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Ex-BYU and NFL player focuses new career on concussions

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I want to make football players aware that, ‘Hey, you may have had something, but that doesn’t mean there’s doomsday right around the corner. – Austin Collie

PROVO — A former BYU football star whose NFL career was cut short partly by concussions has now decided to devote himself to helping others with similar injuries.

Late last month, Austin Collie informed his team in the Canadian Football League that he's ending his football career to work for an innovative concussion clinic in Provo.

The small clinic is a lot quieter than a football stadium, but it's Collie's new arena. Instead of handling a football, he's learning to juggle balls and other small objects as mental therapy for concussion victims. On a recent morning, he repeatedly tossed a roll of tape to a colleague who tried to identify symbols on it as it flew through the air.

"What I'm having her do right now is identify some of these objects that are on this piece of tape while she's wearing strobe glasses," Collie explained. The glasses are intended to complicate the mental task by repeatedly flashing her eyes with a bright light.

Collie conducted a different therapeutic exercise with concussion victim Hannah Richards, a young soccer player who has suffered repeated blows to the head. It's a type of injury that she says is common.

"Yes, very common, and especially in girls soccer," Richards said. "It's a big issue."

Collie put Richards through her paces as she stood in front of a board with dozens of flashing lights. The exercise forced her to use different regions of the brain simultaneously by doing arithmetic or word exercises while at the same time touching each light as it flashed.

"Kind of doing two things at once," Collie said. "Working on the hand-eye coordination, and at the same time doing some of these cognitive functions."

Collie knows about concussions firsthand.

"I couldn't have had the concussions that I had at a worse moment as far as my football career was concerned," he said during a break from his duties at the Cognitive FX concussion clinic.

His career was soaring back in 2008 when he emerged as one of BYU's all-time greatest pass receivers. Two years later, he was playing for the Indianapolis Colts when disaster struck. Two Philadelphia Eagles crashed into opposite sides of his head.

"Were the injuries significant? Yeah," Collie said. "It's not good when you're lying face down in the turf, unconscious for several minutes. That's never a good thing."

Collie later suffered two more concussions at a time when concussions in the NFL became a hot controversy. Eventually, he said, NFL teams lost interest in him.

"(It was) apparent that that was something that definitely hurts me, the fact that I had all those concussions and it is a risk." When asked if he thought it was the stigma or the actual injury that undermined his career, Collie said, "I think both."

He played last year in the Canadian Football League with the BC Lions. But now he's saying goodbye to pro football and starting a new career. Cognitive FX has developed new methods of using functional MRIs to target therapy on specific damaged regions of the brain.

"The reason why I joined on with Cognitive FX is to help guys be aware that there is a way to rehabilitate," Collie said.

He originally came to the clinic as a patient. But he found the therapy did him so much good that he now plans to spend the rest of his life helping others with the same problems. Just last month, two of his former NFL teammates came to the clinic for treatment.

"I want to make people aware," Collie said, "I want to make football players aware that, 'Hey, you may have had something, but that doesn't mean there's doomsday right around the corner.'"

One of the clinic's co-founders echoed the thought. "It just helps them feel like this is manageable and it's not a death sentence," said Dr. Alina Fong. "And if Austin can come back from it, they can come back from it."

His new career isn't as glamorous as the NFL, but he still has fans who are glad he came to work at the clinic.

"Yes, I think it's fantastic," soccer player Richards said. "I look up to him and I've seen his recovery and I've seen hope through him. And it gives me hope."

Email: hollenhorst@deseretnews.com