Merril Hoge is a former professional football player for the Pittsburgh Steelers and Chicago Bears. Unfortunately, he was forced to retire his career early due to the lack of care he received following two concussions in the same five-week time period.

Despite the life-altering injuries Hoge sustained playing the sport he loves, he encourages kids to play sports and for their parents to support them. “You can’t live in a bubble. That’s a more dangerous way to live,” he says. While he understands the concerns parents might have, specifically about their kids playing contact sports, Hoge stresses that there has never been a better time to play sports: the equipment, protocols, treatment, and instructions coaches have today make sports safer than ever before. He says that all parents should get involved no matter what sport their kid chooses to play. “The more parents are engaged with their kids in the sport they are passionate about, the better.”

Below, Hoge discusses the poor care he received, the drastic improvements that have made sports safer, and how parents can confidently support their kid athletes:

Hoge Details His Career-Halting Injuries

Hoge sustained a severe concussion in a Monday night football game in Kansas City in the year 1994; five days later he was cleared to play again—over the phone. “My stability was terrible along with my cognitive abilities,” Hoge explains. “I was so bad, I was taken to the hospital to make sure I didn’t have any bleeding in my brain, which I did not. I flew home to Chicago with the team. After 5 days, where I did relatively nothing, I got a call from the doctor who evaluated me at the Monday night game. He asked how I was feeling and I said, ‘I feel fine.’” Hoge goes on to explain that his answer was based off of the little knowledge he (and other players) had about concussion symptoms. The doctor then cleared him to play over the phone, despite the clear severity of his injury.

Five weeks later, Hoge sustained a second concussion that sent him into cardiac arrest: “As they started to resuscitate me, I started to breathe again and got up and walked to the ambulance. I remember none of this.” Hoge spent a few days in the ICU before entering rehab where he had to learn how to read again and rebuild all of his other cognitive skills. Then, he began to struggle emotionally. “I went into depression and had anxiety that was robbing me of my life. I went to counseling and worked as hard as I could to work through my issues. It took about two years, but it finally started to clear up,” he says. 

“Your Mental Health Is Linked to Your Physical Health”

Unfortunately, the treatment we have today for concussions and mental health issues did not exist when Hoge sustained his injuries. But the good news is that players today are able to find the help and care that they need. “I wish I had all the treatments that exist for concussions and mental health issues,” he says.

Hoge also stresses the importance of taking care of both mental and physical health. When asked what advice he would give to other athletes, he says, “Your mental health is linked to your physical health. If you’re not taking care of your physical health and you’re drinking, taking drugs, opioids, you’re obese, you’re sedentary, and sugar consumption is a big part of your diet, then more than likely, your lifestyle is the issue with your mental health.”

Help Your Kids Pursue Their Passions 

Hoge has always supported his kids and encourages them to follow their dreams. When parents ask him about their own kids and what they should be doing, he always says, “Find out what they’re passionate about and feed that passion. Sometimes your kid’s passion is not your passion, and you have to realize that. Be grateful they have a passion, help them with it, and feed it.” 

Hoge adds that it’s important to make sure the program is safe and following proper protocols. “With all the protocols, improved equipment, great drills, and instruction on how to play sports and treatments that are available for injuries makes sports the safest they have ever been, as long as the above are a part of the sport your kid is involved in.” Hoge recommends that parents ask questions of the program and coaches in charge of it. Here are a few questions he suggests asking to get a better feel of how the program is managed:

  • How do you go about practicing?
  • Do you have a head trauma protocol? What is it?
  • What are your hydration rules?
  • Do you know how to fit equipment?

“Most of youth sports should have answers and a plan for all of those questions,” says Hoge. If you do not get adequate answers, then he suggests exploring other programs. He does not suggest pulling your kids out of sports altogether or letting your fears hold them back from pursuing their passions.

“…A Great Time in History to Be Playing Sports”

Hoge concludes that “It’s a great time in history to be playing sports.” He says the most important thing a parent can do is educate and inform themselves on the activities their kids are involved in or want to get involved in: “Be realistic. No parent wants their child to get hurt in any way or ever have a concussion, but the first thing we must understand is where could our kids get hurt or suffer a concussion? That answer is easy: everywhere! More injuries/head trauma come from tripping, falling, or wheel sports than contact sports. So, empower yourself on how to create the best environment possible and, if your child is hurt, educate yourself on how to care for your child.” He recommends checking out the resources below for more information on treatment for concussions and mental health problems:

  • This resource highlights the work that neuropsychologists, sports medicine physicians, neurosurgeons, and other experts in the UPMC Sports Medicine Concussion Program are doing to provide patients with the right concussion treatment.
  • This website details Transcranial Magnetic Stimulation (TMS), which helps to treat depression by stimulating certain areas of the brain that are underactive.