Allen Park — Haloti Ngata wanted to be certain before committing to another season.
His concern wasn’t his motivation, age, or even his joints and muscles. No, before returning for a 12th NFL campaign, and his third with the Detroit Lions, the hulking 330-pound defensive lineman wanted to make sure his brain was doing OK.
It’s a growing concern among NFL players as more and more information comes out about the long-term effects of concussions. Ngata’s agent, Michael McCartney, was the one who recommended the lineman be examined.
“I went and talked to a neurologist, wanted to make sure my head was good, all that,” Ngata said. “He said everything was pretty good, really good actually. I was like, ‘All right, I’m going to keep on playing.’ My wife was like, ‘I guess so.’ ”
Over the course of two weeks, Ngata underwent a battery of testing at the CORE Institute in Brighton. They performed scans, did psychological testing and examined his brain both while he was at rest and working out.
The report was positive enough for Ngata to continue his career.
“The brain is good,” Ngata said. “That’s what they said. The brain is good to go, keep on hitting.”
The playful comment drew uncomfortable laughter from reporters. Concussions are an unfortunate side effect of the sport and everyone — from the players to media to fans — are still learning about the ramifications and trying to figure out how to best deal with the severity of situation.
Asked how many concussions he’s suffered, Ngata recalled just one during his professional career. Of course knowing what we know now, there's a good possibility he’s suffered others that went diagnosed.
With an increasing number of players having post-career issues relating to repeated head trauma, Ngata wanted to make sure he’s not putting his future health at risk by continuing to play.
“With all the things that going on with brain stuff throughout the league, you definitely keep an eye on it,” Ngata said. “You hear that stuff and you don’t want to have problems when you’re older. I want to be able to raise my kids and be able to play with them when they’re older and still be able to beat them in wrestling matches and stuff when they’re teenagers.”
As he’s gotten more experience, Ngata also noted he’s improved his playing style and doesn’t use his head as much as he did when he was younger.
“I used my head a lot more when I was younger, but I think I was just being young,” he said. “Then you learn how to use your hands better, position yourself better and just understanding pad level, stuff like that. For me, it was just a process, becoming better with my hands and a better technician.”
How long does the 33-year-old Ngata intend play? He plans on taking it year to year, but playing at a lighter weight in Detroit, and the way coach Jim Caldwell takes care of the players, Ngata said he feels like he has a lot left in the tank.
When it’s time to make the decision, his body will let him know.
“You can tell I walk different now than when I was younger as a rookie,” he said. “As your joints start to tighten up, your muscles start to tighten up, you have to work longer and harder on staying loose.”
This was the first time Ngata has undergone neurological testing during the offseason, but he would like to see it become more common practice among his peers.
“The better we can get some of these athletes to go out and get their brain checked, it’s just better and safer for everyone,” Ngata said.
Ngata, acquired by the Lions in a 2015 trade, started 13 games last season, recording 22 tackles, 1.5 sacks and three pass breakups. One of the most dominant interior lineman of this generation, he’s been named an All-Pro five times and been selected to five Pro Bowls.