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Concussions and the NFL
San Francisco 49ers' quarterback Steve Young lays motionless on field after suffering a concussion in the second quarter of the 49ers' game against the Arizona Cardinals Monday Sept. 27, 1999 in Tempe, Arizona. (AP Photo/Scott Troyanos)

San Francisco 49ers' quarterback Steve Young lays motionless on field after suffering a concussion in the game against the Arizona Cardinals on Sept. 27, 1999, in Tempe, Arizona. (AP)

When the lights are up and the crowd is roaring, it’s all glorious mayhem in the National Football League. The power, the plays, the crunching hits and tackles.

But when the lights go down, the crowds go home, and careers end, it’s often NFL wives left to pick up the battered pieces.

The toughest wounds to deal with: brain damage from repeated poundings and concussion on the football field. Retired players dealing with depression, memory loss, dementia. Big men reduced to helplessness.

This hour, On Point: NFL wives on the long trail of concussion on the field.

You can join the conversation. What do you think when you hear the crack of helmets on the football field? What about the brains, the men inside those helmets — and their wives?


Joining us from New York is Alan Schwarz, staff sports writer for The New York Times. His 2007 series on concussions and other brain injuries suffered by NFL players and other athletes was nominated for a Pulitzer Prize.  His most recent piece, published last week, is “N.F.L. Meeting Irks Wives of Ill Retirees.”

Joining us from Baltimore is Dr. Eleanor Perfetto, wife of Ralph Wenzel, who played guard for the Pittsburgh Steelers and San Diego Chargers from 1966 to 1973. He suffers from dementia and now lives in an assisted-living facility. She is a senior director in health policy issues at Pfizer.

Also with us from Baltimore is Sylvia Mackey, wife of Pro Football Hall-of-Famer John Mackey, who played for the Baltimore Colts and San Diego Chargers from 1963-1972. He now suffers from fronto-temporal dementia and has been at an assisted-living facility since September. She was a leading figure in the development of the NFL’s “88 Plan,” named after John Mackey’s jersey number, which provides money for the care and treatment of former players with dementia.

From Washington, D.C., we’re joined by Harold Henderson, executive vice president for labor relations for the NFL and chairman of the NFL Management Council Executive Committee. He helped develop the NFL’s 88 Plan.

And in our studio we’re joined by Dr. Robert Stern, associate professor of neurology at the Boston University School of Medicine and co-director of BU’s Alzheimer’s Disease clinical and research program. He is also co-director of BU’s Center for the Study of Traumatic Encephalopathy. This September, 16 pro athletes, including six former NFL players, agreed to donate their brains to the center for study after their deaths.

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  • Steve

    Parents of all children should know the NFL has deliberatly conspired with a major helmet company for financial gain. In doing so the “concussion committee” steered away from researching a corrective orthodic mouthguard proven to reduce concussion with the N.E Patriots http://www.mahercor.com. Only now is the military looking into its possible link to concussion/Parkinsons reduction. It is not in their best interest to prove their last ten years of research was a waste of time, but was marketing for the sale of a helmet. On Riddells homepage they state most concussions originate from blows to the chin/jaw, facemask area. How can a helmet stabilize the jaw, soldiers in Iraq will soon benefit from this medically corrective device, with no help from the “Concussion committee”.

    • John C

      That’s an interesting charge, care to back it up with a reference to some proof?

  • JSR (Rags847)

    Don’t forget how dangerous cheerleading is. Cheerleaders, with no protective gear, fly through the air and suffer many concussions and injuries. Many teenage girls are injured in schools all over the country each year.

  • JSR (Rags847)

    Interesting question about choice here … boxers, football players, porn stars, solders, prison guards, cops, those treating violent criminals all know their jobs entail risks.

    How many football stars would walk away from all the $ and glory because of the risks?

    Alcohol causes brain damage, we don’t outlaw it.

    Hard to know where to draw the line.

  • Joanna Drzewieniecki

    It would be great to just eliminate football altogether. However, since this is not very likely, I propose a step-by-step plan. Let’s start with high schools. Anyone who wants to play on a high school football team and their parents should have to go to mandatory informational meetings on the dangers of football (not only dementia but serious psychological problems – see CBC’s “Fifth Estate” program on these issues). This should save some youngsters from this dangerous game and make those who decide to play more cautious.

