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NFL players, families coming to grips of the dangers of repeat concussions

Manny Lawson has a vivid recollection of his most serious concussion.

That’s only because it was captured on film. What he recalls is seeing it later on videotape, and being stunned by the image. It’s the most terrifying movie he’s ever seen, his personal “Halloween.”

Lawson, the Bills veteran linebacker, was with the Niners at the time. As he was making a tackle, another player’s leg crashed into his helmet. Six plays later, he walked off the field and told someone, “I don’t remember anything that just happened.”

“It’s crazy when you look at it,” Lawson said recently. “On film, I’m still making all the correct checks. I’m lining up where I’m supposed to be and doing everything I’m supposed to do. I just don’t remember any of it.

“Scared? Oh, yeah,” he said. “To see that my body could unconsciously perform and play a game, and me not be aware of it. To see myself play the rest of those six plays, I mean, my mind was blown.”

As Lawson spoke, fellow linebacker Arthur Moats was laughing at an adjacent locker in the Bills’ dressing room. It’s not an uncommon reaction among players when the subject of concussions arises. You laugh it off, as if warding off evil spirits who might be coming for you next.

Moats said he’s never had a concussion. “Not that I know of,” he said. “So let’s keep it that way.

“If you’re thinking about that too much,” Moats said, “it’s only going to make things worse. If you’re out there trying not to get hurt, you’ll end up getting hurt. If you’re always scared of everything you do, you’re not going to live your life.”

That was another prevalent theme. The players understand the risks in a violent sport, but they know what they “signed up for.” If they dwell on the possible consequences, it could divert them from the task of playing well and preserving their high-paying job in the NFL.

I’ve talked with more than a dozen Bills since the release of “League Of Denial,” a book and PBS documentary on concussions and the NFL. The project makes a powerful case that the NFL for years denied emerging scientific evidence that football caused concussions that led to brain damage and serious long-term issues such as depression, dementia and suicide.

Half the players said they had suffered at least one concussion during their football careers. But in almost every case, the player couldn’t say for sure. A documented concussion is one thing, but in a sport where players get their “bell rung” all the time, who can really say?

As “League Of Denial” points out, the NFL didn’t publicly admit a link between concussions and brain damage until 2009, until they could no longer deny the connection between violent hits and Chronic Traumatic Encephelopathy (CTE), a degenerative brain disease caused by persistent head trauma.

NFL makes big changes

The NFL has made significant changes in recent years, in no small part for PR reasons. Commissioner Roger Goodell has made safety a personal mission.

He came down hard on the Saints in the bounty scandal. The league has instituted strict new protocols on concussion prevention and treatment – roughly a decade after the NHL did so.

There has been an unspoken denial among players, too. Football is a sport they love, one that has brought them great financial rewards and adulation.

Playing hurt has long been part of the player code. Players went back into games soon after getting injured, at the urging of coaches.

As recently as five years ago, the NFL’s official position was that players could go back into the game after suffering a concussion. The league is doing more to protect the players – and in a world where denying pain is part of the culture, you have to protect the players from themselves.

“I’m not worried right now,” said receiver Stevie Johnson, who said he’s had one serious concussion, in junior college. “I’ve got to live in the now, you know what I’m saying? I’m pretty sure there’s going to be something wrong with us when we get to that age, playing in this type of sport. We’ve got to worry about the Dolphins right now.”

Safety Jairus Byrd said he’d never had a concussion. “Not to my knowledge,” Byrd said. “Not a documented one. But I’m sure I … I don’t know. I’ve gotten my bell rung.”

Chris Hogan, a backup receiver, said he’s “seen stars” many times, but had only one documented concussion. He was knocked out for a couple of minutes after getting kneed in the back of his head.

“I went back in the game!” Hogan said with a laugh. “That was 2005, 2006. I had no recollection of going back in or playing the second half. I’m pretty sure they knew I had a concussion, because they told me to stay up all night. It really wasn’t that scary because it wasn’t such a big deal 10 years ago.”

Hogan talks about eight years ago as if it were the dark ages. And as far as the NFL’s attitude toward concussions, it truly was. It’s about time the league set an example for players at every level.

“All the information out there now says if you get a concussion and continue to play and suffer more brain trauma, that’s when it gets really serious,” said veteran safety Jim Leonhard. “So I feel like we’re headed in the right direction. It took way too long to get there.”

Leonhard, at 5-foot-8 one of the shortest players in the NFL, said he has had “a few” concussions in his career. “I’ve been fortunate not to have many.”

A few, he was asked? Leonhard laughed. “More than two or three. I’ve had two that I can say for sure. I had one with Baltimore and one with the Jets. Both didn’t have any effects that night or the next day. So I’ve been very fortunate. I know guys who haven’t been so fortunate.”

Well, compared with players from the past, he is lucky. Jim Kelly once said he had eight or nine concussions that he knew of. Troy Aikman was probably in double digits, Steve Young close to that. It’s impossible to tell when you go back further, because they didn’t diagnose concussions.

Joe D saw stars every day

Joe DeLamielleure, the Hall of Fame guard who blocked for O.J. Simpson in the glory days, has said he saw stars every day. DeLamielleure, a long-time critic of the NFL’s treatment toward its retired players, is one of about 300 former players who have donated their brains to science.

DeLamielleure is fairly certain he has CTE, the brain disease that was first diagnosed in the late Mike Webster, the Hall of Fame center from the Steelers whose physical and psychological unraveling was chronicled in “League Of Denial.” Webster suffered from dementia and was homeless when he died of a heart attack in 2002.

