Pro Football’s Scrambled Brains Throw Egg on the Superbowl

I can remember it like yesterday, one of the great thrills of my sports-watching life. Tragically, Larry Morris can’t remember it at all.

It was the 1963 National Football League championship game, at a late December frozen Wrigley Field, between my Chicago Bears and the New York Giants. (Yes, December—in today’s NFL the regular season isn’t even over by then.) The Giants were leading 7-0, and NY quarterback Y.A. Tittle had just barely missed hitting receiver Jim Shofner on what would have been a second, almost surely fatal touchdown.

Then the game turned: Tittle tried a screen pass, Bears linebacker Larry Morris intercepted it and took off upfield, “running like a linebacker,” as one sportswriter quipped, about 60 yards in real-time slow motion until he was dragged down inside the Giants ten-yard line. That set up Bill Wade’s quarterback sneak for the tying touchdown in the game the Bears ultimately won, 14-10.

All that’s from memory. I don’t have to look any of it up. But last year, I learned that Larry Morris is now living in a nursing home with dementia, one of dozens of pro football players we know about—to say nothing of how many high school or college guys we never heard of?—who suffer premature dementia from repeated head traumas.

Some, like Hall of Famer John Mackey, don’t know who they, or anyone else, are. Some, like center Mike Webster and hard-running Andre Watters, are dead—by suicide at age 44 for Watters, “whose brain tissue was that of an 80-year-old with Alzheimer’s.” You can read about these cases and more in Dave Zirin’s article “The NFL’s Concussion Conundrum.”

Management Denied Syndrome

Like any greedy corporate employer—the asbestos or coal mining industry, big tobacco, or your average friendly Cancer Alley refiner—the NFL ignored or denied the concussion syndrome for years, then tried blaming it on its workers, the players who were subject to being cut if they missed too much game action. You expect that from the boss. The big shocker here is the scrambled brains of the National Football League Players Association, the union that should have blown the whistle many years ago.

One former player, Dave Pear, has launched a virtual one-man militant movement denouncing the league’s and the union’s abuse of retired veterans (follow him at www.davepear.com/blog). Even now, Pear points out, while the union has finally signed on to improved protection for current players—like not sending them back into the game after “getting their bell wrung”—it continues to ignore the plight of retirees.

The late Gene Upshaw became head of the NFLPA upon his retirement as a player in 1983, after the bitter 1982 strike which left the union defeated and weakened. Upshaw was widely praised for his “nonconfrontational” stance, which emphasized winning higher pay and free agency rights for current players, while he shoved inconvenient and expensive issues into the closet.

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These included woefully inadequate pension and disability compensation programs for retired veterans, many of whom suffer all kinds of physical and mental problems: crippling arthritis, bone damage, painkiller drug addictions, and other maladies in addition to dementia.

Another of my heroes from the 1963 championship, Mike Ditka—who saved that season for the Bears by running over the entire Pittsburgh Steelers team on the Sunday when the nation was watching the JFK funeral, but that’s another story—has campaigned for years on behalf of retired players. By late 2007, a few active players, such as the Kansas City Chiefs' Kyle Turley, were issuing sharp criticisms of the union leadership’s neglect of retirees. Turley says he’s also concerned about other American workers struggling because of on-the-job accidents.

Upshaw was famously prickly when queried about retiree issues, to the point that many writers felt intimidated, psychologically if not even physically, about pressing the point. It was a year or so later that the concussion epidemic really hit the mainstream press, forcing union and management to say they would “carefully study” the issue.

Solutions: Go Soft

There are any number of things that can be done. Obviously, NFL veterans should have lifetime medical benefits. Shockingly, they don’t. But that’s not all: the game is inherently dangerous but doesn’t have to be as deadly as it is.

Lyndon Johnson, in his Senate days, notoriously insulted Gerald Ford by saying “he played football too many times without his helmet.” But there may actually have been fewer head traumas back in the 1930s and ’40s era of soft-leather helmets. The more “protection” players have, the more violent coaches demand the players to be (the same thing happens in hockey). Soft football helmets should be brought back--designed with today’s advanced knowledge of how to absorb and distribute collision shocks, but also so that the head will no longer be used as a weapon.

Corporate professional football is hazardous to the players’ health. Yes, they get paid. But absent a union that puts health and safety first for active and retired players, the NFL will continue to discard its injured performers with no more concern than Michael Vick showed to those dogs.