    Secondly, the playing rules for all football should be revised step by step in order to diminish concussion injuries. At the same time, money should be spent on better research for protective gear.

  • marcus

    As much as I hate the cliche “modern day gladiators” football players truly are just that. As much as people say athletes are over idolized they put their bodies and lives on the line for our entertainment and deserve our admiration.

  • jeff

    Ban it all, cheer leading and football.

  • http://idahohyperbarics.com Jeff Hampsten

    At our hyperbaric oxygen therapy and wound care center we have treated post concussion syndrome and ALZ/PICK. We became aware that HBOT might be of help when a local retired doctor that had served a 2 year medical mission in Russia came to us and informed us that his 19 year old grandson had numerous sports related concussions (23 documented) and was suffering from neurologic deficits to such an extent that he was not able to serve a mission for his church. He told us of his experiences in Russia where he said that people with various brain injuries were routinely treated with hyperbaric oxygen therapy…HBOT. We subsequently treated the young man after he was given a battery of standardized psychometric tests on which he scored an overall 64 with 100 being the mean average. He was retested midway through 80 HBOT treatments and his score had risen to average. At the end of the treatments his final score was an overall 134 and his daily debilitating migranes had resolved to an occasional headache. Anyone wishing for more information on this and other injuries that might benefit from HBOT can find a large amount of information on the net by searching “hyperbaric oxygen therapy”. As an aside, what will happen to soldiers that are returning from war theaters with multiple concussions as they grow older? Will this be the agent orange that debilitates the next generation of American soldiers? Anyone wanting more information on this topic is also welcome to contact us through our website idahohyperbarics.com and will make every effort to reply.

  • Lee Riggan

    What are the names of the books mentioned One was “Listen to me, I am still somebody.” What was the other one?

  • GSM

    After listening to the show this evening, and reading information and stories on some brain injury websites, I wonder if any of the problems I am now having can be traced to concussions I have had over the years. My injuries happened while riding horses and bicycles (when a car turned in front of me – I took his windshield out with my head, which was protected by a helmet), from falls and construction work. I have had at least four head injuries that caused loss of consciousness and amnesia, and at least three others that caused dizziness and headaches for varying lengths of time. I now have fibromyalgia, depression, fatigue, difficulties with short term memory, difficulties staying on task, etc. It is scary to think these might get worse or even degrade into early onset dementia. I’m very glad my nephew’s venture into football was very limited and that he is not interested in continuing – although baseball, at which he is very good, has its share of opportunities for head injury.

  • Joe B.

    This was an outstanding program. Kudos to Tom Ashbrook and the entire On Point staff.

  • Alix

    Pro football players enjoy lavish salaries and perks. It’s a bit difficult to worry about them as compared to other professions that employ far more people and have significant risks based on stress, injury, etc. I wish I could make $700,000 a year and have a team of professionals worried about my health!

    from wikipedia
    The median salary in the NFL in 2007 is roughly $770,000. In 2006 it was about $720,000. The Steelers have the highest median salary at $1.1 million, the Packers the lowest at $440,000. The Redskins have the highest payroll at $123 million. The Giants have the lowest at $76 million.

  • http://None John

    I have no doubt that I experienced concussions during my time on the football field. I do have symptoms of dimentia that they reference on this program, including memory problems, headaches, and what has been called complex partial seizures. I want to find out more that will help me to put the pieces of this puzzle together. I would appreciate hearing from anyone who has similar symptoms.

  • Steve

    Soldiers, athletes will benefit from an orthotic retainer like mouth guard used by many NFL,NBA and NHL teams. Developed with Marvin Hagler, the Maher mouth guard is the fist line of defense in protecting from jaw related concussion. Riddells homepage refers to this type of concussion as a major factor. Everything else, psyche testing is a bandaide, aftercare does nothing to prevent the first injury from occuring. Two players in NC and three in NJ have died from second impact sydrome. Because players hide the injury, preventing the first one is of crucial circumstance. http://www.mahercor.com

  • Steve

    Relation to concussion/jaw alignment is clear in Bolden/Smith injury aftermath

    He (Bolden) missed only two games (the bye was in there, too) after needing eight plates inserted to repair two fractures in his face after the horrific hit by Eric Smith at the end of the loss to the Jets. He also suffered a concussion and needed to have his jaw realigned

  • http://www.the-hope-clinic.com Mike Ryan

    Any person who suffers a head injury – from a slight concussion to traumatic brain injury – will have some brain damage that will present itself later in life…sometime, in some fashion. Anyone with a brain injury should do at least 2 1-hour sessions in a hyperbaric oxygen (HBOT) chamber to bring blood and oxygen to the idling neurons around the insult. The HOPE Connection, Inc in North Reading, MA is the only local hyperbaric chamber facility that I know of. They are at http://www.The-HOPE-Clinic.com.

