Saints’ Kenny Vaccaro: Reward worth risk of injury _lowres

Advocate staff photo by MATTHEW HINTON New Orleans Saints strong safety Kenny Vaccaro works out during an Organized Team Activities on Thursday in Metairie.

Saints strong safety Kenny Vaccaro is one season, $1.7 million and two concussions into his NFL career.

It’s a caveat Vaccaro, known for his self-proclaimed “reckless” style of play, said Thursday is unavoidable yet worth the long-term health risks.

Why? Because of his passion for the sport and financial ability to provide for his family, including his 2-year-old son.

“I couldn’t walk away,” Vaccaro, 23, said after Thursday’s offseason team activity. “The reward is greater than the risk, for me.”

Vacarro was selected as the No. 32 pick of the first round of last season’s draft.

“Being drafted in the first round, my son, my whole family is set for life,” he said. I already have money put away, so he’s set for life. ... If I (finished) college, maybe he wouldn’t be. It would have taken 10, 20 years of working a regular job.”

Vaccaro’s comments came six days after a high-profile group of former NFL players filed a concussion-related lawsuit against the NFL. The lawsuit alleges the league has known about concussion-related injuries since the early 1970s.

Today’s players, though, are aware of the risks, said Vaccaro, who played at Texas. And, they still play, despite research that has tied repetitive head trauma or multiple concussions to the suicides of former NFL players Junior Seau, Dave Duerson, Andre Waters and Ray Easterling.

“That’s the nature of the game,” said Vaccaro, whose 2013 season ended with a broken left ankle during the regular-season finale against Tampa Bay. “I think when you sign your contract, that’s what you know you’re getting into.”

The NFL reported 152 concussions last season, despite improved protocol, equipment and rules designed to reduce, not eliminate the type of hits believed to be tied to neurological damage.

Vaccaro isn’t so sure about the numbers.

“There’s a lot of guys that get concussions during games and don’t even say anything,” he said. “If you get knocked out, it’s obviously going to be visible on TV. But a lot of guys will get their ‘bell rung’ and won’t even say anything.”

To players like Vaccaro, pro football is a job that is equally profitable and hazardous. Like a fireman who runs into burning buildings or a crew member on ship deep at sea.

Vaccaro suffered his first NFL concussion during a Week 8 win against Buffalo when he collided with teammate Keenan Lewis, an injury Vaccaro blames on himself for playing the snap without his mouthpiece. He did not miss a game.

Two weeks later, he was hit in the head by the knee of Cowboys tight end Jason Witten and missed the following week’s game against the 49ers.

Vaccaro ended the regular season third in tackles (79), including second in solo stops (62). He was considered a top candidate for the defensive rookie of the year award.

He’s since recovered fully from the ankle injury and is preparing for a 2014 season with prized free agent Jarius Byrd and future Hall of Famer Champ Bailey.

Vaccaro said he has studied film on Byrd during his time in Buffalo to learn how deep he plays and how he plays balls in the air. He has also increased his weight from 217 pounds to 222 while maintaining his speed, he said.

Over the course of his four-year contract, Vaccaro is slated to earn $9.4 million, including a $5.2 million signing bonus. But for this year, he’s priming for a Pro Bowl-caliber season, aware but unfazed by future ramifications.

“I guess I’m not thinking past my hand,” he said.