David Finkel left Chicago in 1970 but took his sports loyalties along with him.

Comments

George (not verified) | 02/08/10

The NFL and their Yes Men, Dr Casson should be held criminally liable for all the ex players who have committed suicide or died from Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy (CTE). No different than the Tobacco Industry denying their product is dangerous.

Football/Education History and Injuries
George Visger Stockton, CA

Pop Warner 1970-1972
Amos Alonzo Stagg High 1973-1975
University of Colorado 1976-1979
NY Jets and SF 49ers 1980 – 1981

• 1970 - 7th grade. West Stockton Bear Cubs Pee Wee Pop Warner – Champs, Jr. Redwood Bowl. Started both ways DE, TE.
• 1971 – 8th grade. West Stockton Bear Pop Warner – Coach Jon Gustorf. Played LB.
• 1972 – 9th grade. West Stockton Bears, Champs, Gold Nugget Bowl. Team captain, started both ways OG, LB. Hospitalized with first serious concussion. Knocked myself out in a Bull-In-The-Ring drill, broken fingers, possible fractured hand.
• 1973 Stagg High sophomore team. Started both ways OT, DT. Several minor concussions (weren’t considered concussions then)
• 1974 Stagg High “The Family”. Started at DT. 1974 SJAA Champs 9-1-1. Played in the Turkey Bowl “vs.” Merced, our only loss in 2 years. Unanimous All-City and All-League selection. Many minor concussions

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• 1975 Stagg High “The Family”. 75 SJAA Champs, 75 Turkey Bowl Champs. 11-0 ranked 3rd in State. Unanimous All City and All League both OT and DT. All Northern California , Selected to Top 100 HS All American team. Captain of the 1976 Lions All Star North team as OT. Many more minor concussions and had my bell rung 2 or 3 times, broken fingers.
• 1976 -1979 University of Colorado. 1976 Big 8 Champs, played Ohio State in 1977 Orange Bowl. Won starting position at DT during spring ball freshman year. 3 year starter, Honorable Mention All Big- 8 1979. 3rd leading tackler in 1979, and currently number 11th on All-Time CU sack record. 3-4 concussions (bell rung but never unconscious) and MANY minor ones. Broken and dislocated fingers, knee drained, severe Lt ankle sprain (3x soph yr).
• 1980 2 weeks before draft, fractured sacral 8 vertebrae doing squats (did not know I broke it till the following spring after my rookie year). Developed incredible sciatica did not pass my physical at the Jets in May, 1980 due to weakness in rt. leg from sciatica.
• 1980 6th round draft pick of NY Jets (149th overall pick).
• 1980 Drafted by Calgary Stampeders and practiced with for 2 weeks after Jets let me go end of preseason.
• 1980 - SF 49ers. Major concussion first play with 49ers in 1980 “vs” Dallas . 6th game of season. Trainers said I used 25 – 30 smelling salts during game. Member of the 1981 Super Bowl Championship team.
• 1980 – December. Began Visger Family Homeless Xmas dinner
• 1981 – May 10, minicamp. Blew out lt knee, trainers had to pop it back into joint. Dr Behling said sprain.
• 1981 – May and June. Had knee drained 2 – 3 x of 60 – 70ccs of blood. Behling still said it was only a sprain.
• 1981 – July. Surgery on Lt knee. All cartilage removed, but had actually torn my ACL, which Dr Behling did not repair.
• 1981 – August and Sept. Major headaches, projectile vomiting, loss of vision and hearing each night, which began 2 wks after my first knee surgery. Culminated in focal pt paralysis of lt arm.
• 1981 – September. Emergency VP shunt brain surgery # 1 at Stanford Hospital. Dr Koenig. 2 weeks in intensive care.
• 1982 – prior to May. Arrested 3xs and lost truck several times after going out drinking. Never arrested prior, or lost truck. Saw Dr. Koenig, my original neurosurgeon at Stanford and relayed my problems when I drank. Said not from his surgery, did CAT scan, OK’d me to go to Mexico next day fishing, and OK’d to drink.
• 1982 – May- Second day in Mexico with brother Mel and wife Nancy, I have one margarita with dinner and get major headaches and go into coma. Takes Mel a day to get me out of country and back to Sacramento.
• 1982- May. Emergency VP shunt brain surgery # 2 and # 3, ten hours apart. Given last rites. Surgeries performed by Dr. Cully Cobb. He reviewed my CAT scan taken prior week and stated it clearly showed my shunt was not functioning properly. No memory for entire summer, and very little first year.

