COLUMBUS — Andrew Sweat called home with startling news one day last December after sitting through a finance lecture at Ohio State.
“Dad, I don’t remember being in class,” he told his father, Gary.
Sweat took pride in his no-excuses toughness as a standout linebacker for the Buckeyes. No shredded ligament or broken bone deterred him. Not the two shoulder surgeries he underwent in high school. Not the torn anterior cruciate ligament he suffered as a sophomore at Ohio State. Not the dislocated elbow or bent-out-of-place fingers.
But this was different.
The haze of a concussion — his third at OSU — that left him walking aimlessly off the field at Purdue weeks earlier persisted. He was depressed and forgetful, unable to focus in class. An All-Big Ten second-team linebacker but first-team academic, Sweat began to ponder life after football.
Sweat then did something he never could have imagined growing up outside of Pittsburgh with NFL dreams.
He walked away from the game.
“Football taught me so much that the classroom could never teach me, but it’s still a game,” said Sweat, who has been accepted to five law schools and is also considering a career in medical sales. “There’s so much more to life than football, so much more to life than the attention, the glamour. You have your whole life. I want to have a family, I want to have kids and I want to be able to play with them.”
Choosing school over sport, Sweat offered the latest example of a changing attitude toward head injuries in football.
His decision comes against the backdrop of increasing research and dialogue on the potential devastating long-term effect of concussions.
In the past month alone, the suicide of 43-year-old former star linebacker Junior Seau stoked further debate on the link between head injuries and depression, more than 100 former NFL players filed a lawsuit arguing the league did not protect them from concussions, and the Big Ten announced plans to launch a sweeping concussion research initiative.
Sweat is the second OSU player in the last year and second college player in the past month to step away from football because of concussions. Former Buckeyes linebacker Ross Homan, a sixth-round pick by the Minnesota Vikings in the 2011 NFL draft, called it a career last September. Chad Diehl, a former Clemson fullback signed by the Baltimore Ravens as an undrafted free agent, did the same this week after suffering a concussion at rookie camp — his second this year.
“I love my wife and daughter way too much to risk my future with them,” Diehl wrote on Facebook.
Sweat said he already misses football. He lived for fall Saturdays at OSU — a place the Washington, Pa., native prayed would offer him a scholarship after he visited the school for the 2006 game against Michigan. He played the game with grit and abandon. Sweat earned a starting position as a junior and led OSU’s linebackers with 72 tackles last season.
“I’ll stick my nose in there,” he said. “I’ll hit anything that moves.”
Sweat thought little of the two concussions he suffered during his first three seasons. He felt fine within a week both times. But the hit at Purdue rattled him. He momentarily lost feeling in his arms and hands. He needed help to leave the field.
Though still dazed, Sweat said he passed a battery of tests and prepared to play two weeks later against Michigan.
“No matter if my head was bad or not, I wasn’t going to miss that game for my teammates,” Sweat said.
In a twist of fate, however, Sweat dislocated his elbow in a 7-on-7 drill the week before the game. “Thankfully,” Sweat said, he was sidelined.
Sweat returned to play in the Gator Bowl without incident but his concussion symptoms endured. Normally upbeat, he felt pangs of depression for the first time in his life. He also struggled in his business courses to pick up concepts that once came naturally.
Sweat, a finance major, took his studies seriously. He earned All-Academic Big Ten honors each of his four years and interned at Merrill Lynch last summer. Yet, suddenly, his mind was not right.
“It was scary,” said Gary Sweat, who played football at Syracuse and is a lawyer.
Although Sweat felt better by April and prepared for the NFL — he said more than 20 teams inquired to sign him after the draft — he also weighed the cons. Sweat knew he risked permanent neurological damage if he returned before his concussion was completely healed — a process that can take months.
After falling in the shower before his first day of mini-camp with the Browns, Sweat consulted with his family and friends. It was time.
Sweat returned to Ohio State, where he will graduate next month. If the physical price of the degree was high, Sweat said he savors “every minute” of his OSU football career.
“I don’t think there’s any institution in the country like Ohio State, and I wouldn’t trade anything for it,” Sweat said. “If it was up to me, I would probably still be playing football but … “
“Sometimes being a tough guy isn’t always the smart thing,” he said. “I just have to use my head. I’m a lot more well-rounded than just a football player, and I’m excited to embark on a new journey.”
Contact David Briggs at firstname.lastname@example.org, or 419-724-6084 or on Twitter @DBriggsBlade.