171 yards and 2 TDs.

Indianapolis Colts wide receiver Austin Collie (17) warms up before an NFL preseason football game against the Pittsburgh Steelers in Pittsburgh, Sunday, Aug. 19, 2012.  (Mark Duncan, AP) Indianapolis Colts wide receiver Austin Collie (17) warms up before an NFL preseason football game against the Pittsburgh Steelers in Pittsburgh, Sunday, Aug. 19, 2012. (Mark Duncan, AP)

Then the trouble began. On Nov. 7, 2010, he was hit on both sides of his head by a pair of defensive backs and collapsed on the field on national TV. On Dec. 19, he was knocked unconscious again by another hit on national TV and was on the field for several minutes. Three days later he was placed on injured reserve.

He still managed to finish the season with 58 catches, 649 yards and 8 TDs in just 9 games.

In 2011, he seemed to put such problems behind him, catching 54 passes for 514 yards and 1 TD in 16 games while playing without the injured Manning at quarterback.

But during the 2012 preseason, he suffered his third concussion. He returned to the lineup, but in the third game of the season he ruptured the patellar tendon in his right knee and missed the rest of the season.

The Colts released him last February. In three seasons and 45 games (counting playoffs), he totaled 190 catches, 2,086 yards and 18 TDs. He performed superbly, but the Colts, undoubtedly spooked by his injuries, let him go at the age of 27, in the prime of his athletic career. The 49ers signed him last month, but cut him despite being desperate to bolster a thin receiver corps.

If he plays again, he might have no recurrence of concussions and maybe never experience the health issues others have faced after their careers.

But who knows.

Already there is talk that the 49ers might re-sign Collie. If that happens, it could be a mixed blessing.

Doug Robinson's columns run on Tuesdays and Wednesdays. EMAIL: drob@deseretnews.com

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