LAFAYETTE – Stuart Schweigert raced through Indianapolis International Airport, with anger and anxiety fueling each of his long, smooth strides.
Running was always his special gift, even from a young age. As a senior at Heritage High School, he won a Michigan state championship in the 100-meter dash. He used that quickness to become a ball-hawking safety at Purdue, setting a school record with 17 career interceptions. His 4.47 in the 40-yard dash was a major reason the Oakland Raiders drafted him in the third round of the 2004 draft.
But lately, Schweigert’s world seems to be spinning faster and faster, and the 37-year-old former NFL safety is finding himself a step too slow.
By the time Schweigert arrived at his gate, he was sweating and struggling to catch his breath. The sun was beginning to rise for his 6 a.m. flight, and he could see through the window that his plane was still on the tarmac. Just in time, he thought.
But his momentary relief was replaced by a closed door and a stern look from the gate agent. Too late.
Schweigert pleaded, trying to explain his whirlwind morning. He packed the night before, making sure he had all of his medications. Depakote for mood swings. Paxil for anxiety. Adderall for ADHD. Glucosamine for joint health. Turmeric for anti-inflammation. Melatonin to sleep. Beet powder for circulation.
He had carefully laid out his clothes. The boarding pass was waiting in the printer.
Yet, after waking up at 3 a.m. and driving through pouring rain, Schweigert arrived in the parking lot in a frenzy. He tore apart his car looking for his lost wallet. Twenty frantic minutes and several panicked calls to his wife later, he found the wallet between the seats.
Crisis averted. … Until, the shuttle didn’t come. Then, he realized he had forgotten his boarding pass at home. Then, security guards flagged his bag for an extra search. It was a mess.
One hurdle after another threatened to trip up Schweigert. He ran through each of them to get to his gate only to be stopped short at the goal line. The gate agent refused to budge.
“The plane is right there,” Schweigert screamed.
He tried to explain he was going to Houston for a critical appointment. He’d been planning it for months. It would impact his life for years.
“If it was that important, you should have got here earlier,” the agent quipped.
The comment sent Schweigert over the edge. He lost it. His 6-foot-3 frame and broad shoulders towered over the man in the red coat, as the former NFL player berated the gate agent.
There was a certain irony in this altercation.
This appointment, the one Schweigert couldn’t miss, was with a psychologist in Houston. Schwiegert is part of the NFL’s class-action lawsuit, a long and complicated process in which he’s trying to prove the 30 to 50 concussions he sustained in the NFL have caused significant and lasting damage to his brain.
The NFL settled the case for what is estimated to be more than a billion dollars, agreeing it didn’t do enough to warn players of the possible dangers associated with the game. Schweigert has been evaluated by at least three different neurologists who have found signs of early dementia, anxiety, depression and other impairments.
But doctors in Houston were going to be the final judge. They’d run him through a battery of examinations to test Schweigert’s memory, temperament and cognitive impairment.
And there he was, before even stepping foot on a plane for the final decision, he’d lost his wallet, forgot his boarding pass and his temper flared out of control.
‘The greatest sport in the world’
Two weeks after the missed flight, Schweigert stood on the field at Lafayette Jefferson High School. Players, drenched in sweat from a long practice, knelt around him in a semi-circle.
As Schweigert talked about his 2000 Big Ten Freshman of the Year award, playing in the Rose Bowl with Drew Brees, getting drafted in the NFL and his years of pro football, the 16- and 17-year-olds leaned in. He hooked them.
Then, he shifted the conversation to the real reason he was there, to inspire them with a discussion about respect, dedication and preparation. He talks with the cadence and charisma of a motivational speaker. And a good one at that.
“Football is the greatest sport in the world,” Schweigert said. “Don’t let anyone tell you anything different.”
His comments highlight his complex relationship with football. On one hand, he can tell a group of students about his passion for the game. But on the other hand, he's entrenched in a lengthy legal battle against the NFL. The game taught him all of those lessons he's trying to instill in the kids. It gave him his family. His car. Financial security. Friends. "Everything." But there are times he also wonders what it’s taken in exchange.
