VIERA, Fla. -- Denard Span, the Nationals' new center fielder, is aware of what's going on with the NFL and the concussion-related lawsuits it is facing. "Not enough to speak on it," he said, but it hasn't escaped his notice.
Two years ago, it might have. Two years ago, Span was an on-the-rise member of the Minnesota Twins. He gave a lot of thought to his body and taking care of it. He never gave much thought to his head.
His life changed on June 3, 2011. Trying to stretch a triple into an inside-the-park home run, he collided with Royals catcher Brayan Pena. It wasn't a particularly violent collision. His neck jerked, his head collided with Pena's shoulder.
That quickly, Span joined the world of the concussed.
It is a confusing world that doesn't come with clear answers. "No concussions are the same," Span said. After some stops and re-starts, Span felt OK again.
He goes into his first season with the Nationals confident he can produce like he was before he got hurt. He came to the Nationals much more aware of what a concussion can do to a person.
"Before I had a concussion, I couldn't tell you anything about a concussion," Span said. "When you experience something, when you have a testimony about it, you learn more about it. It's been almost two years now. I'm more aware of certain things. My body has changed since I had a concussion. There's certain things, like going to the chiropractor regularly and getting adjusted, little stuff with my diet, things like that I pay closer attention to now than I did before."
Span stayed in the game after his collision. He didn't play for a couple days afterward, then returned to the lineup. Something was off. He went on the disabled list. He returned about two months later for nine games. He went back on the disabled list.
The Twins had experience with concussions, having lost Justin Morneau to one the previous season. Morneau was able to counsel Span as Span tried to grasp what was happening to him, why he didn't feel quite right.
"You feel like everyone's looking at you," Morneau told Fox Sports North. "I just told him not to worry about it. There's nothing you can do about it."
Said Span as he prepared for a workout with the Nats, "Things just felt slower. I felt I was moving in slow motion. I felt I couldn't keep up with the pace and the speed of the game. The mental part of the game, I just couldn't keep up with it. It makes things a lot tougher. You can't be a tick off, you can't be a split-second off. That's a world of difference in any professional sport."
With that also came some trepidation. Does it ever go away?
"There were a few times that year I was a little frustrated and worried," Span said. "When would I be able to get back on the field, how would I be able to play when I got back? That's all part of a concussion, too, the different emotions, all that stuff just lingering."
The injury limited him to 70 games in 2011. Last year, Span appeared to be back to his old self. A shoulder injury caused him to miss some time but he did manage 46 extra-base hits and 17 stolen bases in 128 games. He had a .283 batting average.
Those numbers were pretty much in line with what Span was able to do in the two seasons before his concussion. He had 10 triples in 2009 and 2010. In 2009, he hit .311 with eight home runs and 68 RBI.
The Nats have long been looking for a productive leadoff hitter and are as confident as Span they've got the right guy there now. Before sending top pitching prospect Alex Meyer to the Twins for Span, general manager Mike Rizzo said he put in some time researching concussions, too.
"We've probably done as much work on it as he has," Rizzo said. "We've sent him to two specialists, just to get all the answers generally with the condition and specifically with him.
"He's fine, he's 100 percent. We're going to monitor him. We're going to give him access to the best medical people in the world and try to keep him healthy."
Span, who turned 29 Wednesday, appreciates the support. He hopes it won't be necessary. He's moved past being worried about running into walls or having another collision at the plate. He says he's ready mentally and physically to be the leadoff hitter and center fielder the Nationals want him to be.
"I'm here," he said, "I'm playing. I'm trying to put all that behind me and move forward."
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