  • John Randall

    Back in the 1960s & early ’70s when I played (H.S. & College) suspension helmets were the “state of the art”. We were taught “face in” tackling and “headbutt” blocking; both of which utilized the forehead part of the skull as the first point of contact. Unquestionably, these techniques put players at greater risk of sustaining concussions. We had a saying that you “got your bell rung”. Many of us did and were held out for a time and then went right back into the game or practice. Yet today, I know of no one of my former teammates or opponents who suffers from dementia such as John Mackey or suffers like Ted Johnson.(I am in the football community & run across former teammates and opponents quite regularly.)
    Since those days, those techniques have been made illegal and virtually all coaches at all levels do not teach them. Also, helmet technology has progressed exponentially in the attempt to try to eliminate concussions. Simply put, today’s football helmets are “light years ahead” of the equipment we used in those days. As a HS football coach for 30 years, I can attest to the fact that the vast majority of coaches are vitally interested in making the game as safe as possible. For instance, at the high school I coached at, all athletes were required to be tested for concussion health both before, during, and after their participation in our program. The school required these tests provided the testing at no cost to the student.
    What was surprising was that we seemed to have several more concussions per student than had happened back in the “barbaric” ’60s and ’70s. I personally witnessed several instances where the blow seemed to be relatively minor and yet the player suffered a substantial concussion. Further the concussions occurred even when the player was wearing the very best helmets available. (Riddell Revolution or the modern Schutt model) And, unfortunately, one of the most difficult aspects of the issue was that kids suffer concussions but don’t realize it.
    None of my observations are substantiated by scientifically researched data, but my impression is that the study of concussions is somehow skewed and perhaps researchers are looking in the wrong direction. Again, I have no scientific data to cite, I have definitely noticed a trend which seems to belie the corrective efforts.

  • Steve

    Hyperbaric chambers, neuropsyche testing, none of this is poactive, it’s first aide, picking up the pieces after humpty dumpty has shattered. When it comes to brains, prevention should be the only choice, better helmets, neck rolls and a corrective mouth guard that eliminates the presence of the “Glass Jaw” effect. http://www.mahercor.com. Clearly the hit to Patrice Bergeron’s jaw/chin would not have been minimized by a better helmet, a mouth guard that diperses force evenly into the soft tissue would help reduce the trauma, as when Wes Welker is slammed to the turf and pops right up after the hit. Most players like Bolden, Coles, Trent Green are carted off to the emergency room, only to be diagnosed with a concussion. He’ll be ok, they say, until he ends up like Wenzel, Mackie or Crebet the list continues to grow. What a mess the NFL “concussion committee” has created.

  • Dave

    NFL/NHL players must be educated on the use of a corrective mouth guard designed to counteract the effects of the boxers “Glass Jaw”. You don’t have to be boxer to have this diagnosable condition. Military research has recognized this region of the brain/ ear canal as an origin to MTBI in soldiers. The Patriots and many other franchises are now using this as a means of reducing concussion, yet many remain uninformed and unprotected from this known danger. Even Riddell states on their web site the TMJ/jaw relation to concussion, as a result of NFL research. http://www.mahercor.com

  • http://www.brandiwinans.com Brandi Winans

    I know first-hand what Eleanore and Sylvia are going through. I was married to former NFL Player, Jeff Winans for 25 years and have just finished my book, “The Flip Side of Glory” detailing my life amd marriagie to Jeff who had 11 plus concussions. I am also a strong NFL Advoctae for Disability income for the disabled players and familites who are fighting for their survival and future of their families. We fought for 16 years to get Jeff’s. I watched Chris’s interview on HBO Reale Sports and It was at that time I realized that Jeff’s concussions were responsible for his emotional and behavioral problems of manic depression, prescription drug addiction, memory loss, severe headaches, etc. I was able to give written tesitimony and be present at the NFL Congressional Hearings, June,2007. I will continue to fhight for not only the players but more importantly the spouses and children, who live this everyday and the NFL needs and musr recognize that concussions are a disability to veteran players. Forever we are one… Sincerely,Brandi Winans

  • Spekkio

    I know I’m late to the discussion – I hope that somebody sees this, because I think that what I have to add is valuable….

