There weren’t many headlines nationally in late July when the Indianapolis Colts opened training camp without Tyler Varga.
An undrafted free-agent running back from Yale in 2015, Varga was one of hundreds of players around the league working hard to overcome the odds of not being drafted and make an NFL roster.
Varga did that, and he was proving to be versatile. In the first three games of the season, he showed ability on kickoff returns, bringing back six for 151 yards (25.2-yard average) with a long of 30, and added a reception for 18 yards, a run for 2 and 1 special teams tackle.
However, the realities of pro football intervened in that third game, a Sept. 27 visit to Tennessee.
The Colts trailed 27-14 after three quarters, but stormed back to take a 35-27 lead with 2:51 left in the game. The Titans marched down the field, scoring a touchdown with 47 ticks of the clock remaining. The next few seconds would change Varga’s life forever.
The Titans lined up for the onside kick, and Varga was part of the “hands” team on the front line. Let him explain the rest:
“I threw a block on a guy who was a lot bigger than I was,” he told all22.com. “I got my job done, but got hit kind of funny, not squarely, but kind of in the corner of my head. I got really dizzy. Both of us went to the ground, but both of us got up. I got off the field under my own power and was walking around the sideline. I was really dizzy, but got my bearings and it seemed OK.”
The Colts recovered the kick, and three kneeldowns ended the game. But for Varga, things weren’t “OK.” That onside kick would turn it out to be the final play in which Varga would ever participate.
In the intervening 10 months, he would experience the frustration of dealing with debilitating post-concussion symptoms, begin becoming educated as much as possible on the one issue that remains something of an albatross for the NFL, while eventually recovering and participating in the Colts’ offseason program and OTAs.
All the while, he knew a difficult decision had to be made.
Recalling the aftermath of the hit in the game against the Titans, Varga did what many players often do: he didn’t tell anyone.
“I didn’t feel great afterward,” he recalled. “I had had similar effects before, when I had my bell rung before in college, or at different points in my short NFL career. I was expecting it to subside on its own. It sort of did later that day, but the next two days I woke up with something that would be probably closely described as flu-like symptoms almost. Maybe a little more severe. I just felt I was under the weather.”
He also admits he was “sort of in denial. I didn’t want to be put on injured reserve; I didn’t want to miss practice time because I had worked so hard to get to the position I was in, and earn my spot on the team. You can’t prove your worth to a team when you’re not out there playing. But I soon realized it was a concussion and I had to be smart about it. I reported it to the doctors and was surprised the symptoms lasted as long as they did.”
Inactive for the next two games, he was placed on reserve/injured Oct. 14, and that was his last personnel transaction until he was placed on reserve/did not report July 26 and officially told the Colts he was retiring the next day.
It wasn’t a choice he made lightly.
“It was a process,” Varga said. “I went through all the steps necessary. Football was part of my life. I’m sure I will find a way for it to still be part of my life, just less substantially than it was before. But I wanted to be absolutely sure this was the decision that I wanted to make knowing full well this was probably something that I wasn’t going to be to able to change my mind on, once it was made up. I took the time to weigh the pros and cons.
“That involved being out there on the field in spring ball in OTAs really feeling OK while wondering if the pull of the game, the love of the game; how much does that weigh on this decision. Is it enough to make me want to make me endure the risk, regardless. At the end of the day, the risk outweighed the rewards for me, and that includes monetary rewards, passion for the game, competitiveness, the need to be in that kind of environment. My health still outweighed all of that. The time that I took was necessary to see which path was the best for me.”
When Varga retired, Colts head coach Chuck Pagano said, “I respect everybody’s decision when it comes to health and player safety. I listen to our doctors, I listen to our players and so I totally respect his decision and anybody’s decision to do whatever they want to do.
“It’s an unfortunate thing because Tyler finally got back and got himself well. Physically, he was in phenomenal shape, he looked like the same guy a year ago at training camp that as a college free agent makes this team. It’s unfortunate that things didn’t work out because he had a great offseason through every phase. He didn’t miss a beat.”
Asked if those several months of dealing with the aftereffects of the concussion, along with the knowledge of how concussions can build on themselves helped make the decision, Varga said, “Definitely. That’s all part of the risk. Everyone is different. Now, I’m not trying to say, ‘Don’t go play football because it’s a detriment to your mental health and health in general.’ There are a lot of great things to be taken away from the game. It’s a great character-building tool, especially at the youth age as long as you play the game properly. But when you start running into problems like I have, then you have to be smart about how you proceed.”
Of course, being smart is part of Varga’s DNA. He attended Yale, and his education and thirst for being educated not only led him to learn as much as he could about concussions, but made him understand the good that can come from having that foundation.
An introspective young man who turns 23 on Sept. 24, Varga seems wise beyond his years. He answers each question with a short pause before being measured in what he says. However, as he talks, his passion for the subject is evident. Especially when it comes to what he still believes not only needs to be done to make everyone even more aware of the effects of concussions, but somehow changing the culture of football. The latter is a lot harder.
In mid-August, Varga, who is from Kitchener, Ontario, spoke on a panel at the University of Western Ontario for the See the Line foundation. The honorary chairman is former NHL star Eric Lindros, whose career was shortened by several concussions. Numerous athletes are involved, the NHLPA is a sponsor of the foundation and other sports organizations have come aboard.
