The Cam Lab at Stanford University used a mouth guard tracking the brain’s reaction to physical hits offensive linemen absorbed during a 2017 NFL game.
The average G-force of 10 of the 62 hits recorded was similar to crashing a car into a wall at 30 mph.
As a former center for the Buffalo Bills, Eric Wood experienced countless hits.
A Southeast Christian Church member, Wood played in 120 total games in his nine-year NFL career. He played in all 1,052 offensive snaps two seasons ago.
Imagine the amount of beating and bruises Wood took over that stretch.
But none could compare to the blindside blow on Jan. 11, 2018.
“In the regular season, I had gotten a bunch of stingers, but those are common in the NFL,” Wood said. “After the season, I thought it was a nerve deal and it’ll calm down. At the time, I thought in no way my career would be over. If it was over at this point, it would be me saying I would want it to be.”
But during the standard team physical for all players at end of the season, doctors diagnosed Wood with a career-ending neck injury.
If that wasn’t enough, Wood got the news while his wife, Leslie, was in the process of giving birth to their second child, Garrett.
“My wife’s getting induced to give birth to our son,” said Wood, 33. “So we’re sitting in the delivery room and I get a call. I had done some MRIs on my neck, so I knew the news might not be good. The doctor informs me that my career is over. I had to walk in the room and tell my wife that.”
Wood’s faith was shaken to its core.
“I cling onto some memory verses that something bigger and better is next for me, such as Philippians 4:5-6 and Jeremiah 29:11,” Wood said. “I do trust that God has something bigger for me, but when you’re sitting around on a Tuesday and essentially you’ve become a stay-at-home-dad and you don’t know what’s next, it can be tough.”
But Wood never placed his faith in football.
“I’ve been to plenty of chapel services throughout my career and everyone always warns you, ‘Don’t put your self-worth in football,’” Wood said. “I don’t feel like I did that. I’ve always stayed grounded in my faith, but when football gets taken away, it’s still a part of you. I didn’t put it on a pedestal, but it was still such a part of my life and I wasn’t prepared for it.”
It has been more than a year since Wood wore his No. 70 blue, red and white jersey and ran onto the field in front of thousands of fans.
The Bills’ first playoff game since 1999 also happened to be Wood’s last game.
“When I was playing, it was always how are the Bills going to be next year, how was the Pro Bowl, how was it playing with this teammate,” Wood said. “One of the hardest questions from people to answer initially was, ‘What are you doing now?’ ‘Well, I’m just figuring it out.’”
Life in the NFL
For almost all football players, the road to the NFL is a dead end.
Only nine in 10,000 high school senior football players end up in the NFL.
So it was an anomaly that Wood’s name was called with the 28th pick of the 2009 NFL Draft following his career at the University of Louisville.
Then rather quickly, the euphoria of making it to the NFL meets the reality of the business side of the NFL.
As much of a challenge as it is to climb to the top of football’s “Mount Everest,” maintaining it is astronomically hard.
The NFL has also been synonymous with “Not For Long” because the average career length is only about three years according to the NFL Players Association.
Wood played with the Bills from 2009 to 2017.
In 2015, Wood was voted into the Pro Bowl and was also honored as the Bills’ Man of the Year for his work in the Buffalo community and starting the Eric Wood Foundation, which supports chronically ill children and their families at The Children’s Hospital of Buffalo Foundation.
Bills head coach Sean McDermott spoke on Wood’s impact beyond football at a press conference following his retirement announcement.
“Eric’s a young man that I knew of before I arrived in Buffalo,” McDermott said. “He’s well respected around the league and my impression of Eric did not change over the last 12 months. His leadership on the field and in the community is just tremendous.”
Life apart from the NFL
Wood lined up against some of the toughest, roughest defensive linemen weighing at least 300 pounds, the equivalent of a filled refrigerator.
The thrill of competition is something Wood misses most from his days in the NFL.