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• 1982 Creditors on me for payment of brain surgeries @2 & #3 till I successfully won a Workers Comp suit against the 49ers in 1986.
• 1984 knee continued to deteriorate. Dr. David Coward operates Knee surgery # 2, but can’t fix as I have no ACL. Refers me to Dr. Steadman in Tahoe for an experimental Gore-Tex ACL transplant.
• 1984 – September. Knee surgery # 3. Gore-Tex ACL transplant by Dr. Steadman in Lake Tahoe. Said my entire ACL was torn off the femur.
• 1984 awarded Outstanding Former West Stockton Bears player award.
• 1986 Won Workers Comp case against 49ers and returned to finish my Biology degree at Sacramento State University.
• 1986 – 87 Emergency brain surgeries # 4, 5,6 & 7 in one 10 month period while taking Chemistry and Physics
• 1987- 55 minute Grand mal seizure in class, 48 hours after a brain surgery.
• 1987 – Developed dyslexia from repeated surgeries and seizures .
• 1987 Completed a Class B General Contractors license
• 1987 Inducted into Stagg High Hall of Fame for community involvement (Visger Family Homeless Xmas Dinner).
• 1989 – November. Headaches and CT scan.
• 1998 Inducted with the Stagg “Family” into The Stockton Athletic Hall of Fame. One of the first teams to be inducted
• 1990 –April. Began part time work as a wildlife Biologist with Jones and Stokes
• 1990 – May. Graduated with BS in Biological Conservation degree. Sacramento State University.
• 1990 – December. Headache Clinic for headaches, lack of memory, increasing irritability and short tempered. Went to a counselor once (Dr. Richard Boylin), who fell asleep on me while I was talking. Lot of pain in the neck, low back and lt knee, and increasing hearing loss.
• 1991- Sac Rehabilitation Medical Group. Dr. Hartzog. First time I returned in 2 yrs. Complained of sciatica, back pain. Diagnosed with degenerative disc disease.
• 1991 – July. Seeing Jean Trauber Family Counselor for explosive anger, obsessive thinking and memory disorder. Stated they are therapeutic issues related to my injuries.
• 1991-July . Refused for MRI on back.
• 1993 – December 9. Sacramento Headache clinic for recurring headaches last few weeks.
• 1991 – December 10. Emergency VP Shunt brain surgery # 8.
• 1995 – January 12. Dr Vijay an for major headaches and neck pain.
• 1998- December 18. Dr. Sauer attempted to inject radioisotope into shunt, but unsuccessful. Shot it into my spine.
• 1998 – December 18. Grand mal seizure at work at Wild lands. Placed on 150 mg of Phenobarbital/day
• 1998 – December 21. Shunt gram with radioisotope.
• 1998 – December 23. Shunt gram and examined for possible shunt infection. Examined by Dr. Randy Martin, Infectious Disease at Sutter Roseville.
• 1999- January 20. Examined by Dr. Vijayan.

