Boise State cornerbacks coach Ashley Ambrose hears stories about the damage pro football inflicted on players from his era.
And for a long time, the 13-year NFL veteran didn’t want a doctor to examine him and tell him whether he should be concerned about what all the head-banging he did on the field could mean for his future.
“It’s a scary deal,” he said. “... I hope it doesn’t catch up with me in the long run.”
Ambrose recently changed his approach, encouraged by his wife to register for benefits as part of the $1 billion NFL concussion lawsuit settlement. Registration, which ends Monday, includes access to the Baseline Assessment Program — a battery of tests to provide a baseline for neuropsychological and neurological health. Testing determines whether the retiree has a cognitive impairment and can be used to identify any deterioration later in life.
Ambrose underwent his assessment during his summer vacation. Boise State offensive line coach Brad Bedell, who played six seasons in the NFL, also registered and went through the medical testing.
“I’d be stupid not to,” Bedell, 40, said. “But that’s more for later down in life, as I get into my 50s.”
Ambrose, 46, played 192 games as a defensive back for the Colts, Bengals, Saints and Falcons from 1992 to 2004. Bedell played 40 games as an offensive lineman for the Browns, Dolphins, Packers and Texans from 2000 to 2006.
They retired a little more than a decade ago — before players and coaches fully grasped the danger head injuries presented, and before practices were changed to reduce hitting and game rules were altered to discourage helmet-to-helmet contact.
“We did a lot of hitting,” Ambrose said. “I feel fortunate that I can still be doing what I’m doing. I call this practicing my brain.”
The brains of football players have been a hot topic since the announcement late last month that researchers found CTE (chronic traumatic encephalopathy) in 110 of 111 brains from deceased NFL players, including Hall of Fame Raiders quarterback Ken Stabler. CTE is a degenerative disease linked to repeated head trauma, and its place in the NFL was a central part of the 2015 movie “Concussion.”
The increased awareness of head injuries has led some parents to direct their children to other sports. Participation in Optimist Youth Football in the Boise area dropped 44 percent from 2011 to 2016.
But the injury concerns also have produced rules changes, equipment advances and quicker decisions to remove players from the field when they show signs of a concussion — progress that Bedell expects to reduce risks for current players.
“The NFL is trying to take the right steps,” he said.
When Bedell and Ambrose played, concussions were taken far less seriously.
“I knew I got ’em,” Bedell said. “... They’d diagnose you with it, but I never lost time. Then again, I never pulled myself, so where does it lie? I didn’t think of myself in ways of maybe I shouldn’t be playing. I thought of myself as I want to win this football game and I’m going to do what I can.”
Ambrose threw his body around the defensive backfield for 13 years in the NFL and doesn’t remember a single concussion — at least not one that was called a concussion at the time. He used head-butts to shed blockers.
“Whenever you say you saw stars, they call that a mild concussion,” Ambrose said. “I’ve had that. I can tell you many times I was just on the field thinking, ‘Man, I hope the play doesn’t come this way,’ because you’re just waiting for it to calm down. But I’ve never actually had to be pulled out of the game.”
As coaches, Ambrose and Bedell see head injuries from a much different perspective. They’re the protectors now.
At a previous school, Bedell took his starting left tackle out of a game because of a suspected concussion. One of the best ways for a coach to identify a problem is when smart players start making mental errors, Bedell said.
“You have to be the forceful guy to really look at him and go: ‘There’s something wrong. You have to go to the trainer,’ ” he said. “And if they don’t, you take them by the shoulder and you drag them to the trainer.
“That’s their future. And at the end of the day, they’re not going to say, ‘Coach made me play.’ There’s just no way.”
Both coaches have young sons. Both say they wouldn’t have a problem with their boys playing football. Ambrose’s 4-year-old is already playing flag football.
“Football teaches you more than just hitting people,” Bedell said. “It teaches you everything. There’s nothing better than being on a team.”
That’s one reason he says he isn’t worried about his future health.
Whatever physical sacrifices Bedell made, he’s happy with the outcome.
“I don’t think about it,” he said. “I loved my time there, and I’ll cherish it forever. And if something were to happen later in life, it was worth every moment for me.”