“One of the things I miss most about playing ball is just competing daily,” Wood said. “We would compete on Sundays and practice on a daily basis because there’s always someone coming after your job. I work out at our gym and compete, but it’s not the same, and I play golf, but it’s not the same.”
Wood had to stop all football-related activities and quit cold turkey.
“Most days in the NFL during the season, I was gone from the house from 6 a.m. to about 5:30 p.m.,” Wood said. “Then, we would travel for road games. We would go to training camp for a month and I would be gone. So this past year I was at home a lot more, so we had to adjust because my wife and I were around each other all the time. You miss that schedule and just getting in a routine every day. You kind of get in this, ‘Who cares? mode’ because for so long you had to be there at a certain time, you had to work out, you had to eat a certain way to perform. When you don’t, you get in this, ‘Who cares if I eat healthy, who cares if I work out, who cares if I get up at 5:30 a.m.?’”
If you include the four years playing high school football and four more in college, Wood competed day in and day out for more than 15 years.
The rigorous demands of playing professional football were around-the-clock and Wood couldn’t turn it off like a light switch.
“The way I’ve always been wired and driven, it wasn’t natural for me,” he said. “For 15 years, almost every decision I made was to be the best at something. Even if I was getting away from ball and away from workouts and just relaxing, it was appropriate time. When you’re trying to be the best in the world at something, any down time feels like wasted time. It was hard for me to turn my brain off, body off and choose to relax.”
Life after the NFL
Transitioning out of the NFL may be just as tough as playing in the NFL.
“This last year has been a year of transition,” Wood said. “Prior to the 2017 season, I had just signed a contract extension. We had a house in Buffalo. We were not ready to move on from that season of life, and there was nothing indicating that it would. The day my son was born was the same day my career was over. So this past year has been a year of just not knowing what’s next.”
What’s next for NFL players can feel like jumping off into a dark abyss.
In 2009, Sports Illustrated reported that 78 percent of former NFL players have gone bankrupt or are under financial stress two years after retirement.
Wood hasn’t withdrawn himself, but invests in other men as a table leader at Man Challenge on Thursday mornings.
“There are still days where my schedule’s light,” Wood said. “I just think, ‘Man, God, I have these gifts’ and He should be using me in this huge way. Then, I’ll take a step back for a moment and I’ll be sitting in Man Challenge, and I’ll look around and think maybe this is the big way God is using me. These are families that I’m recruiting to Man Challenge, and it has this multiplying effect, so maybe this is my field. Maybe loving God, loving people and fulfilling the Great Commission is something I need to be more locked in on than, ‘Man, where can I make this enormous impact on the world using my gifts?’ Maybe it starts smaller.”
As Wood’s table has split into two, Blankenbaker Men’s Ministry Leader Ronnie Cordrey said his faithfulness to football has translated effortlessly as a follower of Jesus.
“I am watching Eric Wood take the intentional disciplines and work ethic that served him well in the NFL and applying those principles into becoming a disciple-maker of men,” Cordrey said. “It’s a beautiful thing to see.”
Wood has also put his focus in a few areas.
Most of all, Wood wants to pursue a career in sports broadcasting because he has what he calls a “PhD in football.” Last year, he called a college football game for Fox Sports and recently did an analyst audition for ESPN.
Along with a few former professional athletes and investors, Wood owns a gym, PFR Performance in Louisville. The facility is a combination of a rehab center, turf field and a weight room for athletes to train.
Wood writes a weekly article for The Athletic Buffalo during the Bills season.
“I’ve filled my plate, but I’m still looking for that one niche that I want to fully attack,” Wood added. “I’m just trying to keep developing as a Christian, father and husband and everything else and assume God will put that one thing in my life, whatever that may be, when the timing’s appropriate.”
Wood, who was baptized along with his wife at Southeast in March 2013, has since moved permanently back to Louisville.
“I have known Eric since he was in college at the University of Louisville,” said Pastor Dave Stone. “He has grown consistently in his faith through the years. He and Leslie are great examples for Christ and have maintained their humility on a larger stage.”