Schweigert explains to the students he's involved in the concussion lawsuit. He encourages the athletes to take themselves out of the game and tell someone if they feel symptoms from a head injury.
"It doesn't make you any less of a man or any less of a football player," Schweigert said. "Make sure you're smart about it."
Schweigert admits later he probably wouldn't follow his own advice, even now. He wasn’t just the type of athlete who played hurt. It was a source of pride. The worse the injury, the bigger the badge of courage when he went running head-first back into the battle.
At Purdue, doctors once stitched up his chin on the sideline between series so he wouldn’t have to miss a snap. He broke his nose multiple times. Every finger has been broken. Toenails fell off.
During a college game, he made so many tackles on old-school field turf he was diagnosed with second-degree burns on his legs and elbows. In the NFL, both shoulders popped out. He tore his calf. Bone spurs developed in his ankles. He only found out recently he played through three broken vertebrae in his back.
In his entire football career, Schweigert missed just three games. And he can still tell you every detail about them. One in high school for an ankle injury. One in college because of a knee injury. And one in the NFL when his calf blew out.
Part of that mentality is conditioned. Part of it is in his DNA.
Schweigert’s grandfather was the son of German immigrants. He worked the land in South Dakota through the Great Depression with no running water or farm equipment. When he enlisted to serve in the Korean Conflict, the Army had to make up a birth certificate because he was born on the prairie, where a man’s age is measured by the dirt on his hands, not some piece of paper.
That toughness was passed down to Schweigert’s father, “Big Stu.” He played high school football in a leather helmet and then four more years as a defensive tackle at Yorkton College in South Dakota, where he’s now a member of the school’s hall of fame.
He’s a hulk of a man, disciplined and determined. A retired deputy sheriff who set the Michigan state powerlifting record with a 700-pound deadlift in 1981. He often thinks if MMA had been invented when he was younger, he’d gladly step into the cage.
“I’m not afraid to take a hit,” Stuart Schweigert Sr. said. “I see that in my son. He’s not afraid to get hit or hit somebody. I’d like to think he got some of that from me.”
If Schweigert wasn’t going to leave the game for a broken bone and if he wasn't going to run to the locker room to get stitches, he surely wasn’t going to miss time with a concussion, an invisible injury difficult to diagnose and easily concealed.
On the field, he used to have a signal to tell a teammate when he got a hit to the head, so they could cover for him. When the NFL implemented base-line concussion testing, Schweigert would intentionally miss questions before the season so his answers would match up when he sustained a hit and needed to clear the protocol to rejoin the team.
“I thought concussions were when you got knocked out,” Schweigert said. “I’m thinking, I never had that.
“But I did have these instances of déjà vu. I thought I was there before. My eyes would start to sparkle. It would travel from the top left, across my vision. By about the middle of it, it was hard to see. It was hard to see the ball in the air. But I could make tackles because I could see someone’s body.”
The worst of it came in 2006 in Oakland, when Schweigert was second among safeties with 109 tackles. This was an era when safeties were enforcers. Come across the middle. Pay the price.
Often the collisions did more damage to the defender, especially in 2006.
“It seemed like every game I was getting one,” Schweigert said.
Schweigert was never diagnosed with a concussion but estimates he sustained 30 to 50 he concealed from the training staff, especially in that 2006 season when he said he had a pin-hole leak in the bladder of his helmet.
Yet, he only missed those three games. Pressure from outside forces and from himself kept him on the field.
“You can sign a five-year deal. It’s literally week-to-week,” Schweigert said. “If I have a concussion and I report it, I’m out that game. Plus, I’m out the following week. Who knows when I’m going to come back? During that time, I can lose my job.”
It’s been almost a decade since Schweigert’s last NFL game. The pain he ignored and outran is starting to catch up with him.
