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Julius Thomas On His 'Journey Into Self'

DAVID GREENE, HOST:

Julius Thomas's life has pretty much been all about football. The seven-year NFL veteran and former Pro Bowler, who played for the Denver Broncos and other teams, says the journey to becoming an athlete takes up every bit of your energy.

JULIUS THOMAS: You're so determined to get to the next step, you become consumed by it. And then as you start to realize that impermanence, like, you're not going to be able to do this forever. And then you start to think, OK, well, what is it that I want to do?

GREENE: Well, in a recent essay for The Players Tribune, Thomas announced what he wants to do. He's going to retire and pursue a Ph.D. in psychology. He wants to study brain trauma and CTE, the degenerative brain disease caused by multiple head injuries. Thomas told me via Skype that players have to live in a state of denial.

THOMAS: You always knew this may be the play where your knee is never the same again. This may be the play where your spine's never the same again. You're not particularly concerned about the long-term effects of your brain because you're focused on just getting out of today healthy. So you can't spend the time and energy on thinking about what your survival and what your lifestyles are going to be like when you're 50, 60 years old.

GREENE: You know, in a way, you're going to be studying and probing what's wrong and what's dangerous about a sport that so many of your mentors and coaches and fellow teammates are all still, you know, experiencing and profiting from. How do you navigate that?

THOMAS: You know, I think that football - yes, it is a risky endeavor. I wouldn't tell people not to do it. But the key, I think, for that is understanding what those risks are. And then once you know what your risks are, then you're able to own it. Also, the more we study it, the more we'll be able to help prevent different things. Like we first have to understand, you know, what it is we're at risk for. And then we can start developing ways of helping people kind of mitigate that risk as they participate in football.

GREENE: But you were playing basketball in college, right? I mean, it's a less dangerous sport. Like, why is football worth the risk?

THOMAS: The thing specific about football, I think that there is a courage factor that's just a little bit different than any other sports.

GREENE: When I hear you say courage factor, the first thing I think about is whether the risk of injury, the risk of, I mean, those hard hits and what it does to your body, the courage to face that is in some ways exactly what makes football more rewarding. Is that what you're saying?

THOMAS: I think that that's why it has such a huge fan base. When you see somebody running downfield to catch that football, you're able to relate to the fear that must be inside of them because you're going, wow, I don't know how that guy went out there, took that hit, got back up. I don't know how that guy limped off the field, and he limped back on. It's able to relate to people on a human level of struggle. I think that football kind of puts that on display in a unique way.

GREENE: I mean, you love this sport. Would you be ready to come out and say, based on the science, based on what I've learned, based on my research, this sport should not go on?

THOMAS: I can give you all the information that I can to help you make the decision I think is best. But I don't believe in controlling the actions of others. So I think that I may be less excited. I may counsel people differently. But ultimately, I would be very surprised if I ended up taking a stance on saying that football shouldn't be played.

GREENE: Julius Thomas, best of luck in the next stage of your journey and going back to school. We really appreciate it.

THOMAS: Thank you for having me.

(SOUNDBITE OF DIAMOND D AND NOTTZ'S "VANITY (INSTRUMENTAL)") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.