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The Shutdown Corner Interview: Dorsey Levens

Doug Farrar
Shutdown Corner

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The transition from professional football the life after the game can be difficult for many players, and none more so that those who face an uncertain future with the aftereffects of head injuries suffered during their time between the lines. Former NFL running back Dorsey Levens has combined two concerns to try and so some good. Levens, who played in the NFL from 1994 through 2004 with the Green Bay Packers, Philadelphia Eagles, and New York Giants, has become very involved in film and theater over the last few years. He's now working on a documentary called "Bell Rung," about the post-football concussion effects athletes must endure. To extend the movie from 48 minutes to the projected final length of 90 minutes, Levens has turned to the increasingly popular method of crowd-funding.

In 2011, crowd-funding platforms raised an estimated $1.5 billion worldwide. In 2013 that number is projected to exceed $5.1 billion. Indiegogo has established itself as an industry leader by raising millions of dollars a week for campaigns across 24 categories. For example, through Indiegogo (the company Levens is using), the HONY & Tumblr Hurricane Sandy Fundraiser generated three times its original goal, resulting in nearly $320,000 for the victims of Hurricane Sandy.

When we recently spoke with him, Levens had a lot to say about his film, and the ways in which the NFL deals with (and has dealt with) concussions.

Shutdown Corner: How did you get involved in crowd-funding?

Dorsey Levens: We were trying to raise funds for about a year, to try and extend "Bell Rung" from 48 minutes to 90 minutes. I met up with indiegogo -- they hit me up on LinkedIn, and they said, 'Listen -- we have a platform.' I had heard of Kickstarter, but I hadn't heard of indiegogo, though they're right there in the same network. So, we traded messages and talked on the phone, and I thought it would be a good idea. The other stuff wasn't working, so it was time to try something new and see what we could come up with. We had tried to reach out to investors -- I have a lot of friends in Los Angeles with a lot of connections, and we bounced that around. We have a distribution deal in place, but we need to finish the film and get it released.

SC: Standard negative answer: Football players have all this money; why are you asking for money from the public? Your response?

DL: Well, I don't have all the money in the world [laughs]. It's funny, because I went to the Tribeca Film Festival this summer, and Whoopi Goldberg had raised some money on Kickstarter for a movie she's doing on Moms Mabely. And she got the same response: 'You're Whoopi Goldberg; why do you need money?' But this stuff is expensive. And that's the way it's done, most people don't spend their own money. You go out and get investors -- people with money and knowledge of the industry.

SC: Let's say this film comes out and makes $10 million above cost. What do your public investors get in return?

DL: They get perks -- once you make a donation, the perks run from DVDs to autographed photos to helmets, and a trip to Lambeau Field for a Packers game with me.

SC: Before we get into the film, let's talk about concussions, and where things are. You're a part of the larger series of lawsuits brought by former NFL players against the league, and I'm just curious -- how many concussions would you estimate you suffered during your NFL career?

DL: Well, I don't have any documented concussions, but let me say this: There were hundreds, because that term, "Bell Rung," that we thought was just nothing and a part of football, that was a concussion. And that's what we're just finding out -- that we've all had hundreds, and maybe even thousands. Because you talk about offensive and defensive linemen -- they're butting heads almost every play. Linebackers and fullbacks? When I had to play fullback, I hated it, because I had a headache every day after practice. Because your job is to go in there and get the linebacker out of the hole and get room for your tailback. Back when I played, we out pads on twice a day, and hit twice a day, in practice. They don't do that as much now because of the rules changes, but back then, it was chronic. For six weeks in training camp, you knew it was going to be hell.

SC: Did you ever report concussions to your coaches and trainers, and if so, what was the response?

DL: You have to understand one thing -- back then, it was an accepted part of the culture. There was no talk about it, no concern about it. I'd see guys get knocked unconscious on the field , and literally snoring -- right on the field. They get up, they wobble, they can't stand up straight. We thought that was a concussion, but when you just got your bell rung ... we didn't know the long-term effects. It was like, 'Dude, shake it off!' We all get our bell rung, so pull it together and get back in the game. William Henderson, my fullback in Green Bay, would go the wrong way on lead plays sometimes [after a concussion], and I'd tell him, "Man, you're gonna get me killed out there!' He'd come back to the huddle with this look in his eyes, and I Knew what it meant. He wasn't all there. He was blinking and trying to pull it all together, taking deep breaths, and that doesn't help, you know? It takes time. We joked about it, and there was never any concern.

SC: Ex-players I talk to now say the same thing -- they had no idea of the possible ramifications and repercussions at the time. When did you start to realize that there was more to this, and that the NFL may have known more than was said about the long-term effects of head trauma?

DL: As far as I know, in 1994, the NFL got a group of doctors together in 1994 to determine if there was a relationship between traumatic brain injuries and repeated head blows. And they came back and said, 'No -- not in any way, shape, or form is there a relationship between repeated head blows and dementia, traumatic brain injuries, early onset Alzheimer's -- there's just nothing there. So, I guess we're going to find out what they knew, and when they knew it. That's what the lawsuits are about -- finding out if they indeed knew in 1994, and if so, to hold them accountable.

SC: As far as the film, how did that get started? What motivated you to do this?

DL: it's weird how it all came about -- I don't know how I landed neck-high in this discussions. Since I retired, I've been doing a lot of film stuff. In front of the camera, behind the camera, doing stage plays. The intent was to get a film made, and a buddy of mine said that we needed to do something 'intriguing.' He mentioned hockey and concussions, but I've never watched a hockey game in my life. But I had heard about football players and concussions, so let's do some digging and see what we find. And I found information everywhere. And it was amazing. Guys in their mid-20s, mid-30s, mid-40s who already had dementia. I had a guy call me who was suicidal, because he couldn't get help. I get e-mails from guys I used to play with, guys you've probably never heard of, because they had average careers. But it's all the same thing -- 'Dude, I've got issues, and I can't pay for it. What am I gonna do?' I've been talking to people at Gridiron Greats, and they do a great job of helping people out who can't afford treatment or can't get help. But the idea is to get help to all the guys who need it, and can't afford it.

SC: Have you talked to the NFLPA about subsidizing this film, or would you prefer to remain an independent voice on the subject?

DL: People from the Players' Association have seen the film, but the way I tell this story is raw. It's the uncut truth, and when I interview players, there's no agenda. Guys are sensitive to reporters, so they never really open up. But when you've played the game and you ask these questions, guys say things they wouldn't say on ESPN. I don't want to lose that, so I've got to be careful who I let in. I want to tell the truth, and it can't be censored in any way. I can't have people saying, 'You can't say this because the NFL might get upset.'

SC: Well, isn't the whole point of your film, and the lawsuits, and Congress going after Roger Goodell on this subject a few years ago -- isn't the point of all this to get the NFL upset enough to force legitimate change? Because when you have a goofball like Bengals owner Mike Brown insisting that there's no link between football and brain trauma ... as much as the NFL tries to put a good face on increased awareness, Brown's comments indicate that there's a pretty ling way to go.

DL: And that's what I'm saying in the film. That's just ridiculous. That comment is just ridiculous. With all the information we know at this point? That's just not true.

SC: In the film, what were the interviews that moved you the most?

Click here to listen to Dorsey Levens talk more about his film.

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