The question was one Hunter Hillenmeyer didn't want to answer.
It was 2010, and the Bears had just placed him on injured reserve after the third publicly documented concussion of his eight-year career. After meeting with reporters at Halas Hall, he was asked how many concussions he had actually suffered.
"Now isn't the time to discuss that," Hillenmeyer said.
Sixteen months later, the time has come as he wages a fight to receive what the NFL Players Association says is $900,000 due him according to the collective bargaining agreement after two doctors, one the independent neurological consultant for the Bears, recommended he no longer play football.
"It makes me sick to see (the league) claim it is driving concussion research and putting player safety first," he said.
"The whole system is designed to do one thing: make owners money. …
"The fact that a case as black and white as mine can't even get resolved is indicative of a much, much deeper truth. Owners know what the game is doing to players, but once they fully acknowledge it, the gig is up."
The league, some charge, has not adequately addressed how it deals with those who have suffered brain injuries. Hillenmeyer is part of what the NFLPA says is a growing number of players who have had career-ending head injuries but have been denied benefits or salary due them as outlined by the collective bargaining agreement.
The players union says that despite independent neurological consultants warning players such as Hillenmeyer that it is too dangerous to play again, teams have tossed these players aside after their concussion symptoms dissipate and cognitive test scores return to a baseline level. The stance of the clubs is that they have no salary obligation or cause to pay injury benefits.
If a player suffers a debilitating knee injury, MRIs will make a case for a clear financial resolution. When it comes to the gray area of the gray matter of the brain, it's far more complicated.
"We are going to remain aggressive," said DeMaurice Smith, the executive director of the NFLPA. "There are benefits in the collective bargaining agreement that clearly apply to players who were injured during the course of football, especially when there is medical justification to indicate that it would be dangerous for them to continue to play."
Medical documents show Hillenmeyer suffered five concussions as a member of the Bears, the first in training camp in 2005, the last during a preseason game against the Cardinals on Aug. 28, 2010, when he was coming off a block and was hit — a play he has experienced hundreds of times a season.
"It shouldn't have caused a concussion," he said.
That's a serious problem, said Dr. Robert Cantu, one of the nation's foremost authorities on concussions and the co-director of the Center for the Study of Traumatic Encephalopathy at Boston University. Cantu says that when concussions are caused by less severe blows it's more worrisome.
"In some instances you really see a guy get creamed and you look at the videotape and say, 'No way he's not going to get concussed,' " Cantu said. "Believe it or not, that is better than somebody who just simply had a hard blow to their back that whiplashed their head backward and now they're on queer street for a week. We worry much more about those that take minor blows that have symptoms, and we also worry most about those who have symptoms for a very long period of time."
Two weeks after his concussion against the Cardinals, Hillenmeyer knew he wasn't right from the season-opening kickoff against the Lions at Soldier Field. At halftime, he informed the medical staff of his symptoms. Two days later, he was placed on season-ending injured reserve. He hasn't played since.
Hillenmeyer received his pay for the 2010 season.
The Bears terminated his contract Feb. 28, 2011, one month after the team's concussion consultant, Dr. Elizabeth Pieroth, a board certified clinical neuropsychologist, examined him and recommended he no longer play.
Up against the NFL
Former Bear battles team and NFL over lost benefits, salary
Hillenmeyer on the steps of Soldier Field. ((William DeShazer / Tribune Photo)