Your Kid’s Not Going Pro

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Posts Tagged ‘Chris Henry

Concussions: Why you question letting your kids play football

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My second-grade son has a friend over today who came over after he played a youth league football game. Given all the attention lately about concussions, I felt like I should give him a baseline test before he and my son played in the back yard.

If you watched the NFL the first few weeks in its new, we-care-about-concussions mode, you got a sense of how football at all levels is changing in a hurry now that we know concussions aren’t just dings that make you punch-drunkenly shake the cobwebs.

Two incidents, to me, stand out. One is Stewart Bradley of the Philadelphia Eagles in week one, going back onto the field — stunningly — not long after being unable to walk following a hit. The incident had the NFL reviewing how that happened, though as of this writing the Eagles have not been cited by the league for violating its policies regarding concussion testing and treatment.

Bradley, unable to walk.

The Bradley situation was pretty shocking, and I think it explains a lot about the second concussion-related incident I noticed. During week two’s Chicago Bears-Dallas Cowboys game, Fox’s cameras caught Dallas tight end Jason Witten vociferously arguing with a member of the team’s medical staff, which was refusing to clear him to play after Witten suffered a concussion in the fourth quarter. Actually, the staff couldn’t have cleared him to play if it wanted to — once a concussion is diagnosed, a player is not supposed to come back in the game. And, believe me, after all the flak the NFL and the Eagles took over Bradley, no one is going to let anyone with a concussion back into a game.

As Witten was arguing, Chicago Bears radio announcer Tom Thayer, an offensive lineman on Chicago’s 1985 Super Bowl champs, responded, and I’m paraphrasing, that if players are going to be held out because they get dinged, you’re going to have to get used to players missing a lot of time. Thayer said this with a mix of ruefulness — god knows how many concussions Thayer probably played with in his day — and a sense that maybe, grudgingly, it is about time things changed — god knows how many concussions Thayer probably played with in his day.

As of this writing, I’m enjoying my hometown Indianapolis Colts’ crushing of the New York Giants, but I have to say that Thayer is right — if I may read into his comments — that how we view the game of football is changing, in a hurry. Certainly, many studies have pointed out the concussion risk in numerous youth sports, including my beloved basketball.

But football by design is a collision sport, and many fans of the game are openly wondering why anyone would play it, or let their kids play it, sort of like the way people changed their minds about letting their kids box. (My 13-year-old has suddenly developed an interest in wanting to box. We’ll have to chat about that one.)

The post-concussive horror stories are growing more familiar, with the number of ex-pros who turned out to have brains scrambled like eggs after their years of football. But then you hear about Chris Henry, who turned out to have concussion-related brain damage as an active player. Then you hear about the suicide of Penn player Owen Thomas, who despite never having been diagnosed with a concussion may have had a level of impact-related brain damage enough to cause him to kill himself. Then you hear about a sixth-grade football player in Wisconsin who died of concussion-related injuries.

And then you hear about some youth coaches and parents, who presumably should know better or care more about their kids than the game, pressuring to get their addled children back in games, such as this story told by a physician in the Pittsburgh area to the local Post-Gazette:

Dr. Young cannot forget this episode last fall in his league’s championship game for the youngest local level. Adults with the opposing team asked him to approve their star tailback, whom he said blacked out and fell in the huddle before he threw up. Unconsciousness and nausea are prime indicators for a concussion.

“They wanted me to clear him at halftime,” said Dr. Young, still incredulous almost a year later. “Ultimately, the boy sat out the second half. It was a championship game, an important game in their 6- and 7-year-old season. But it was 6 and 7 year olds.”

I’m glad that my children have no interest in playing football, and I’m thankful now that my parents kept my scrawny ass out of the game. (Then again, I played no-pads tackle frequently in my neighborhoods growing up, so I can’t be smug.)

I’m hardly going to stop watching the game, or declare anyone who puts their kids in the game a bad parent. Hopefully, at the least, youth coaches and parents will keep their eyes out for concussion-related symptoms, and get their kids out of the games before any further damage is done. I’d like to think that when my kids’ friends come over, they’re of sound mind.

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.