December 18, 2013 Updated: December 19, 2013 at 8:13 am
This is the strong advice Floyd Little offers to Wes Welker, the diminutive Broncos receiver recovering from yet another concussion.
Little, one of the Broncos greatest players, admires Welker. He watches with amazement as Welker risks his health and his head on repeated journeys into the savage heart of NFL defenses.
Late in the first half Dec. 8 against the Titans, Welker suffered another smack upside the head and staggered off the field with a damaged look in his eyes. Little knows that look. He knows that look far too well.
He also knows this:
Welker needs an extended break.
"This is not the time," Little said, offering a message to Welker. "You could hurt yourself permanently. I know you don't think that way. When you're a competitor, you want to be with your team. You want to play, and the adrenalin takes over and you get stupid.
"You keep thinking, 'It's worth the risk. It's worth the chance,' but somebody has to be smarter than you are and tell you no. Somebody higher than you are has to hide your uniform."
Little understands the urge to drag a damaged body on the football field. He understands the desire to ignore an aching, battered head. He understands how a flawed, vicious, brain-rattling game can seize control of a life. Make no mistake; Floyd Little loves football.
And yet .
Little also understands the price of ignoring a concussion. From 1967 to 1975, Little defined the Broncos. He helped rescue the team from a move to Birmingham, Ala. He led the NFL in rushing in 1971 and earned induction into the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 2010. He carried, quite literally, the Broncos offense.
He ran with a distinctive defiance, seldom escaping to the sidelines. Instead, he joyfully challenged some of the world's largest men.
He paid a price for his courage, suffering at least five concussions. Anger still lingers from an out-of-bounds shot to the head from Colts linebacker Mike Curtis at Baltimore in 1974. Little crumpled to the grass, his head blazing with pain.
He passed out in the shower after the game. He passed out again on the plane ride home to Colorado. That hit, and the damage it delivered to his brain, explains why Little sometimes leaves his car keys in the refrigerator and at other times forgets whom he is talking with during a phone conversation.
Football culture is all about toughness, as it must be. This is a collision-based game, a game of lightly policed mayhem. Just striding out on the field requires a bold banishing of fear.
But this fearlessness, this stoutheartedness, must blend with wisdom. The game's theatrical violence always will produce life-altering blows to the head. For decades, owners and coaches and players and fans and writers did a superb job of ignoring the right-in-front-of-our face toll of concussions.
We're not so ignorant any more. We hear stories about Jim McMahon and Junior Seau. We hear about men turned ancient and lost long before their time. We know what a concussion today can mean tomorrow.
Little certainly knows. He delivered many of the most stupendous runs in Broncos history, reversing field two or three times as he ran past every defender on winding paths to the end zone, but there was a massive price tag for all the fun. He wants to see the price tag reduced for the players who follow him.
"A guy like Wes Welker, he wants to play," Little said. "He wants to be a part of the team. I don't blame him, but somebody needs to be smarter and say, 'No! You've been concussed twice. You're not playing. No! No! You're not playing.'
"Somebody has got to say, 'No, Wes, you're not playing in this game.' God bless him. He's been a great player. He wants to play. He wants to contribute."
Little paused. He was born on the Fourth of July in 1942, and it's been 38 seasons since he defied defenders and his own health at Mile High. He still watches, in his mind's eye, his joy rides to the end zone, still listens to fans chanting his name.
Even as he wonders why he failed to better protect his precious brain.