NEW YORK – Carl Eller,a man of gladiatorial stature and a Pro Football Hall of Fame player,cried for his damaged friends.
“We’ve got guys that are old,and they need help. I’m one of those guys. I look at myself and I say,I should have done more,” said an emotional Eller,72,president of the NFL Retired Players Association,in an interview. “People don’t see these guys as human beings.”
NFL players,science researchers and concerned parents shared their research,clinical findings and technology at the #C4CT Concussion Awareness Summit at the United Nations this week. But it was the stories from injured players that resonated most at the summit,held just days before New York and New Jersey host Super Bowl XLVIII.
“We were killing each other out there,” former Minnesota Viking Robert Griffith,43, said. “The guys on the field are your heroes. And they’re damaged.”
The players shared stories of impaired memory and a culture of violent hits. Griffith said multiple hits blunted his memory. Yet,few players admitted regrets. Many grew up in poverty.
“Football was my way out,” Isaiah Kacyvenski,36,said. But it also gave him seven diagnosed concussions during a 15-year career that began in middle school and ended in 2006. Kacyvenski vowed in 2008 to donate his brain to science.
“I had a memory that was so crisp early on,” said Clinton Portis,32,who played for Denver and Washington. “I played with reckless abandonment.”
Eller said he knows many former players who are suffering in nursing homes.
“We’ve got guys who can’t speak for themselves. Some of them are old and you expect it. But others are young and you don’t expect it,” Eller said.
The summit followed the Jan. 15 overturn of a controversial $765 million settlement between the NFL and retired players. The settlement would provide payments to players who have or develop health problems from head trauma. The NFL did not admit to wrongdoing.
Christopher A. Seeger,lead co-counsel for the retired players,admitted that the original settlement was not perfect – but he said “most players” were satisfied.
“I had a very large group of retired players who needed help now,” Seeger said,because “players were dying and very sick.” He said he was unsure how a jury would respond if the case went to a trial.
Sports agent Leigh Steinberg said he wanted to bring the case before a court.
“It’s stunning to think we let them get away with no admission of liability,” he said.
Many at the summit sought to help those who are most vulnerable – young athletes – with new research and technology.
“If we continue to keep our heads in the sand,that’s how we lose contact sports,” said Dustin Fink,an Illinois high school athletic trainer and author of The Concussion Blog. “There are kids now that are afraid because of what’s going on to their friends.”
Chris Nowinski,co-founder and executive director of the Sports Legacy Institute,said in an interview that the athletes most willing to put themselves at risk are young players who are trying to prove themselves.
In the summit’s keynote address,he showed a video of two children smashing into each another – head to head – like rams.
“There is no informed consent when we get kids into dangerous sports,” Nowinski said.
A former WWE wrestler and Harvard alumnus,Nowinski days earlier announced the institute’s Hit Count Initiative,which seeks to protect players by tracking head impacts using sensors.
“I think there’s a market for this and it will work,” Nowinski said.
Greg Merril,CEO of Brain Sentry,which is not participating in Hit Count,said his company’s impact sensor system lets coaches know which players sustain “big hits” so they can be pulled out for an assessment. The sensor stores major hits in its memory to track hits over time.
“Children and adults that take part in football and concussion-prone sports are more likely to admit symptoms when they have a sensor,” Merril said. The sensors also help children who often play under the supervision of volunteers,whose resources are limited.
Brooke de Lench,a summit panelist and founder of the youth sports information website MomsTEAM,said children confide to her that they want the responsibility of reporting injuries taken out of their hands.
“You can’t underestimate their desire to play,” Jay Clugston,a team physician at the University of Florida,said. Clugston said he’s been pushed off the field by linemen and seen players purposefully flunk their baseline examinations,making it hard to detect concussions later.
The reason – players fear a concussion diagnosis will hurt their career prospects.
“We have to protect players from themselves because they accept norms no one else would,” Steinberg said.
“We are overlooking the emotional and psychological aspect that these players are going through,” Eller said. “They do not ever leave the playing field. Their pride overwhelms them,and they don’t take care of their own personal safety. All of these guys have problems leaving the game,and we have to address that.”
One way to protect players from hits,and themselves,is with better medicine.
Physicians and scientists said brain trauma often doesn’t show up on standard brain scans,such as CTs or MRIs.
Chronic traumatic encephalopathy,a progressive neurological disease with some similarities to Alzheimer’s disease,is particularly difficult because it cannot be diagnosed in the living.
“The science of CTE is in its infancy,” ,co-founder of the Center for the Study of Traumatic Encephalopathy at Boston University,said. Most research into CTE began after 2000,Stern said,and most of the 50 research articles on the subject were published in the past four years.
Gunnar Brolinson of the Edward Via College of Osteopathic Medicine at Virginia Tech,said clinical research for CTE is “twisting in the wind,” but it’s now possible to map how impacts travel through brain tissue – as long as the research lab can afford “big,big expensive computers.”
While scientists and clinicians struggle to understand and treat sports-related head trauma,current and former players are stepping up to fix the game of football. Eller said he’s proud of former teammates who looked out for each other behind the scenes.
“My dedication is not only to make the game better,but to make it so that when guys leave the sport they don’t fall apart,” Eller said. “The players have to come out and make a difference. We can’t just leave it out to other people.”
Reach reporter Gavin Stern at [email protected] or 202-408-2735. SHFWire stories may be used by any news organization that credits the SHFWire and gives the reporter a byline.