Pain shoots through Schweigert’s shoulders and wakes him up in the middle of the night – “Like a pick ax in my shoulder." Several times a week, he ends up sleeping on the couch or a recliner so he won’t wake his wife, Krissy. If he sits for too long, the three cracked vertebrae in his back pinch the nerve and his legs start to go numb. Joints creak. Bones ache.
The invisible injuries are the ones that concern Schweigert most. In 2009, during his last year in the NFL, Schweigert began seeing team psychologists, complaining of high levels of anxiety. He was obsessively thinking, over thinking.
"Checking, checking and re-checking," he said.
The last five years, especially, have been a challenge.
After playing five seasons in the NFL and three in the United Football League, Schweigert still didn't want to walk away from the game. He became a partial owner of the Saginaw Sting in his hometown and director of football operations. Then he purchased the entire Continental Indoor Football League in 2013, serving as the owner and commissioner. He started a limo and bus company. He launched a training and athletic apparel company. Any extra time he spent with his nonprofit, Stu’s Crew.
His world was spinning more quickly. Then the life he built with that German, working-class grit started to crumble.
Depression worsened. Forgetfulness escalated. He hardly slept. When he did, he kept having recurring nightmares he was being chased by police or a predator. In another dream, he’s on the football field without cleats and keeps slipping every time he attempts to make a tackle.
Family members and friends started to see signs of the decline.
“He’d want me to run a play in practice,” former Sting quarterback A.J. McKenna said. “I’d be like, 'Stu, I just ran that play.' If we’re on the phone and he goes, ‘Hey, I’ll call you back in five minutes.’ Two days later, I hear from him.”
Schweigert struggled to keep appointments in order. He started scribbling notes on scraps of paper and Post-Its and leaving them around the house. One month, he paid the mortgage three times.
Finally, he hired a personal assistant, Heather Arcay, to add some order to his life. She was supposed to organize his calendar and make appointments. But there are times she remembers showing up to his house and Schweigert didn’t have a babysitter planned. His clothes weren’t ironed. He looked like he hadn’t slept in days.
“He almost had a lost look,” Arcay said. “Very, very overwhelmed. Because he was kind of a local celebrity, everybody wanted him to speak for this or do some type of nonprofit fundraising. He never wanted to say no. Because of that, I did see some overwhelmed. Almost looking to me for help, like, 'What do I do?'”
What do I do?
That’s a question so many former players are wrestling with now as society learns more about traumatic brain injuries. Schweigert is far from the only one dealing with the long-term consequences of playing a game predicated upon brutality and violence.
Former Boilermakers tight end Tim Stratton has joined a new class-action concussion lawsuit against the NCAA. Purdue Hall of Famer Leroy Keyes is starting to question if the hits he sustained are causing problems now in his 70s. Jake Replogle, a 2017 grad who was considered one of the best interior defensive linemen in his draft class, walked away from the game months after suffering a serious head injury, offering almost no explanation for passing on what some may see as a winning lottery ticket.
In the most tragic cases, several players have died by suicide including NFL Hall of Famers Junior Seau and Mike Webster and last year Washington State quarterback Tyler Hilinski.
All were diagnosed after their death with chronic traumatic encephalopathy or CTE, a degenerative brain disease found in athletes and military members with a history of traumatic brain injury.
Schweigert has come around on this issue. He used to keep the struggles inside his head to himself. But now, by joining the suit and by speaking out, he's encouraging others to do the same.
"As a football player, you’re taught to not show weakness, not show injury," Schweigert said. "You ask them, everything is OK. What they’re doing is they’re battling this anxiety, this depression, substance abuse problems, temperament problems all on their own, by themselves. Self-medicating. Thinking their lives are never going to change. No one is ever going to help them. That’s when you see the guys do the suicide stuff.
“I encourage these guys to talk to somebody, see somebody, get on medication."
The case that hit Schweigert hardest was that of Dennis Wirgowski. The former NFL lineman used to come to the Sting games.
Schweigert made a quick connection because of their similar paths. Though he was years older, Wirgowski grew up just a few towns over from Schweigert in Michigan. He was Parade magazine’s captain of the 1965 All-American high school football team. He played at Purdue on three top-20 teams and then played in the NFL with the Boston Patriots and Philadelphia Eagles.
