For the most part, I gave up watching pro football at the start of the 2014 season because of the high risk of long-term brain injury — a risk that the NFL spent millions of dollars trying to hush up for many years.
Studies have shown — and the NFL has acknowledged that nearly one out of three pro players ends up with neurological problems of some sort, the worst being CTE, or chronic traumatic encephalopathy, which literally reduces the size of the brain.
My personal withdrawal from pro football hasn’t been extremely difficult — I have substituted a lot of televised golf — and I have continued to watch a little college football.
But after reading an extremely troubling and sensitive story by sports columnist Sam Mellinger in the Sunday Star, I’m starting to wonder if I should swear off following football at every level.
The story was about a former high school and college player named Michael Keck, who grew up in Harrisonville and ended up dying of CTE complications at age 25…No, I didn’t get those numbers transposed; 25.
When he died in 2013, he left behind his wife Cassandra and their 2-year-old son Justin.
I think the word sad is applied too frequently and too loosely, but it certainly applies to this story…Michael took a lot of hits during his playing years, but the worst was at his last stop, Missouri State, when he took “a massive blow” to the head when the pads inside his helmet were losing air. Shortly after that hit, he quit playing football.
Within a couple of years, signs of trouble began popping up, like forgetting his keys or wallet. The problems escalated to uncontrollable anger — a symptom of CTE. Soon he became violent toward Cassandra — so violent that she developed an emergency self-defense plan. Mellinger explained:
“She moved the dresser in a way that she could shut the door and stiffen her legs against the furniture to keep him out. She didn’t always get there in time, so she learned to protect herself. Arms up.”
Incredibly, as her husband’s mind disintegrated and he turned on her out of frustration and convenience, Cassandra responded with love, compassion and understanding.
“I never took it personal,” she said. “I saw everything. I was with him every day. He showed me every part of his suffering. I saw it all.”
(As I read the story, my heart went out to Cassandra as much as Michael. Her commitment and courage make her worthy of a story in her own right. I hope that down the road Mellinger will consider a follow-up piece on Cassandra. I would like to know what unfolds for her.)
The unusual part of Michael’s case, obviously, is that CTE hit him so young. It usually begins exhibiting itself in former players when they are in their 50s, 60s or 70s. Because of the shockingly early onset, Mellinger wrote, Michael’s case is potentially ground-breaking for scientists and physicians studying the disease.
Mellinger quoted Ann McKee, a neuropathologist at Boston University who studied Michael’s brain.
“I have to say I was blown away. This case still stands out to me personally…It reinforces the notion that some people are very susceptible to this disease. They are exposed to this in amateur sports. They don’t have to be professional athletes bashing their heads in for a living. Michael, for whatever reason — and we need to figure it out — was very susceptible to this. This is just not acceptable.”
This is very frightening…And I’ll tell you something else that is frightening. This morning, I looked at the NFL injury report prior to this week’s games. The report lists the injured players on every team and their playing status.
I counted the number of players listed with concussions. Fifteen. That’s a big number. That’s 15 individuals who are significantly closer to developing CTE. Some might well be lucky and never develop it, but the odds are that at least one out of three of them will develop CTE…Concussions today, when they’re young and “healthy,” and chronic trauma when they’re older and the cheers and big money have stopped.
…In yesterday’s Chiefs-Chargers game — a bit of which I listened to on the radio on the way home from the golf course — one player for each team went out with a concussion. In addition, Chiefs’ wide receiver and punt returner Jeremy Maclin came out of the game for several plays after a helmet-to-helmet hit. I guess he passed the “concussion protocol” and then came back in the game — a move that left WHB radio personality Kevin Kietzman beside himself. On his show this afternoon, he said the hit was obviously so jarring that Maclin should have been kept out as a precaution, even if he passed the concussion test.
…And here’s the topper. St. Louis Rams quarterback Case Keenum got his head slammed violently to the turf in a game against the Baltimore Ravens. Despite being loopy, he was allowed to stay in the game.
Here’s how Bernie Miklasz, a sports-talk radio host and former columnist for the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, described the scene after Keenum went down.
“Clearly disoriented, Keenum squirmed on the ground. You could see him holding his head. Teammate Garrett Reynolds tried to pull Keenum up and get him to his feet, but Keenum wobbled and flopped down again. He was on all fours, then rolled over. Reynolds made a second try, and Keenum barely managed to raise himself up. His mind was in a different location.”
Not only did Rams’ Coach Jeff Fisher and other team officials fail to do anything — Fisher said later he didn’t see Keenum (yeah, sure) — neither did the NFL injury “spotter” assigned to the game. The spotter has the authority to halt play if he has reason to believe a player may have suffered a concussion, and the player must come out of the game and be administered the concussion test.
Didn’t happen yesterday. Ready, set, hike…On with the game.
But after the game, guess what? Yeah, Keenum was diagnosed with a concussion.
The NFL is now investigating the circumstances, trying to determine why Keenum was not removed from the game.
What a joke. NFL football — and quite possibly football at lower levels — is killing people. Yes, the players are now aware of the risks and are choosing to play anyway, but, holy shit, isn’t this, yes, sad?
…Do you remember the old Waylon Jennings song “Mama, Don’t Let Your Babies Grow Up to Be Cowboys”? Well, I hope mothers everywhere are paying close attention to these concussions and to the incidence of CTE and vowing not to let their babies grow up to be football players.
If they are doing so increasingly, it would support speculation offered earlier this month by New York Times reporter Clyde Haberman. In a Nov. 8 story, Haberman suggested that somewhere down the road football could go the route of boxing, which once enraptured people nationwide but trickled into marginalization after a few fighters died or were mortally injured in the ring.
“Boxing’s contraction,” Haberman wrote, “is evidence that anything can happen.”