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Damage done to former players from concussions

Sun., Dec. 26, 2010

Bart Oates worries his short-term memory could be slipping away.

Ray Lucas is partially colorblind after suffering concussions that numbered in the “teens.”

And Harry Carson has his “not-so-good days,” the ones when the migraines come or the dark moods seize him. The days he has to make lists to overcome the holes in his memory.

Carson, the Giants’ Hall of Fame linebacker who said he suffered 12 to 18 concussions in his 13-year career, wonders what else awaits him.

“Every player who ever played football understands the physical risk that they take when they play,” said Carson, 57. “Now if you asked me a long time ago, knowing what I know now, I probably would analyze the physical risks and played. Now if you told me what the neurological risks were? I probably would have to give you a much different answer.

“I can see those who played the game prior to me and the issues they’re going through. And those are serious neurological issues like Dementia, Alzheimer’s, ALS. I’m probably heading in that same direction.”

For retired NFL players such as Carson, the burgeoning concussion awareness and education campaigns of 2010 have come too late. So has the NFL’s war on helmet-to-helmet hits. The damage has been done.

Concussions have affected many retired players. They’re not just former Meadowlands heroes or homegrown stars. They’re neighbors and fathers, husbands and sons, many of whom never cashed in with huge contracts. And some face the very real threat of debilitating, degenerative disorders because of hits received during their football careers.

“I am surprised to see that it’s now (affecting retirees) in their 40s. It’s not just relegated to the 70s,” said former Giants player George Martin, 57, now the executive director of the NFL Alumni Association. And although it’s a very rare instance, there are some guys who are in their late 30s also impacted by this.”

Carson receives phone calls and e-mails since he went public with his struggles, stories of forgetfulness and other neurological issues from former players, from wives of former players too ill or stubborn to reach out and from women whose husbands played only college or high school football, yet are plagued by the same problems.

An NFL-commissioned study in 2009 found that former players were five to 19 times more likely to suffer from Dementia or similar diseases than the national average.

This generation of NFL players also is at risk as the number of reported concussions in the league continues to rise.

There were 154 concussions recorded this season in games and practices from preseason through Week 8, up 21 percent from 2009 and 34 percent from 2008. The increase is attributed to better reporting, but still is a troubling sign.

Some retired players have publicly contended that not enough is being done by the league and NFL Players Association to assist them.

“Naturally, anyone who has played a long time and has suffered a head injury, there’s going to be some concern,” said Andre Collins, the NFLPA’s director of retired players. “And we’re really concerned about that.”

NFL spokesman Greg Aiello referred to various benefits offered by the league in an e-mail, including the “88 Plan,” which provides retired players with Dementia with up to $88,000 annually for medical and nursing care. And this week, the league announced its charitable foundation will donate nearly $1 million in grants for research related to concussions.

Many of the players interviewed said they try to avoid thinking about what lies ahead, preferring not to ponder if they too will end up as tragic tales.

There have been enough of those: the Pittsburgh Steelers’ Mike Webster and Terry Long, the Philadelphia Eagles’ Andre Waters.

They are some of the deceased former players found to have suffered from chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE), a debilitating, degenerative brain disease most likely caused by repeated concussions and subconcussive hits.

There also have been at least 14 former players who have been diagnosed with ALS since 1960, a rate eight times higher than the adult male population.

Chris Nowinski, co-director of the Center for the Study of Traumatic Encephalopathy, said the recent discovery of CTE in the brain of Owen Thomas revealed the insidiousness of the disease. Thomas, a 21-year-old Penn football player who never had suffered a concussion, committed suicide in April.

“It’s clear that there’s something going on inside the brain without there being a concussion,” Nowinski said. His center studies the brains of former athletes after their deaths. “If Owen Thomas had it at 21, then there’s no question that some guys in the NFL played with it when they were 30.”

Nowinski worries today’s players are at greater risk for developing CTE.

“They’re bigger, stronger, faster and with longer careers, and the use of the helmet as a weapon has increased,” Nowinski said. “And what I mean by longer careers is they started playing younger than previous generations.”

Even concussions that have not or have not yet resulted in Dementia dramatically impact lives.

Post-concussion syndrome has taken a physical toll on Carson (migraines and sensitivity to bright light and unfiltered noise) and a mental toll (bouts of depression and memory issues).

“If you don’t know what’s happening from a medical standpoint, you could very easily think that you’re going crazy,” Carson said.

The toll also can be seen in some athletes while they’re still playing.

Lucas, a friend and former Jets’ teammate of Wayne Chrebet, said he watched the receiver struggle with multiple concussions that forced him to retire in 2005 after 11 seasons.

“It really broke my heart watching him play, then get hit, go down and then his eyes roll back,” said Lucas, an undrafted Rutgers quarterback from Harrison who went from special-teamer to the Jets’ signal-caller. “He’s a tough kid. When you’re brought up that way, we can think, ‘So what does it matter if you get hit another time?’ And I think he played because of his toughness probably a year too long to be honest.”

Art Weiss, Chrebet’s agent, said Chrebet declined an interview request. Chrebet is a financial adviser for Morgan Stanley.

Lucas, 38, did not realize he was affected by concussions until his wife, Cecy, was embarrassed by his choice of dress late in his career, calling him “Ronald McDonald.” That’s when he realized he is partially colorblind from playing seven seasons in a league where each play is like “having a truck drive into the back of your car.”

“Some of the colors are blending where everything looks orange,” the football analyst for SNY, ESPN Radio and the Rutgers Radio Network said. “Everything that’s red and orange looks the same to me.

“And then everything’s either really dark or really gray sometimes.”

Martin shuddered when recalling the smelling salts that were used as a “magical elixir” during his career to put concussed players back on the field.

It twice happened to him not including several incidents when he suffered “excruciating headaches” or “saw stars quite often.”

“I’m very concerned,” Martin said. “That concern alone gives me the ability to empathize with all of my colleagues, because who knows one day?

“What (former Baltimore Colts and Dementia sufferer John Mackey is) going through, I think any rational individual, if you knew that was a plight that you would one day succumb to, you would probably think of alternative measures. I’ll just leave it at that.”

Oates, 52, doesn’t know how many concussions he suffered in his 11 years with the Giants and 49ers. But he’s worried about the cumulative effect of the hits he’s taken.

Concussions still are a taboo topic, often unacknowledged by retirees.

The term concussion was not used often in the NFL until well into the 1990s, instead minimized as “dings” and “getting your bell rung.”

“The concussion problem when I played? There was no such thing,” Lucas said.


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