Emmanuel Acho is using his head these days.
No helmet required.
After stepping away from the NFL in 2015 following four seasons, Acho, 26, is branching out into other areas, including the education of players against the dangers of head injuries in football.
As first glance, the former Texas linebacker could pass for a Wall Street lawyer, a state senator or an investment banker. In reality, he just graduated with a master’s in sports psychology at Texas and has earned a reputation as one of the best young humanitarians walking the planet.
Last year he and his older brother Sam — who are first-generation American sons of Nigerian-born parents Sonny and Christie Acho — hosted a Chipotle lunch party at the Salvation Army for Austin’s homeless; next month they’ll again join their parents for two weeks in Nigeria to provide free medical care in the clinic that was built by the family as part of its Living Hope Christian Ministries charity.
“My parents instilled in my brother and I at an early age what’s really important in life,” Acho said. “That’s not winning championships. That’s not hoisting Super Bowl trophies, but rather seeking and serving the lost.”
Acho spent last season as a game analyst with the Longhorn Network and also joined Fox 7 Austin’s “Good Day Austin” morning show on Mondays. In addition to doing some public speaking, he hosts a new podcast called Beyond the Film Room, which is statement against pigeon-holing athletes to just bodies in a uniform.
“Ultimately, whenever a player chimes in on Twitter or about social media race, religion, (or politics),” he said, “a fan will quirp up and say, ‘Get in the film room. Shouldn’t you be watching film? Stick to sports.’
“They’re intimating that the player is only as knowledgeable and capable of the sport they’re playing,” Acho said. “I wanted to transcend that.”
This fall will mark his second season away from the NFL though he is quick to point out that he hasn’t submitted retirement papers. Unlike Sam, a veteran of six seasons, Acho didn’t burn to play the game he was very good at from childhood. He was a consensus All-Big 12 linebacker at Texas and was off to a solid start as a pro, but couldn’t shake the injuries that dogged him starting in college.
Check out this laundry list: A torn meniscus as a freshman, a sports hernia injury as sophomore and a torn MCL his junior year. Add a torn quad at the NFL scouting combine, another MCL injury his rookie year, a groin tear his second year and thumb surgery in his fourth.
Welcome to the life of most football players. It’s the most popular game in our country, but it comes at a price to the participants. Acho actually went out to Oxnard to work out for the Dallas Cowboys but declined invitations from other teams. He was ready for a new venture. So he left the sport. He appeared in 20 games but left fully vested in the league’s pension/annuity plan after earning more than $1.2 million over four seasons.
“I do not miss the game at all,” he said on this week’s On Second Thought podcast. “I miss the camaraderie. I miss the teammates. But when you really step away from the game of football — and I played it for nearly two decades — it does so much damage. It’s hard to love a game that hurts you so much.”
What you didn’t see in that laundry list was a concussion he suffered in 2010 when he took a knee to the helmet in a win at Nebraska. Acho watched Will Smith’s performance in the 2015 film “Concussion” twice and was intrigued by his portrayal of Dr. Bennet Omalu, the doctor who fought to force the NFL to acknowledge his research of chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE) and the effects of multiple hits to the head on football players.
Acho has devoted two podcast episodes to the issue and interviewed Keana McMahon, the ex-wife of the late Justin Strzelczyk, a former Pittsburgh Steeler who was the third player diagnosed with CTE. Strzelczyk died after driving his truck into a tanker at more than 90 miles per hour in 2004. He was 36.
“The NFL’s toughest opponent to date is CTE,” Acho said. “I don’t know what they can do about it, but first and foremost they need to acknowledge there is a problem, educate the players to the problem and then fix the problem.”
Acho counts himself fortunate that he suffered only one major head injury in 18 years of playing. The league has so much work to do in the area of safety but is showing an effort in recent years, including the development of a new high-tech helmet designed to help mitigate the hits that cause concussions. Sam Acho will be wearing one this fall.
To that end, I asked Acho, who is single with no children, if he would one day allow his son to play football.
“Based on where this game will be in 15 years, I think that answers is yes,” he said. “I think the game will take great strides. If the game does not, then no. We will encourage our son to go play basketball or go play baseball. That’s where the real money is.”