Wednesday, January 28, 2009

Head trauma a major issue for NFL

By Bob Glauber
New York Newsday
9:32 PM EST, January 27, 2009

The most compelling story at Super Bowl XLIII wasn't anywhere near Raymond James Stadium, where upward of 4,000 reporters, celebrities, kooks and even an attention-seeking transvestite were gathered yesterday for media day.

Former Bucs guard Tom McHale

It was in a quiet conference room at a downtown hotel, far removed from the glitz and glamour associated with the sport's signature game and with less than two dozen reporters in attendance. It was listening to the grieving widow of a former lineman for the Bucs, Eagles and Dolphins.

Tom McHale died at 45 last May from an overdose of prescription medication, leaving behind his wife, Lisa, and three children. It later was discovered that he also was suffering from a condition called chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE), a degenerative brain disease caused by head trauma.

He became the sixth known case of a deceased NFL player who had the condition. Three of them played for the Steelers, who will be facing the Cardinals in Sunday's NFL title game: center Mike Webster and guards Terry Long and Justin Strzelczyk. The others were former Eagles defensive back Andre Waters and Oilers linebacker John Grimsley. Waters and Long committed suicide. Grimsley died in 2008 from a self-inflicted gunshot wound that was ruled accidental.

All six died by the age of 50. All six had a condition that eventually would have developed into a debilitating form of dementia, according to medical experts.

"Eight months ago, I lost my best friend, my college sweetheart, and my husband of 18 years to an accidental drug overdose, ending a hard-fought battle against an unfortunate addiction," Lisa McHale said. "Not a day will go by where I don't miss him tremendously. I'm here because the circumstances of his tragic death brought about the discovery that Tom would never have known."

McHale agreed to have her husband's brain examined by a research team at Boston University, where it was determined he had CTE.

"When I first saw those examination slides, I shook and I cried for Tom, because it meant to me that despite his efforts, he didn't have that much of a shot of regaining his former self. Because Tom had been struggling with his issues of addiction, I will never know if the changes were related to the progression of CTE ...

"What's even more troubling to me is that Tom is the sixth confirmed case of CTE among former NFL players, and that only six players have been examined for it. I find these results to be profoundly disturbing."

McHale has joined in the fight to bring greater awareness to concussions, not only at the NFL level, but for all football players. Including her sons, who are 9 and 11 and have just started playing football.

Lisa McHale, widow of former Tampa Bay Buccaneer Tom McHale, reacts as Dr. Ann McKee talks about Tom McHale's brain during a news conference about chronic traumatic encephalopathy Tuesday Jan. 27, 2009 in Tampa, Fla.(AP)

Former Harvard football player and pro wrestler Chris Nowinski, who suffered concussion problems during his football career, cofounded the nonprofit Sports Legacy Institute to help shed light on the perils of concussions. He is working in tandem with Boston University researchers, and he enlisted the help of former Patriots linebacker Ted Johnson, who was forced into premature retirement because of concussions. Johnson is the first former NFL player who has agreed to donate his brain to the group's study.

"When I read the story about Andre Waters taking a gun to his head, it shook me," said Johnson, 36, who retired after the 2004 season after suffering repeated concussions. By the time Johnson had retired, he said he believes he'd suffered up to two concussions per week.

"When I retired, I didn't even know what post-concussion syndrome was," Johnson said. "No doctors or trainers for my team ever educated me on that. For that reason alone, it was an easy decision to donate and help this cause."

It is a worthy cause.

The NFL has grappled with concussions for many years, and has made numerous attempts to enhance player safety. That includes meting out harsh punishment for helmet-to-helmet hits, as was the case for Jets safety Eric Smith, who received a one-game suspension early this season for knocking out Cardinals receiver Anquan Boldin, who is in Sunday's game. And it includes strengthening guidelines for keeping players out of games if they've been knocked unconscious.

But Johnson and a team of physicians and researchers gathered yesterday believe more needs to be done.

"I think there has been an incremental improvement since Roger Goodell became commissioner [in 2006]," noted concussion expert Dr. Robert Cantu said. "One of the most important was that if you're rendered unconscious, you don't go back in the game. That was a big step forward ... But it's difficult on the sidelines to do a good neurological assessment of the athlete. That's why I suggest that if you make the diagnosis [of a concussion], the player needs to be held out."

The league has also created the 88 Plan, where players with confirmed diagnoses of dementia are given extensive benefits for treatment and care.

"Concussions are serious injuries, and our focus is on prevention, treatment and ongoing research," the league said in a statement yesterday. "We support all research that would further the scientific and medical understanding of this injury, which affects thousands of people, athletes and non-athletes alike, every year."

The NFL will continue to be vigilant about concussions. The health of its players -- active and retired -- must be the overriding concern.

Women like Lisa McHale shouldn't have to bury their husbands so soon.

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