For everything he accomplished on the race track, and there was plenty, nothing carried as much weight as what Dale Earnhardt Jr. did off of it.
By being open and honest about his concussions and the impact they had on his entire life, Earnhardt broadened the discussion about the dangers of head trauma. Heartbreaking as the stories were of retired NFL players committing suicide or struggling with dementia, it was too easy to write concussions off as “just” football. Or the tragic leftover of the old days before we knew better.
But it was different when it was Junior, NASCAR’s Everyman. When he talked about his concussions and the impact they were having not just on his career but his life, it got everyone’s attention.
NASCAR changed its medical protocol, requiring that all national touring series use the same concussion test – the SCAT-3 – to screen drivers for head injuries. Other drivers saw first-hand the damage a concussion could do.
“It was pretty interesting to see how it did affect him and it didn’t affect me, so it was like it kind of gave me a sense of what he was feeling,” Martin Truex told USA TODAY Sports’ Brant James this year, recounting the time he did the visual training exercises Earnhardt did as part of his recovery.
“I couldn’t imagine how tough it would be to get through that, how simple something is to somebody who’s healthy, compared to how difficult something could be that seems easy.”
It also brought home the seriousness of the issue for fans who might have ignored or not given much thought to the NFL’s concussion settlement or studies that show the dangers of head trauma for young adults in contact sports. If Junior, the fun-loving, hard-charging guy who won the Daytona 500 twice and was voted NASCAR’s Most Popular Driver a record 14 years in a row, could be felled by what used to be called “getting your bell run,” then it was definitely something to be taken seriously.
Earnhardt suffered his second concussion in four years in June and wound up missing the last 18 races of the season.
“I worried a ton about people’s perception about what my problem was. I didn’t want any guesses out there. That’s the reason I was so transparent,” Earnhardt told the New York Times this year. “I was worried about, Is it OK. I’m this transparent? But I couldn’t think of any reason it could blow up in my face.”
The record book will show Earnhardt won dozens of races during his career. But his biggest victory was in raising awareness about head trauma.
By Nancy Armour
This article was republished with permission from the original author and 2015 Ronald Reagan Media Award recipient, Nancy Armour, and the original publisher, USA Today. Follow columnist Nancy Armour on Twitter @nrarmour.