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Chris Henry, and why your football-playing child may already have brain damage

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GREEN BAY, WI - SEPTEMBER 20: Wide receiver Ch...

Image by Getty Images via @daylife

Chris Henry was a talented wide receiver, but he was far better known for almost single-handedly giving the Cincinnati Bengals the reputation as criminals thanks to his numerous arrests. When Henry died during the 2009 season after falling off the back of a moving pickup truck — on which he had jumped during a fight with his fiancee, who was driving — it appeared to be a tragic but not unexpected end for someone who just couldn’t control himself.

Now it appears there was a reason Henry was out of control: His brain was  knotted and beaten up from repeated blows to the head, according to researchers.

At age 26, he already showed signs of progressive generative disease known as Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy, or CTE. From the June 28 Pittsburgh Post-Gazette:

Julian Bailes and Bennet Omalu, with the Brain Injury Research Institute in Morgantown, W.Va., have examined 10 other retired players, among them ex-Steelers Mike Webster, Terry Long and Justin Strzelzcyk. The researchers found frightful similarities between those brains and that of Mr. Henry. Those men were older than Mr. Henry and had taken thousands of blows to the helmet during long football careers. …

“It didn’t look like the brain of a 26-year-old,” said Dr. Omalu, a former Allegheny County pathologist who first found CTE in an autopsy of Mr. Long in September 2005.

“This is not something to celebrate. It is not something to be joyful about. It is something that is very humbling, very introspective. It is a call to action.

“I’m not calling for the eradication of football; no, I’m asking for full disclosure to the players. Like the surgeon general considers smoking to be dangerous to your health, repeated impacts of the brain are dangerous to your health and will affect you later in life. Period. The players need to know this.

“I think it’s an epidemic. It’s beneath the radar. We simply didn’t identify it [early and properly]. The more I encounter NFL players, the more I realize … it is much more prevalent than we had identified.”

For all the laudable attention on ensuring that children are promptly identified and treated for concussions, the implications of this look at Henry means that brain damage among football players is more extensive and pervasive than we could have ever dreamed. Despite not having reached 30, Henry’s brain, and the dementia he was likely suffering, were much like that seen in an 80-to-90-year-old.

So what do we do with this information? Ban football? Take the head out of the game? There are some serious questions to be answered, because who knows how many high schoolers, having played since age 6 or 7, are already on their way to serious brain damage.

One thing the doctors in Henry’s case recommend is genetic testing, because there is one gene that is common to all the players they’ve examined who have suffered extensive damage: Apolipoprotein E, which is found in roughly 25 percent of the general population. APOE is considered one of the biggest genetic risk factors for development of Alzheimer’s Disease. Does that mean every baby should be tested for APOE, and if found positive, should never play a sport with a high risk of head injury?

I don’t know. But I do know I’m feeling even better about my kids having no interest in playing football.

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