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Thursday, November 14, 2019  Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883
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Sports >  National sports

Former Detroit Tigers catcher Bill Freehan one of many ex-athletes feeling the long-term effects of concussions

At a recent birthday celebration in their Vinegar Flats neighborhood, Rick Freehan sat on a sofa next to his wife, Carole, and chatted about typical neighborhood topics. A sighting of young beavers playing in Latah Creek. A neighbor’s adventures mixing sheep and goats.

Usual neighborhood stuff.

But when a friend arrived wearing a souvenir T-shirt from theNational Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown, New York, he changed topics.

“You know, my brother should have been inducted into the Hall of Fame,” he said. “He was an 11-time All-Star and he won three Gold Gloves as a catcher.”

Freehan’s brother, Bill, was a catcher with the Detroit Tigers from 1961, when he was called up as a 19-year-old, until he was released in 1976. He was a major cog in the Tigers’ run to a 1968 World Series win over Bob Gibson and the St. Louis Cardinals.

“He always said he hurt his chances to get into the Hall when he was released,” Freehan added later. “Toronto wanted to sign him and have him be their designated hitter, and he could have really padded his stats. But he was a Detroit boy, and he already made more money in business than he made playing baseball.”

Playing behind the plate in the major leagues has always been a rough-and-tumble business. Catchers were taught to block the plate, base runners taught to plow through them.

What’s more, baseballs fouled off a catcher’s mask are enough to leave a player with “their bell rung.”

In other words, concussions were commonplace. In all sports.

“(Bill) was a three-sport athlete and he played quarterback in high school,” Rick explained. “Notre Dame wanted him to come play football, but they wouldn’t let him play baseball, too. So he played football and baseball at Michigan before he signed with the Tigers.

“He lost track of just how many concussions he had over the years. It was just too many concussions.”

Bill Freehan, now 77, lives in hospice care, having suffered from severe dementia for years. A story in the Detroit Free Press last year reported that he can no longer walk, speak or feed himself.

What is known about the effect of repeated trauma to the brain has been under intense scrutiny since it was discovered by forensic pathologist Dr. Bennet Omalu 17 years ago. In medical terms, experts are just now scratching the surface about the neurodegenerative disease he named Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy (CTE).

What can be done to help prevent it, however, is an area where progress is still being made.

What is known about and how contact sports are seen forever changed with Dr. Omalu’s discovery during an autopsy of former Pittsburgh Steelers center Mike Webster.

Webster played 17 seasons in the NFL and was part of all four Super Bowl championship teams in the 1970s, but by the time he retired he was suffering from amnesia, dementia and depression. His behavior was erratic and he would become so agitated, he would use electroshock devices on himself in order to sleep.

Webster was 50 when he died in 2002, but upon autopsy Omalu discovered that his brain showed the kind of effects normally found in people with Alzheimer’s disease or dementia, or who were known to suffer from what boxers refer to as “punch-drunk syndrome.”

Further study of former NFL players led Omalu to an inescapable conclusion.

“There is no such thing as a safe blow to the head,” Omalu told ESPN.com in 2017 prior to the publication of his book “Truth Doesn’t Have a Side.”

“And then when you have repeated blows to your head, it increases the risk of permanent brain damage. Once you start having hundreds or thousands of blows, there is a 100% risk of exposure to permanent brain damage. The brain does not have a reasonable capacity to regenerate. This is something we have always known.”

Part of the tragedy of CTE is that what we have come to know about the condition and its causes comes only after death and in hindsight.

Most important, CTE has been found in athletes, military veterans and in individuals with a history of repeated head trauma.

NFL greats Junior Seau, Ken Stabler and Frank Gifford all were found to have suffered from CTE. Spokane’s Mark Rypien, the MVP of Super Bowl XXVI in 1992, has said he believes he suffers from the condition.

As of 2017, of 111 brains of former NFL players donated to a Boston brain bank studying CTE, 110 were found to have the condition to some degree. Out of 202 brains donated by the families of football players at all levels, 90% were found to have some level of CTE.

Even more startling, a study by the Boston University School of Medicine CTE Center says that people who have only played high school football can suffer from the condition.

“Unfortunately, we found CTE in people who only played high school football and passed away at a very young age,” said the study’s lead author, Dr. Daniel Daneshvar.

He added: “We still don’t understand a lot about the disease and what causes it.”

Concussion is the primary contributing cause of CTE, and the danger inherent in head injuries is not limited to football. All sports – from soccer and basketball to cheerleading – have some risk of head injury, as does walking on icy sidewalks.

What has been learned about a second blow to the head after suffering a concussion is what we have moved to minimize. The alternative can be both catastrophic and tragic.

It took football, hockey and baseball decades to address potential head injuries. The first football shoulder pads were invented in 1877. The first headgear, a leather helmet, didn’t come along until 1896. Jacques Plante of the Montreal Canadiens ushered in a new era in the NHL on November 1, 1959, when he became the first goalkeeper to play a regular season game wearing a mask.

Not all that long ago, NFL players were able to use their helmet as a weapon. Players like Baltimore Colts great Bubba Smith, a Hall of Fame defensive end, could use a massive head slap to disorient an opponent.

To say progress has been made in the past 10 years when it comes to protecting players, specifically when it comes to head injuries, is not an understatement.

Sadly, advances in how to treat players living with the specter of CTE have not moved as quickly.

Just last month a former NFL fullback, frustrated with the red tape involved with receiving assistance from the league with CTE, blast-tweeted that he needed help with what was going on in his head.

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Bill Freehan is not the only member of the Detroit Tigers’ 1968 World Series champions to have dealt with the aftermath of head injuries. While there is no definitive link, second baseman Dick McAuliffe passed away in 2016 after a battle with Alzheimer’s disease.

Considered one of the dozen or so best catchers major league baseball has ever seen, Rick Freehan still hopes his brother will receive his due and be inducted into the Hall of Fame.

“He was only on the ballot one time, and he didn’t get the minimum number of votes to stay on the ballot,” his brother explained. “His friend and teammate, Al Kaline, is on the Veterans Committee and we hope he will keep his name alive.”

Rick Freehan acknowledges that his brother will likely never know if and when the Hall beckons.

“It would be an honor for the family more than anything,” he said.

The Spokane-based Freehans have a trip to Michigan planned for later in the year, but Rick isn’t sure he wants to see his brother.

Growing wistful for a moment, Rick Freehan shook his head and whispered, “I would really rather just remember him the way he was before.”

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