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• 2000- July. Dr Vijay an. For anger management issues per Kristi.
• 2004-July 28. Dr Vijay an. Still on 150 mg phenobarb. Memory problems more noticeable.
• 2001 Inducted into Stockton Athletic Hall of Fame as an individual.
• 2005 – October 28. Rt arm clumsy and numb, and rt foot. Arm numbness went away in a day, but foot remained.
• 2006 – April. Dr. Claydon. Back pain, irritability and anger management issues, and numbness in RT foot, memory problems. Prescribed 750 mg Robaxin as muscle relaxant, and 800 mg Motrin, and 10 mg Lexapro. Rec’d x-rays of pelvis and sacrum, and MRI of lumbar. Showed degenerative disc disease at T12, L4 and interspacel levels. Osteoarthritis at lower lumbar facet joints is most marked at L5- S1 level on left side.
• 2006- April 26. Dr. Samman. Tremendous low back pain, comparable to when I played at SF.
• 2007 Inducted into Stagg Football Hall of Fame and jersey retired (second ever).
• 2008- February 26. Dr. Goshal. Pain in lt shoulder girdle, numbness in lt upper extremity. Requested MRI of brain and cervical spine.
• 2008 – April 1. MRI of cervical spine. Dr. Goshal. Mild degeneration of discs at C3, 4, 5, 6
• 2008 – August. Dr Goshal. Requests a neuropsychological test and EEG at his office
• 2008 – August 13. Dr Goshal EEG.
• 2008 – September 30. Dr. Goshal. Referred me to UCD. I called 2 hours later from UCD (as he didn’t refer me to anyone, just sent me down there).. I couldn’t be seen till Jan. and blew up on him. Dr. Goshal refuses to see me any more.
• 2009 – February 23. Dr. Blaha. Neurological consultation
• 2009 – July 6, Dr Claydon. Kristi attended with me. Broke into tears explaining what it has been like living with me. She and kids are afraid of me. Dr Claydon referred me to Dr. Amen’s clinic in New Port Beach, CA for a full evaluation.
• 2009- July 6. Called Dr Amen and emailed my Injury History. He recommended a full 3 day evaluation. I fought with The Travelers Work Comp till Oct to get evaluation approved.
• 2009 – October 18 -21. Kristi, Jack and I attended Dr Amens clinic. He said it is a miracle I am even functioning, much less involved in 3 different businesses and doing motivational talks. Said the SPECT scans of my brain show major damage to a number of areas, I am showing early stages of CTE (Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy), which killed Mike Webster, Andre Waters and a host of ex NFLers, and he would have me rated at 80% disabled. Mentioned I was the 67th NFL player he has studied, and has evaluated 1,000s of individuals and my test results are amazing. Asked if we would be interested in being on the Oprah show with him in a couple months.
• Meeting with Dr. Bennett Omalu several times and asked to sit on his board.
• Spoke at Traumatic Brain Injury hearing at State Capital (Sacramento) on 1/21/10 for the CA Brain Injury Associate.

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RobertinSeattle (not verified) | 02/05/10

David -

A really insightful piece. You've done your homework with respect to the labor angle. If the NFLPA were with any other Union, the players would have held their ground collectively and won real concessions for all players, active and retired. At this stage of the game, it certainly appears that Upshaw was working closely in orchestration with quiet insiders at the NFLPA as well as with the owners to grab all the money they could for their own benefit and to the absolute detriment of the retired players. Basically, they've been robbing the retired players for years by continuing to stack the deck in their favor whether through their selections on the Disability Board or with pension and disability plans that were written by lawyers with conflicts of interest on all sides of the table. And retired players have no vote and absolutely no representation in what's supposed to be their Union as well!

We've recently been emphasizing the fact that superagent Tom Condon (who reputedly helped put Upshaw on the throne) still continues to benefit phenomenally from his insider position at the NFLPA. He happens to be one of the 3 long-term NFLPA members on that phony Disability Board who turns down just abut every applicant that comes through. Every retired player they decline means more money in the pot for new active rookies at megamillion dollar salaries and bonuses. At 3 - 5% fees plus expenses, it's not too hard to figure out that Condon probably makes an 8 - 9-figure paycheck every year, based on how many players he represents. The greed that permeates professional football is like nothing I've ever seen anywhere. I can't imagine any other industry (yes, it's an $8 billion industry!) with the highest percentage of injuries among its "employees" being able to get away with approving disability benefits for the lowest number of its employees. (Ready for this? Only a little over 300 guys receive full disability benefits!) If it was on an automotive assembly line in Detroit, those guys would have gone on strike and taken the company to task for benefits a long time ago. There's so much money involved, it's hard to believe why billionaire owners would even want the grief of screwing the retired players out of the nickels and dimes that they were supposed to have been receiving all these years.

But something most of the young fans also seem to overlook when they think of the older retired players whiny rich, old guys is that their medical costs are starting to come out of our collective pockets! Guys like Dave Pear have already been forced to go on Social Security Disability and Medicare to cover their escalating surgeries and medical expenses which is another reason our health care costs are rising for ALL of us. All because their employer - the NFL - AND their so-called Union, the NFLPA, are not paying what they're supposed to be paying. And all this as these rich SOB's continue to ask for public money to build their ever-expanding new stadiums with taxpayer money while jacking ticket prices and broadcast rights through the ceiling.

What's wrong with that picture?

RobertinSeattle
publisher DavePear.com