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Concussions on minds of ex-Bills; Retirees join suits against league

Buffalo Bills great Fred Smerlas says he had so many concussions when he played football it's hard for him to count the total.

"Twenty? Thirty maybe," Smerlas says. "I remember one time I got hit so hard I was tasting Italian submarine sandwiches. I didn't know where I was for four or five plays. Then in practice, I'd get knocked out, you get up and see stars, lose your balance. But you don't miss a play."

Concussions are a hot topic in the NFL these days, and a handful of players on the front lines of the issue were in attendance at the Jim Kelly Celebrity Golf Classic on Monday.

Smerlas, Hall-of-Famer Joe DeLamielleure, Lou Piccone and Butch Rolle -- each of whom teed it up at Terry Hills Country Club in Batavia -- are among almost 2,400 former NFL players who are plaintiffs in concussion-related lawsuits that have been filed against the NFL the past year. Lots of other Hall-of-Famers have joined the suits, including Eric Dickerson, Chris Doleman, Tony Dorsett, Fred Dean, Bob Lilly, Leroy Kelly and Art Monk. At least 83 players who suited up for at least one regular-season game for the Bills are among the litigants, based on documents on the website NFLconcussionlitigation.com.

Repeated concussions can cause chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE), which has been diagnosed in the brains of more than 90 athletes in recent years, including ex-Bill Cookie Gilchrist and ex-Sabre Rick Martin. Heath problems caused by head trauma include memory loss, concentration lapses, sleep problems, and bursts of anger and depression, among others.

Piccone, who played for the Bills from 1977 to '82, says he can check off a bunch of those effects.

"Everything; you name it, it's there," Piccone said. "Memory loss, the whole 9 yards. I don't dwell on it. I continue to live my life. You work to do your very best. Football players are not complainers."

DeLamielleure, who played for the Bills from 1973 to '79 and in '85, says he has 60 percent hearing loss in his left ear from right-handed defensive linemen head-slapping him. He says he had many concussions.

"I never sleep," DeLamielleure said. "Six straight hours? Never. If you told me I want to get up at 3:13, I'd say OK I'll call you, because I know I'll be awake. And I never dream."

"Mike Webster was a real good friend of mine," DeLamielleure said, referring to the Pittsburgh Steelers great whose 2002 death was hastened by CTE. "When Mike passed away they were studying him down in North Carolina. I asked the doctors what is a concussion? I didn't even know what a concussion was. The guy said, basically when you see stars. I saw stars daily, because we hit every day. Me and Fred Smerlas hit heads every day."

Piccone acknowledges there are inherent risks in the game.

"If you're not hitting, you're not playing," he said. "Can you legislate contact out of the game? No. There's risk involved."

However, he and the other litigants think the NFL should have done more to protect players.

"A long story short: They kept it from us from the standpoint of the severity of it, what it can do," Piccone said.

"This is a multibillion-dollar industry and there's only a couple thousand guys, and they should be taken care of," DeLamielleure said.

A key factor will be a determination of how much the NFL should have known about the effects of concussions and whether the league enhanced the risks of the long-term effects of head injuries by not disclosing information.

"They may have, they may have not," Smerlas said. "That's what the court case is about. We feel they did. They feel they didn't. But they need to correct it."

Rolle, 47, said he worries about what effect concussions will have on him and NFL brethren in the future.

"Of course, as a player, after seeing what's gone on with former players, and guys taking their lives, it's something you worry about, definitely," Rolle said. "I pray to God to keep me focused and do what I need to do."

DeLamielleure thinks the recent steps being taken by the league to increase player safety are great, regardless on the effect they have on the way defense is played.

"I respect the heck out of Roger Goodell," DeLamielleure said of the NFL commissioner. "He has inherited a lot. The deal was people back then didn't know what a concussion was. Nobody. But (helmet manufacturer) Riddell knew. Riddell is being sued. We wore a webbed helmet."

"I'd get on the plane and Joe Ferguson would ask me, 'How'd I play?' " DeLamielleure recalls, referring to the Bills quarterback. "I'd say, 'What do you mean? You played great.' He'd say, 'Jeez, I don't remember the fourth quarter.' "

email: mgaughan@buffnews.com