By Larry Fine
NEW YORK (Reuters) - It was a long road to a shortened National Football League career for Sidney Rice, an All-Pro receiver who retired last July at age 27 due to fears about his long-term health after numerous concussions.
"The first time I actually experienced a head trauma was when I was eight years old," Rice told Reuters after announcing on Tuesday he was donating his brain to medical research after his death.
"I didn't know it was a concussion at the time but I was in a head-on collision with another kid coming around the corner and it was the first time I'd seen stars.
"I only thought that was in cartoons. But at that age you don't know to tell your parents, to tell the coach, so I went back in the game and continued to play."
Rice announced his organ donor effort along with New York Giants punter Steve Weatherford to mark Brain Injury Awareness Month and promote EHT, a supplement derived from coffee by Princeton scientists that protects and defends against chronic inflammation of the brain.
The high incidence of degenerative brain disease in former players led thousands of former NFL players to press for and win a settlement with the league over future health costs that could end up costing $1 billion.
Rice estimated he had sustained between 15 to 20 concussions from football, recalling one with mixed emotions.
"There was a bittersweet moment when we won a game in overtime versus the Chicago Bears, and I caught the touchdown pass and I was all sprawling and hit directly in the back of my head. ... I was out cold for maybe 30 seconds.
"I was able to play the next week."
Rice said he did not retire because of symptoms that have plagued others -- such as loss of memory, depression, rage and suicidal thoughts.
"It was more about being able to function later on down the road, to live a healthy lifestyle. You know, be able to play with my kids," said Rice, who broke in with Minnesota in 2007 and won a Super Bowl with Seattle at the end of the 2013 season.
Rice put up with other injuries from the violent game of professional football.
"I had both shoulders repaired, torn labrums in both, microfracture on my right hip, torn ACL in my left knee, torn patella tendon in my right knee, so on and so forth," he said before revealing what was for him the final straw.
Rice recalled a TV special he had seen about Hall of Fame running back Tony Dorsett, who has experienced severe memory loss that may be tied to chronic traumatic encephalopathy, or CTE, which has ravaged other NFL alumni.
"They said one thing that caught my attention," Rice said about a car drive home Dorsett had taken. "They were sitting at a stop sign two miles away from their house and they had to call their wives or their loved ones to get directions to get home.
"And this is all from repetitive impact injury to the brain and that's when I really started to take notice and think about it a lot more."
Rice has returned to school, enrolling in a masters degree program in business at the University of Miami, and is poised to open seven restaurant franchises in Seattle.
He said he had no regrets about his football career and that donating his brain for research was the right thing to do.
"There's just a lot more research to be done to protect the next generation," said Rice, who appreciates the money he made from his football career.
"That's what it's all about, to give back and donate."
(Editing by Frank Pingue)