The state of football is in an interesting place right now. The popularity of the sport at the professional level is at an all-time high while making headlines for some controversial and downright terrible things. The new "trend" that is catching steam are players retiring while in their prime. Over the course of the last month, there have been six players under the age of 30 who retired. Most of these guys cited long-term health concerns. There has been a trickle down effect with college players calling it quits and participation at the high school and junior high levels has also been effected. With that being said, this isn't an NFL thing, or a NCAA thing, it is a football thing.
One player who made headlines was 49ers Linebacker Chris Borland. Borland retired after one productive season. The reason: "I just honestly want to do what's best for my health. For me, it's wanting to be proactive, I'm concerned that if you wait 'til you have symptoms, it's too late". The symptoms he is referring to deal with the brain and the potential deterioration of the brain that comes with playing a contact sport like football. More than 70 former players have been diagnosed with progressive neurological disease after their deaths, and numerous studies have shown connections between the repetitive head trauma associated with football, brain damage and issues such as depression, memory loss, or worse...
Mike Webster is in the NFL Hall of Fame. He was a nine time All-Pro who has four Super Bowl rings and has played and succeeded at the highest level of his sport. But at what cost? Webster was found dead in 2002 at the age of 50. Leading up to his death, depression, amnesia and even homelessness was his world. The cause of death of was initially ruled a heart attack but upon viewing the brain, Dr. Bennet Omalu could not understand what he was viewing. Based off what he saw on the news, he was anticipating some sort of visual brain decay comparable to Alzheimer's on the exterior but there was none. Until he was able to view the slides of Webster's brain. There, he saw something that no 50-year old brain should look like. These slides showed that it was something more than Alzheimer's. It was Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy or CTE.
Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy (CTE) is a brain condition found during autopsies of former NFL players whose lives ended tragically. The word 'chronic' means long-term, 'traumatic' means it's associated with trauma, and 'encephalopathy' means a bad brain. Put those three words together and you have a scary condition that is prevalent in former athletes of contact sports. This is not what you see with Dementia Pugilistica, or being "punch drunk" like some boxers, this is another form of brain damage that has not been understood until recent times. The symptoms of CTE include memory loss, confusion, impaired judgment, impulse control problems, aggression, depression, anxiety, suicidality, parkinsonism, and, eventually, progressive dementia. These symptoms often begin years or even decades after the last brain trauma or end of active athletic involvement. Worse of all, CTE is progressive. The longer you live, the more advanced the disease becomes
Some people have paid the ultimate price: their lives. These same people, while adding value to entertain us, while contributing to the American experience, were not aware while they were entertaining us that they were slowly losing their lives. The child of 6 or 7 years old signs up. He is told it is a sport; there are benefits; you're playing the ultimate team sports and learning valuable lessons. Then, you become a high school or college football player, there are some benefits with financial aid or scholarships. As a professional player you're going to make money. But nobody tells them that you're also losing your life as you do that. Know the risks when you sign up for this sport. There is nothing pretty about it. Just think to yourself, when was the last time you got tackled hard to the ground by someone running full speed? For some of you, the answer might possibly be never. For a football player, this happens on every single play. And then you have to do it again, and again, and again. Back in 2003, I was a high school quarterback and received a "mild" concussion. Based off watching the film (I do not remember one single play from that game) I think the concussive hit that I received occurred in the second quarter while I was scrambling for a first down. It was not known that I had a concussion until the fourth quarter of that game. I played two quarters of that game in "auto-pilot". My friends on the team tell me stories about how out of it I was but I don't remember it at all. My father tells me I asked him about 100 times if we won, why my clothes were wet (it poured that night), and was stunned when I learned the following Monday that a teammate broke their leg. The next day, I had zero memory of the game. It was incredibly scary, and at times, the frustration of not remembering things almost brought me to tears. I didn't know the dangers then. I know the dangers know and I have zero regrets about playing the game. The most joyful memories I have from high school are the times spent with my friends, battling in competition, and being as successful as we could become. Football provides us with the opportunity to have a great time and build incredible relationships that will last a lifetime. It unfortunately could come at a risk. The next time you watch a game or are getting ready to lace the cleats up, remember guys like Mike Webster, Dave Duerson, Junior Seau or Andre Waters.