Said Varga, “We have a ways to go to fully educate everybody on the concussion landscape. Part of the issue is a culture problem. Slowly, things have started to change, people have started to realize, people have started to learn that maybe playing through a concussion, being a hero, being a tough guy isn’t the right thing to do and isn’t the right thing for your long-term health. That’s the kind of culture change we need not just for football but for sports in general. Thankfully, it’s begun. I was able to access some of that information, but I think that players on the average don’t have enough information surrounding these kinds of decisions.
“The foundation is primarily focused on concussions; raising money, hiring researchers to talk about concussions and share new developments in the scientific world. The culture starts or is fueled at the grass-roots level with the ‘football is a tough-guy sport.’ It starts there and obviously extends all the way to the professional level. Teams don’t want players to be sitting out. They need guys they invested in to help them win; to be out there playing. It’s just naturally part of the culture they have created. That needs to change if we are going to prioritize player safety and the futures of the athletes playing at the amateur level.”
Varga won’t discuss the fact he wouldn’t take medication the Colts offered because of potential side effects, but he does say, “I do think there needs to be more sensitivity and maybe more accountability. The fact is, teams want to win. Players also want to win. Players are competitive. Teams say, ‘We need you back out there,’ and players are willing to go along with that. There’s the pressure to keep your job. The (concussion) protocol is in place, but I think that protocol is sort of bent to fit the needs of the team more often than not. That’s part of the process that’s not well-documented or scrutinized. My situation is a testament to that.
“It’s not a team-specific incident; it’s prevalent around the league. I can’t speak 100 percent surely on that, but I can speak on it from anecdotes I’ve heard from players around the league, guys I know that have played for other organizations. I don’t believe there is malicious intent at all; it’s just the desire to win. But obviously that comes at a cost sometimes. And that needs to be re-evaluated.”
For Varga, his thoughts always come back to education. As his agent Joe Linta said, “For every Tyler Varga, there will be 10 guys that keep playing.”
Linta himself remembers “back in the old days” in the 1980s, when he played at Yale. One day in practice, he said, “I got whacked” by (safety) Kenny Hill, who went on to play nine seasons in the NFL with the Raiders and Giants.
He said, “It was just like the cartoons where you’re seeing little birdies in your head. But we considered them just ‘a ding.’ Now we know more.”
That foundation of education helped Varga realize there are bigger things to accomplish than football.
He said, “I feel the sky is still the limit for me. I don’t feel like football is the pinnacle of my existence by any means. There are a lot of other great things I can achieve, thanks to my education. I don’t want to be remembered as a football player. I want to be remembered as a great person and someone that made a difference in the world. I think my educational background can empower me to do that. I’m fully confident in my ability to strive for greatness and achievement. That’s part of the problem, too, with the whole concussion landscape.
“Players are put in situations where they’re not preparing for the next step. They’re made to believe through all the different levels that you can just ride on your athletic merits and nothing else, and things are going to be all right. Then when it comes down to a situation like this, it’s not the truth. Everyone is not going to be all right if you don’t listen to your body and you keep playing through it – the ‘live like a tiger mentality’ – but is that really what you want to have?
“What are your priorities in life? Do you want to have a family, do you want to have kids, do you want to be a great father? How long do you want to be on this earth functioning to the fullest of your ability? Making sure people are properly equipped when it comes to education is a huge piece of this. If you are properly educated, you can make sounder, smarter decisions when it comes to your mental health, concussions and injuries in general. It relieves some of that pressure. I’m grateful to have some of that to fall back onto.”
Clearly, from his words, as the season is about to start, Tyler Varga has no regrets, no second-guessing his decision.
“I’m moving forward,” he states simply. “I have that eyes-ahead mentality. I’m looking at the next thing here to jump on and use the best of my abilities. I think it was the right decision for my future.” He then laughs and says, “And I have my fantasy team lined up.”
He also has a plan already for the next step on his path and it’s one that is an offshoot of the way his playing career ended. He doesn’t just talk about problems, he works on solutions. And he hopes that will be Varga Athletics, “coming to you soon” on the Internet.
With the help of his parents, he said, “We are starting our own platform that will be a resource and begin with kids in my area that are at a little bit of at a disadvantage regarding what kind of information and resources they can get access to. We don’t have the best trainers and the best facilities; there isn’t the same focus necessarily on it. I’m trying to make a difference in that way to provide kids the right information that comes from training, nutrition, concussion safety, health safety in general, injury prevention. Things that go into making it even safer, more enjoyable and allowing you to get more out of it. The goal is to prepare kids in all facets for all levels to reach their goals.”
As Varga believes, “The sky is the limit.” He said, “It’s going to be the most extensive resource on the Internet as far as one place to find training materials, nutritional information and academic guidance as it pertains to progressing in athletics.”
For now, he will concentrate in Canada where he lives, but knows the Internet has no boundaries.
“We’ll start here and see where it goes,” he concluded. “I have the right connections and hopefully we can partner with the right people and make this a really great thing.”
Knowing the way he attacked making an NFL roster, it would be smart not to bet against Tyler Varga.