December 15, 2011
In February, retired football player Dave Duerson committed suicide. He pointed a shotgun at his chest and ended his life, asking in his suicide note for his brain to be given to an ongoing study of the effects of football on the human mind. He was 50 years old.
Last Thursday night, Colt McCoy took a mind-numbing hit from James Harrison. Though any onlooker with a working set of eyes could see that McCoy was not right after the hit, he was back in the game two plays later. The Browns claimed that they had followed procedures, even though the lights had to be turned down in the postgame press conference to accommodate McCoy's concussion symptoms. He is 25 years old.
The brain is an unknown frontier. Though what doctors and researchers know about the brain is infinitesimal, they do know that repeated hits to the brain can result in chronic traumatic encephalopathy, a type of brain damage that can cause a person to act erratically, suffer chronic and painful headaches, and lose impulse control.
Duerson suffered from CTE, as did Cincinnati Bengals receiver Chris Henry, who died when he inexplicably jumped on the back of a moving truck. Derek Boogard, the New York Ranger who died of a drug overdose had it, as did Owen Thomas, a University of Pennsylvania lineman who hung himself. Lew Carpenter, Lou Creekmur, Shane Dronett, John Grimsley, Terry Long, Tom McHale, Joe Perry, Justin Strzelczyk, Andre Waters, Mike Webster -- every one died too early, and suffered from CTE.
When I learned of Duerson's death, I was thrown into a tailspin. I knew enough about CTE to not have to wait for official word confirming that Duerson's brain was damaged. As a member of the Super Bowl-winning Bears, Duerson played the safety position with little regard for his own health. Just like every member of the 46 defense, he was capable of painful hits.
But in later years, Duerson became erratic. He made bad business decisions and filed for bankruptcy days before his death. He was involved in a domestic abuse case that ended his marriage and his long relationship with Notre Dame, his alma mater. Something was not right with this man who was one of the reasons I fell in love with football as a child.
I didn't need to see a lab report to know that this same game had ruined his mind. Just weeks after I watched and wrote about the Bears making it to the NFC championship game, I considered giving up football. Quit my job, cancel my subscription to the NFL Network, burn all my Bears gear. I didn't want to have anything to do with a game so wantonly destructive of someone's life.
After quite a few tears and a whole lot of prayer, I realized that was ridiculous. The last thing that Duerson's death should do is create silence. He put a bullet in his chest and asked for his brain to be studied so that we could talk about CTE and what it's doing to the men we spend our Sundays watching. Throwing up my hands and walking away would miss the point.
McCoy is young. He is not just at the start of a promising career, but the outset of his adult life. The Browns' failure to put McCoy's health before the game threatens more than his ability to play football; it threatens his chances at having a normal life when he takes off his helmet and cleats.
Though it may seem to some that the Browns running through a series of procedures to ensure McCoy is healthy enough to return to the field is a act to avoid liability, it's not.
It's a plan to do everything in the NFL's power to learn from the tragedies of Duerson, Henry, Webster and so many others. Fans, media, coaches, front office people and players have to talk about what these hits do to the mind, and care enough about the health of a 25-year-old to not foist him into a game after he shows obvious concussion symptoms. Otherwise, we have learned nothing.
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