One Big Headache
As more players become afflicted, the NFL is finding concussions a tough problem to tackle
Posted: Tuesday February 6, 2007 8:28AM; Updated: Tuesday February 6, 2007 8:41AM
Harry Carson realized something was wrong when he was doing television commentary. The former Giants linebacker would be on the air, live, and he'd lose his train of thought. Carson suspected the concentration issue was connected to other symptoms he'd been experiencing -- headaches, blurred vision, a loss of his sense of smell, and sensitivity to lights and noises -- and he went to see a doctor. "I thought I had a brain tumor," he says. The problem turned out to be postconcussion syndrome. Carson, 53, now a member of the Brain Injury Association's Sports Injury Prevention Council, estimates he had between 15 and 18 concussions during his 13-year Hall of Fame career, though he never reported any of them. "Pain and hurt and being uncomfortable was ingrained in me as a player," he says. "No one knew because I kept it to myself."
That macho attitude is changing. Last week athletes and others were talking openly about concussions, and their words penetrated the pre-Super Bowl rumble and buzz. Retired Patriots linebacker Ted Johnson, 34, told The New York Times he suffers from depression and mental lapses and that he is addicted to amphetamines he takes to alleviate his symptoms. He traces his problems to 2002, when he sustained a concussion and, he says, coach Bill Belichick continued to send him into full-contact practices against the advice of the team's trainer.
Johnson's story echoes those of former Steelers center Mike Webster and Eagles safety Andre Waters, both deceased. Webster, a four-time Super Bowl champ, was frequently homeless and living out of his car when he was diagnosed in 1998 with brain damage caused by multiple head injuries. He died of heart failure in 2002 at the age of 50. Waters committed suicide on Nov. 20 at age 44, having suffered multiple concussions during his 12-year career. He was said to have the brain tissue of an unhealthy 85-year-old.
But while these tragic tales resonate with fans, two people in a position to help have not come off as especially sympathetic. NFL Players Association executive director Gene Upshaw told The Charlotte Observer last year that the brain-damaged old-timers didn't pay his salary and "can complain about me all day long" for not championing their cause. Last Friday at his state of the league address, NFL commissioner Roger Goodell seemed defensive when asked about Johnson. "I don't accept the premise that [returning too early from concussions] was common practice," Goodell said, "but it does concern me."
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