Tuesday, May 15, 2012

Former Stanford receiver Chris Owusu looks for fresh start with the San Francisco 49ers

By Mark Emmons

Posted: 05/10/2012 10:04:18 PM PDT
Updated: 05/14/2012 04:51:48 PM PDT

Former Stanford wideout Chris Owusu met with reporters on the eve of Friday's mini-camp for 49ers rookies and talked at length about how excited he is to begin his NFL dream.

But there was one word that he never once uttered: concussion.

Owusu's name has become synonymous with the growing brain-trauma problem in football. He suffered three concussions over a 13-month period -- including two that prematurely ended his senior season -- and that history frightened off teams in the recent NFL draft.

"I just want to move forward," Owusu said Thursday. "It's unfortunate that I'm part of this conversation. But hopefully in the next couple of months, I'll finally get to change that. I don't want to be known as someone who is surrounded by this topic."

Signing as an undrafted free agent with the 49ers reunites Owusu with former Stanford coach Jim Harbaugh and offensive coordinator Greg Roman.

At 6-foot-2, 200 pounds, Owusu is a big-play threat whose blistering 4.36-second time in the 40-yard dash tied him for the fastest at the NFL combine among receivers.

But he will have to overcome a reputation for not having great hands. And it won't be easy making the roster as the 49ers have spent the offseason upgrading the team's weakest position -- drafting Illinois' A.J. Jenkins in the first round and adding free agents Randy Moss and Mario Manningham.

The bigger issue, however, is how a guy who had trouble taking hits on Saturdays

will handle the even bigger blows that are dished out on Sundays. Owusu knows there's only one way to prove that he is not concussion-prone.

"I can't wait to take that first big hit and get right back up," he said.

Owusu had a frustrating final two years at Stanford because of injuries. Last season, concussions limited him to 10 games and 35 receptions for 376 yards and two touchdowns. His college career essentially ended Nov. 5 after a helmet-to-helmet hit against Oregon State, where he lay on the field for about five minutes. Owusu wasn't medically cleared to play in the Fiesta Bowl or the Senior Bowl.

But after the season, Owusu passed cognitive tests. And two leading brain-injury authorities have told this newspaper that there is no reason a concussed athlete shouldn't continue his career as long as the injury has been properly managed. Dr. Robert Cantu, a Boston University neurologist, said in February that "it doesn't mean that their future has been doomed in any way."

Dr. Mitchel Berger, a member of the NFL's head, neck and spine medical committee, added on Thursday: "He should be given a chance. No doubt about it."

Yet NFL teams acted as if Owusu didn't exist.

"He's off our board," one anonymous general manager told Sports Illustrated, adding it wouldn't have mattered if Owusu had been the eventual No. 2 overall pick Robert Griffin III. —‰... With that kind of history it's not worth the risk of him being seriously injured, especially with all the attention you're going to receive."

The league is facing a public-relations crisis. A mounting wave of lawsuits, which now involves nearly 2,000 former players, alleges that the NFL was deceptive about the long-term effects of head trauma. Last week, football was rocked by the suicide of Junior Seau -- the third ex-player to take his own life in 15 months after Dave Duerson and Ray Easterling.

While it's unknown if Seau's death is connected to playing football, it adds to the climate of uncertainty about concussions.

"The fears and the anxiety are completely justified right now in football," Stanford coach David Shaw said. "But the important thing is that we listen to what the experts are telling us. Chris has been tested more than any other player in the country. If an expert tells Chris or any player that he shouldn't play, then they shouldn't. But he has been cleared, and he's ready to go."

Agent Steve Caric prepared a chart comparing Owusu with the four wide receivers taken in the first round. Owusu's performance at the NFL combine topped them all in virtually every measurable category. He trailed only Jenkins in the three-cone and 20-yard shuttle drills.

"Talent isn't the reason he wasn't drafted," Caric said. "He should have been a Top 90 player."

Owusu knows that he'll be trying to break into a crowded receiving/kick returning corps that includes holdovers Michael Crabtree, Ted Ginn Jr. and Kyle Williams. But he wanted to play again for Harbaugh and Roman.

Shaw said he understands why teams considered Owusu too great a risk. But they also knew there was a risk by passing on him.

"Pro scouts told me their worst fear was that they would be watching him take one back to the house against their team and they'd be saying, 'I wish we had cleared him to play,' " Shaw said.

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