SAN DIEGO — In the last few years, several high profile incidents have prompted the National Football League to pay a lot more attention to their players’ wellbeing — from brain health and concussions to heart health.
San Diego local and former Chargers player, Willie Buchanon, has made this the centerpiece of his work after retiring from the league, specifically shining a light on heart health and the importance of player screenings.
“Normally athletes don’t like to go and see the doctor we’re hardheaded we think we’re invincible,” Buchanon said to FOX 5.
At 72, Buchanon still looks every bit the pro athlete he always was, but a few years ago, he suffered a stroke that pushed him to get involved in player health advocacy.
The Oceanside native, was a first round draft pick by the Green Bay Packers – seventh overall – after an all-star career as a student at San Diego State University. The cornerback was named Defensive Rookie of the Year in 1972.
“I love the game,” Buchanon said. “It’s a game that I was blessed with an ability and I played for 11 good years and had fun.”
But these days, he says he cares less about who wins and more about helping the players themselves through heart health awareness with The HUDDLE Study, a survey campaign promoting heart disease education and screenings for former NFL players.
Buchanon has been involved since the very first seminar event hosted by the organization in 2019.
He suffered a stroke three days later, but recognized immediately what was happening due to the education he received from The HUDDLE and got medical attention in time to save his life.
“I had no symptoms, my blood pressure was all right,” Buchanon said to FOX 5. “My cholesterol was all right so it turned out to be atrial fibrillation…that’s what caused that stroke.”
“I felt faint, I almost fell over I stood up and started getting dizzy,” he continued. ” The right side of my body went numb, and I said ‘Ok this is not right!’”
After spending a few days in the hospital, he was back to his old self, but armed with knowledge and new drive to share what he learned.
“I would call all my teammates and tell them whatever city that we went to as far as having a HUDDLE (event), I got them there to get the study and get information,” Buchanon said.
And it’s that awareness, he said, that most likely saved the life of Buffalo Bills player, Damar Hamlin, who suffered cardiac arrest on the field following a hit during a recent game.
“The awareness of the first responders is what saved his life,” he said. “Knowing that the awareness of those types of things and what you need to do right away…for us, if we have a stroke or we have any kind of condition – once you’re aware of those things you can tell what you’re going through once you have that knowledge.”
Buchanon still works for the NFL in uniform code enforcement. He also teaches youth sports in Oceanside and he says he stays up to date on all his certifications — to make sure in the event of an emergency he is prepared.