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Bucky Gleason: In wake of study, Urschel walking away from NFL was a no-brainer

Bucky Gleason

The moment John Urschel announced his retirement Thursday, two days after a study revealed that all but one of 111 NFL players whose brains were donated for research had suffered from CTE, many people had the same general reaction: Urschel's brain was too precious to expose to football.

Urschel is a unique individual, a math savant who graduated from Penn State with three degrees while also evolving into an NFL offensive lineman. What a shame it would have been for a man with such a beautiful mind to suffer from effects caused by repeated blows to the head like many before him.

In 2015, shortly after suffering a concussion in training camp, Urschel made sure his wires remained connected the best way he knew how: He tackled a complex math problem. Once he was satisfied, he continued playing for two more seasons. He banked $1.5 million in his three-year career and stood to make considerably more.

At age 26, in the prime of his career, with another contract waiting for him after the 2017 season, he walked away.

The Ravens offensive lineman didn't divulge reasons for retiring Thursday, but it was natural to assume the CTE study played a role. Forty-four players who suffered from the disease were linemen, by far the most of any position. Urschel knows math, and the evidence suggested the math could someday work against him.

Urschel said in a statement that the decision to retire wasn't easy, but it seemed a no-brainer. He had reached his goal of playing in the NFL. His passion for mathematics ran just as deep as his love for football since his days at Canisius High. He plans to earn his Ph.D. in mathematics at Massachusetts Institute of Technology. His fiancée is expecting a baby in December.

It doesn't take a genius like Urschel to know football can be hazardous to one's health, a risk that's generally accepted by anyone who played the game. But the numbers from the study were staggering. Nearly 88 percent of brains from players examined from players in the CFL, college football, semi-professional and high school tested positive for CTE.

Years ago, nobody signed up for football knowing what we know now, how there's a link between a brain disease and players who stayed too long and took too many shots to the head. How long is too long? How many is too many? Nobody knows for sure. That's one of the problems.

"It's obviously a concern, but it's the same way that it's a concern from the top of your head to the bottom of your feet," Bills defensive tackle Kyle Williams said. "We know the risks. This is a new risk that we don't know a whole lot about. There's so much gray, and I don’t like dealing in grays or hypotheticals. It's hard to have a firm stance on the subject when you really don't know."

Williams has played 151 games over 11 seasons in the NFL after starting for three years and playing 46 games at LSU. For all the practices and punishment he has endured over the years, he has never had concussion-related issues. But it's possible he has yet to feel lingering effects from minor concussions that were never diagnosed.

Asking players about potential health problems is uncomfortable enough, but it must be more awkward for players like Williams answering questions about them. Most would rather redirect their attention elsewhere and not worry about what may (or may not) happen 20 years from now. I'm sure there are some who would rather not know.

"Knock on wood, I haven't had any concussions or headache issues," said Williams, who has five children. "For someone that hasn't had any issues, there shouldn't be any fear because there's nothing that we know of. My mother-in-law says, 'You can't borrow worry.' I can't worry about something I can’t control. … I'm 100 percent certain that we're all going to die of something."

It's important to keep the study in perspective. While the numbers were alarming, the data was collected from former players who either believed they had been afflicted or whose family members suspected something was amiss before donating their brains. In other words, they were examined because they were likely candidates for CTE.

The study did not suggest that 99 percent of all former NFL players, or 91 percent of all college players, suffered from the disease. That point, which was made by renowned Boston University neuropathologist Ann McKee when the study was released in the Journal of the American Medical Association, cannot be emphasized enough.

Six years ago, the University of North Carolina released a study that claimed the average lifespan of an NFL player was 55 years, or about 20 years shorter than that of the average American male. However, the vast majority of NFL players live happily without ever experiencing lingering effects from head trauma.

CTE is a degenerative disease, which means victims usually don't show symptoms until long after their careers are over. Athletes aren't told when one blow to the head was one too many. Hundreds, perhaps thousands, of ex-players could be walking around with various stages of the disease without having a clue.

Scientists have been working for years toward devising a means of diagnosing CTE in the living, but until they experience a breakthrough it can only be discovered in the dead. Nobody finds out for sure until it's much too late, but many experience erratic behavior and other symptoms that point in that direction.

We do know this: The list of dead former football players who suffered from CTE gets longer every year. And that's terrifying for anyone who suffered multiple concussions and cares about his long-term health. Strange but true, there are guys in the NFL who would continue playing regardless of the dangers involved.

Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger inadvertently acknowledged that he's one one of them while talking with reporters in Pittsburgh. He had suffered numerous concussions and considered retirement for months before coming back for another season. He admitted the recent study worried him.

"This shows there's nothing to mess with," Roethlisberger said. "If you want to mess with your brain, you can't put a new one in, you can’t have a brain transplant. If you want to mess with your brain, go ahead. I'm not going to. I love my family and kids."

OK, so why is he taking another snap? Roethlisberger sounded like many players who felt conflicted by playing the game they loved and the game that could someday lead to their demise. Sometimes you wonder if they fear leaving the game too soon more than they fear playing for too long.

What does it say for the long-term health of football? The connection between the NFL and CTE was established years ago, but it hardly dented the league's popularity. NFL owners are expected to settle a concussion lawsuit with former players for $1 billion, or less than 10 percent of the revenue generated last year. Players have continued with business as usual.

CTE isn't some fad that will be out of style like half my wardrobe. Younger generations know more than their parents and grandparents did about the dangers of football. Common sense suggests they'll be more likely to discourage their own kids from playing in the coming decades. It's bound to catch up at some point.

Like the disease, or because of the disease, the league and its fans are headed toward the unknown. Perhaps that's what influenced Urschel the most and presented him with a moment of truth. He's an intelligent man who couldn't find the answer. By the looks of things, he left the game before he did.

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