“Joe D” and Webster were O line contemporaries and close friends. They socialized together. DeLameilleure’s wife, Gerri, wept on the couch when she saw her old friend, Pam Webster, on the Frontline documentary. She knows that could have been Joe D.

“That can be me,” DeLamielleure said. “There’s no question. It hits guys at different times. Of course, I’m worried.”

DeLamielleure was famous for hitting with his helmet, just like Webster. Paul Zimmerman recalled in his book, “The Thinking Man’s Guide To Pro Football,” how Joe D knocked out three defensive linemen in one game with his head. You don’t think those add up?

“There’s all kinds of things,” DeLamielleure said. “I sleep three hours a night. Right-handed defensive linemen would head slap, so a lot of offensive linemen in our era have no hearing in their left ear. I have 60 percent hearing, with constant buzzing. My head has been ringing for 20 years.”

Today’s players won’t know for years how the accumulated blows of a football career will affect them later in life. They accept the risks and declare that they know “what they signed up for.” Most retired players say they would do it all again in a heartbeat.

“I hear them say that all the time,” DeLamielleure said. “Even when you know you’re going to have brain damage? Ask those who clothe and bathe them when they’re 55. If you believe all that Macho Camacho stuff, ask the wives. Ask the children, or the parents of the players who suffer.”

Families are the collateral damage when players are crippled by brain injuries late in life, the innocent victims. Pam Webster and her sons said “Iron Mike” was not the same man after CTE got him. Lisa McHale said the same about her late husband, Tom, a former Tampa Bay lineman who suffered from CTE and died of a drug overdose at 45.

Andre Waters, a former Eagles star safety, shot himself to death. Terry Long committed suicide by drinking antifreeze. Junior Seau committed suicide by shooting himself in the chest. West Seneca native Justin Strzelczyk, a former Steelers lineman, died in a fiery crash while driving his car 90 mph the wrong way on the Thruway in 2007.

Their brains were all tested at Boston University, by the same scientists who found brain damage in Mike Webster. They all showed signs of CTE. At last count, they had cut up the brains of 34 former NFL players, and 33 had signs of brain damage from concussions.

Players worry about families

So deep down, even while laughing off the possibilities, the current players worry. They worry about their families. Almost every Bill grew more thoughtful about concussions when he talked about children.

“Yeah, absolutely,” Leonhard said. “Absolutely, I’m worried. My wife is worried.”

“After I’m done playing this sport, I want to play with my kids,” said Lawson, who became a father for the first time last spring. “I want to be healthy and do things with my family. So that’s always in a player’s mind. God forbid if this sport takes that away. But it is a choice, and this is what we’re choosing to do, knowing there’s a high risk.”

Fred Jackson is the father of four children, ages 7 years to 4 weeks. He has had one documented concussion, a year ago at New England. That’s remarkable for a relentless running back who is near the top of the NFL in yards after contact. But one was enough to shake Jackson and his wife, Danielle.

“It was a pretty bad concussion,” Jackson recalled. “I was out for a week, and for the first three days I had to just stay home in the dark. In a dark room. Low light, with the TV turned down low. I wanted make sure I could come back from it with nothing lingering.”

Fate of others weighs on mind

Jackson said the tragedies of Waters, Seau and the other former players weigh on his mind “all the time. My wife is the one who really, really worries about it. But it’s the game I love to play, and I’m trying to do everything I can to make sure that isn’t me. When it comes to doing the testing and stuff, I’m trying to be the first one in line to make sure everything is great and I don’t have any lingering effects.”

Danielle said she worries more after seeing Fred laid up in the dark, unable to hug his kids. It’s hard to ignore the mounting evidence of devastating brain damage in former players. She considers him lucky, having just one reported concussion. She has faith in the NFL’s new concussion guidelines and said Fred knows what’s right for his body.

“But it was not fun to see, with the kids watching and everything,” Danielle said. “It’s very hard to see your husband lying on the field. I don’t know if it’s the right thing to say, but if it got to where his quality of life was in jeopardy, we would have a serious discussion about stepping away and starting a new path.

“You have to keep it in perspective,” she said. “Even though there are great rewards, the money and potential to be set up for life, it’s not worth it if you don’t have a good life or even a life at all. Being a husband and father, he’s not the only one who has a say in what happens.”

Players have to make tough choices at times. A number of football and hockey players have walked away rather than risk disabling head trauma. The Bills are in their current quarterback quandary because of a head injury to Kevin Kolb, who suffered his third documented concussion in a preseason loss to Washington.

The hit seemed innocuous at the time, but research shows that the incidence of concussion, and the damage to the brain, increases with each successive incident. Kolb’s injury is believed to career-threatening. He has not spoken with the media since the injury. The Bills said Kolb won’t talk until he has begun physical workouts.

“He’s got some decisions to make,” said center Eric Wood. “Concussions are a scary deal, and he’s kind of caught the unlucky end of it.”

Wood, who has suffered a couple of serious injuries in Buffalo, said he doesn’t believe he’s had a concussion. “I don’t know. I don’t think so,” he said. “I mean, I’ve been hit hard, but there’s never been a time where I’ve maybe forgot something, or didn’t understand where I was.”

He still worries, of course. He plays the same position as Mike Webster, after all. Every play on the interior of the line is like a car wreck.

“There’s rewards that come from playing this game and there’s drawbacks,” said Wood, who recently signed a lucrative contract extension. “And physical disabilities down the road is definitely one of the hardships you run the risk of when you play football.”

In other words, they know what they signed up for. But more and more, as the real truth about concussions comes to light in the League of Denial, it doesn’t seem quite so simple.


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