    Concussions aren’t restricted to football. What about professional wrestling? Yes, it’s “staged.” But the injuries can be quite legitimate. Hardcore wrestling legend Mick Foley (aka “Cactus Jack,” “Mankind,” and “Dude Love”) suffered at least six concussions during his career. (http://www.pwmania.com/information.php?page=mickfoleysinjuries)

    The Sports Legacy Institute mentioned during the show is headed by Christopher Nowinski, who sustained four concussions in three years of professional wrestling. And some doctors believe that concussions sustained by Chris Benoit might have contributed to his double-murder / suicide in 2007. (http://www.mopsquad.com/artman2/publish/Wrestling/Doctor_Pro_wrestler_Benoit_s_concussions_may_have_contributed_to_killings_of_wife_son.htm)

  • Spekkio
  • Steve

    Nowinski stated in several interviews, ” I got kicked in the chin and everything turned orange”
    Chin blows are a real factor in NFL, NHL and boxing type concussion. Mouth guards that correct need to be mandated

  • Mike B

    I am 45 yrs old and have been experiencing what has been diagnosed as complex seizures about once a year( for the last 5 years) and specifically during or after doing pull ups and lifting weights. I played football through college and rugby for 6 years suffering multiple concussions( 2 unconscious). I am seeking a neurologist that specializes in sports related injuries. The neurologist that examined me just gave me a list of pills and told me to research their side effects on my own and pick one. He told me the seizures are just coincidental to the exercising. I think their must be a connection, its too specific. Any one who is aware of a neurology clinic that specializes in this area please post some info. I am in Colorado. Thanks!

  • http://www.buysteelersjerseys.com/main/jackets Radomir

    Great post, thanks for the info

  • roger

    love football and mma but these sports really should be outlawed. nothing good happens using the head as a battering ram or punching bag. as these spectacles become more popular, it shows just how much we have devolved.

    i have hazy memories of my high school sophomore year from a season-long football-related concussion. that’s when i gave up the sport.

  • Jwearthscience@gmail.com

    Gladiators is all they are. Paid millio
    ns to destroy their brains.

    • John C

      Gosh, that’s helpful isn’t it.  Thanks for clearing that up for us.

  • burroak

    Interesting topic, one to be further researched, discussed and advocated. The NFL should also address the bounty-for-hire-hit-scheme more vigorously. To tackle or hit a player with the intent to paralyze or give a concussion is 100 percent unacceptable. Did the coaching staff of the New Orleans Saints now that these men are fathers, sons, and friends to loved ones.
    It is one thing to hit hard, play rough, be tough. But to permanently injure a player…that is not how to play the sport.
    An idea for the NFL commission: a new ironclad rule for any future bounty-for-hit-hire-schemes. “If any player, coach, manager is found guilty of bounty schemes, they are permenantly band from the NFL, furthermore, there NFL contract is immediately cancelled.
    I am sure the defensive coordinator of the New Orleans Saints does not make a sport of jumping off ten story buildings, because if he did, he would be paralysed and would never walk again; of course, that is what he wished for others, but not for his shameless, evil self.

  • Don

    Second highest rate of sport concussions after football is Girls Soccer (See link below for recent msnbc story). Its  great that NFL players are bringing attention to the issue and concussion management guidelines have been implemented and maybe eventually adequate rule changes are in the near future for football, but its even more of a concern that this is occurring at the pee-eee and community sport levels. Concussions effect children to a greater degree and both short and long term symptoms are more sever. Parents need to become better educated and demand faster and effective rule changes to protect the millions of children who play contact and collision sports in the US. Some may say that we shouldn’t overreact until all the research is in. When it comes to our children’s safety, overreacting should be the not be a concern.


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