But a broken hip and leg sent Wirgowski into a downward spiral. In January 2014, Wirgowski shoveled his driveway and told his wife he loved her.
Then, he turned a gun on himself.
At 37 years old, Schweigert is working to manage his symptoms. But one of the things that concerns him most is the uncertainty that lies ahead.
“I’m having these issues and I’m 37 years old," Schweigert said. "What about when I’m 45? What if my temperament is too erratic? What if my memory gets to the point where I can’t get on the air and talk? What the (expletive) am I going to do?”
Love and loss
Schweigert swivels in his office chair, settling into a new job in a familiar town. He unloaded his businesses to clear his mind and moved back to Lafayette just a few months ago, where he works as an account manager for Neuhoff Media. He’s earned a role co-hosting a sports-talk show on the afternoon drive.
On this afternoon, he's working to set up an interview. He presses his cellphone against his mouth, talking with Chuck Pagano.
“Yeah, Coach,” Schweigert says. “Uh huh, coach.”
Pagano was Schweigert’s defensive backs coach in Oakland more than a dozen years ago. Until a few months ago, he served as the Colts head coach.
Now they’re two men, forced out of the game they love before they were ready.
“Some people like football, and some people love it,” Pagano said. “There’s a big difference between those two words. Like and love.”
Since the letters CTE entered the American lexicon, it’s forced everyone to rethink how they feel about the game, whether they can enjoy the big hit, whether they want their sons to play the game, whether the lessons learned on the gridiron are worth the risks.
Like the game and maybe the price is too steep. Love the game and the risks are worth the toll.
Despite the fact Schweigert thinks the NFL owes something to its players, he doesn’t have to think twice before deciding.
“I have a lot of respect for the game,” he said. “The man it’s made me into and the work ethic it instilled in me.”
The decorations in Schweigert's office echo his response.
Every one of them is either football-oriented or family-oriented. A photo of his two daughters, Cameron and Emmy, hangs above his desk with the inscription, “All of my favorite people call me Daddy.” An Oakland Raiders action figure with bulging biceps sits on the corner of his desk. Pictures with his wife and kids are carefully arranged behind him. A photo from his playing days is tacked on the door, with his hair flowing out of his helmet.
When he was a kid, Schweigert’s older brothers told him to keep every jersey, every helmet and every football so one day he could look back on it all. And he has, starting with his very first pee wee football jersey from fourth grade. Now, he's a forgetful man surrounded by fragments of his best memories.
So, yeah, Schweigert doesn’t like football. He loves it.
But how can he?
His actions can seem contradictory. He fought and won a $290,000 workers compensation case in California … and then donated half a million dollars to Purdue’s shiny new football performance complex. He is entrenched in a lengthy battle with the NFL … but bought his own league. He couldn’t watch the NFL for the first few year after he retired … but can’t wait for Friday night.
“Coach,” Schweigert says. “I’d love to have you on the show sometime.”
Pagano agrees without hesitation. There's a bond here. It's more than just a coach and player.
“Love you,” Pagano says.
“I love you, too,” Schweigert says.
Schweigert hangs up the phone and smiles.
It’s in that moment it becomes clear. His former assistant, Heather Arcay, said something earlier and now it's starting to make sense.
“When you’re raised with something – regardless of suffering and injury – there’s still a love that just doesn’t go away,” Arcay said. “He was raised with it. It’s almost like a sibling or a parent.”
These photos all around him, they might seem like they're football or family. But in reality, they're all both. He wouldn't have the football photos without his family. And he surely wouldn't have his family without football.
On a shelf behind his desk, Schweigert has three family photos – two group shots of dad with his wife and two daughters. And then one close-up of his 8-month-old son, Alexander, whom Schweigert affectionately calls “Chubbs.”
"You know," Schweigert says, beaming, "He's already walking."
It won’t be long before he’s running.