ALLEN PARK, Mich. – The football world has been torn recently by a painful question: "Would you let your son play football?"
A more pressing question is: "Would you let your star running back play football?"
That question has lingered in the air as Jahvid Best met with the media Monday after OTAs at Detroit Lions camp. The 23-year-old running back has been diagnosed with three concussions over his football career, including one that shelved him for the majority of the 2011 season, but he shrugged off any suggestion that he should be worried about his long-term health.
"I'm not impaired or anything," Best said. "I'm pretty sure if there was some real damage going on, then I would have physical problems or mental problems, and I have no problems. So I'm not worried about anything."
Cringe. We know now that post-concussion problems could show up much later in life. There have been far too many instances of seemingly happy souls who endured long careers that eventually take their lives once football is gone.
[Around the NFL: Packers' Driver rewards young fan whose prize cleat was stolen]
This isn't to say Best will meet some horrible fate. Hundreds of former NFL players are doing fine in post-football life. But you can't help but fret when you hear a guy who was knocked unconscious during college and then shut down last season after two concussions say he's "not worried about anything."
How can he not be?
And how can Jim Schwartz not be? The Lions coach was asked Monday if he's afraid for Best's future. He nodded as the question was asked, but gave a wandering answer that seemed to dance around the question as easily as Best dances around defenders:
"It's not just him. We've had other players that have had concussions over different periods of time," Schwartz said. "It's something that has definitely come to the forefront of our efforts for the players and the players' health. I think the most positive thing that comes out of it is not just us as a team, but I think NFL, college, high school, everybody has a much better idea of how to handle things like that now. That gives me a lot more comfort than years past."
Asked if Best would wear a no-contact jersey in practice, Schwartz said, "No, I don't think that stigma is good for anybody."
The Lions need Best. Kevin Smith is not a quick-strike option even when healthy. Second-year rusher Mikel Leshoure, plagued by off-field issues, is trying to bounce back after missing his rookie campaign with a torn Achilles. Even if Smith and Leshoure play well, Best is a receiving threat who gives the pass-happy Lions a needed second dimension and scares opposing coordinators.
[Around the NFL: League ready to hire, train replacement officials for season]
Problem is, he may also scare his own loved ones.
A CBS story after Best's final game last season reported people in Best's inner circle wanted him to sit out the rest of the year. On Monday, Best denied that report.
It was ironic Monday to hear defensive coordinator Gunther Cunningham talk about pass rusher Nick Fairley, who has struggled with off-field issues lately including a DUI and a charge of evading the police in his home state of Alabama. Cunningham waxed emotional when he spoke about taking Fairley under his wing and treating him like a son. That's the sign of a great coach. But wouldn't any father figure on the Lions' coaching staff worry himself sick about Best? The running back expects to be cleared for contact in advance of training camp in a matter of weeks, and he's been seeing top concussion specialist Mickey Collins in Pittsburgh, but everybody who knows Best's story worries he's one big hit away from the end of his career. Tom Brady Sr.'s recent comments to Yahoo! Sports' Michael Silver about the "roulette" of playing football apply especially to an undersized speed demon with a history of head trauma and a willingness to run headlong into the teeth of a defense.
But what do you do if you're Best? Do you really give up your dream and your livelihood at a young age? (Ask Sidney Crosby about that.) After all, it's possible he'll have a long career and no aftereffects. It's also possible some damage is already done. It's even possible science will find better help for those with post-concussion issues. You can argue Best is rolling the dice by coming back to the sport, and you can argue the dice are already rolled and he just has to wait to learn his fate. This generation is caught between the tragic ignorance of prior NFL players and what we all hope to be a wiser group of athletes in the future.
Best isn't stupid. He knows a second concussion following quickly on the heels of the first or the scare of one is a bad sign. He learned that the hard way, in his last college season at Cal, when he suffered a serious concussion two weeks after a minor ding. Best also understands why he was done last season after sustaining a head injury in the Lions' home loss to the San Francisco 49ers. He says he felt fine two weeks after that game, but he accepted that he wouldn't be coming back to football until this year. So he spent time in San Diego, and spent time at the tattoo parlor. On Monday he looked fresh and excited during non-contact drills. Ten years ago, or even less, Best would have been back on the field last year after his problems seemed to clear, putting his career and perhaps long-term health in jeopardy. So credit him and the Lions staff for taking the right measures so far.
But several of Best's comments were still wince-inducing, showing something between idealism and denial. He was asked about the rash of recent lawsuits concussed former players have filed against the league. He said he hadn't read a thing about it.
And as for himself? "That [second concussion last season] was not even close to what it was like when I had the one in college," said Best, who also suffered a concussion last preseason. "That's why I'm, personally, not worried about it. That one, I was actually unconscious, so that was totally different. If I can come back from that one, then this one should be a piece of cake."
He doesn't know that for sure. Nobody does. Nobody knows anything for certain in this new world. That made Tony Scheffler's responses about concussions all the more poignant Monday. Asked if he's concerned about head trauma and his future, the veteran tight end, who's dealt with his own concussion issues, said, "I don't want to talk about that."
Asked again, he smiled and politely repeated it: "I don't want to talk about that."
[Around the NFL: A Packers ring from the Super Bowl turns up in a federal drug bust]
You can't blame him. You can't blame Best, either. Still, so many people want to avoid talking and thinking about it.
But at this point, it's unavoidable. And that might be a healthy thing, albeit an unpleasant one.
"I'm pretty sure I'll hear questions about concussions until the end of my career," Best said.
Let's hope that's a long time. And let's hope that's when the questions stop.
Other popular content on the Yahoo! network:
• MLB Network's Jim Duquette donates kidney to 10-year-old daughter
• New York Mets fan Rafael Diaz pays dearly for crashing celebration
• Y! Finance: Will texting kill the art of conversation?
• Y! Finance: Comedian Bill Maher buys minority share of New York Mets