By Kurt Walker
When Dr. Bennet Omalu, a Neuropathologist who was working in the Allegheny County Coroners Office in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania when the body of recently deceased former Steeler All-Pro veteran, Mike Webster arrived for him to examine, Omalu had no idea who Webster was or how his later discovery as he performed an autopsy would impact the sport of professional football but the entire sport itself.
After an examination of Webster’s brain, Omalu would find that his brain showed traces of a protein that was a result of his years of punishment to his head. Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy or CTE, was identified for the first time in a football player.
What would follow was the David versus Goliath battle as a Nigerian born doctor would go up against the multibillion dollar entity known as the National Football League and its army of lawyers, medical professionals and propaganda machine and that is the subject of the recently released film “Concussion” starring Will Smith. To gain more background on this battle I encourage you to view the PBS produced news program Frontline and view the episode titled “League of Denial: The NFL’s Concussion Crisis” which provides a masterfully produced piece accounting for the players of this saga.
When all was said and done the NFL still denied that there was a possible link to football related concussions and CTE and would fund research by the National Institute of Health (NIH) to the tune of thirty million dollars. Then in the wake of the suicide of retired all-pro linebacker Junior Seau, it would settle with a lawsuit brought by retired players in the amount of seven hundred sixty five million dollars but no admission of guilt or causation by football and CTE.
Whether or not you believe that football and CTE have a direct relationship and whether or not you hold the position as the executives of the NFL that being that we still need more research before making a final conclusion may still be up for debate. However Dr. Omalu’s suggestion on how we should handle the situation has even caused more rancor among the NFL brass. Omalu contends that kids and children should not play the sport at all and should refrain until age eighteen. He states that the developing brain of youth is a greater risk of incurring damage from the collisions although nowhere near the force or impact of the NFL type. His position caused me to reflect on my early years playing the sport that is my favorite and has been for all of my life.
I guess I am slowing part of that ten percent that the NFL fears, adults and parents who will discourage children from playing football. The NFL has to account for the brutal nature of its product and the players who are subjecting themselves to brain injury that may not really register or show up until their retirement years. Another organization will have to account for its sins as well. The National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) will one day have to consider the high suicide rate of some of its former players as well who have made it to the NFL ranks and those who didn’t as well.
Like most kids I met resistance when I choose to play tackle football. My mother permitted it while I played on the parks, playgrounds and sandlots of the Bronx. Back then we had what were known as “buckets”, plastic helmets with cheap padding. They were commonly sold in a set that came with a jersey, shoulder pads and your bucket. It wasn’t until I played organized football that I saw what a real helmet was like when I played for the Bronx Midget Football League on the thirteen and under squad. Some of the kids had real helmets made by companies such as Riddell, Rawlings and Max Pro.
This was evident when we did a drill called the nutcracker. Two players would lay on there backs about five feet apart with heads pointing toward the other player. One had the ball and the other was the tackler. At the coach’s whistle, you would rise quickly to your feet and attempt to run the tackler over helmet to helmet. If there was no cracking sound of the collision you were sent back to the ground and a bigger player was chosen for you. There was no juking or spinning or stiff-arms, only helmet-to-helmet collisions.
Back then, I didn’t know what the word concussion was but I can still remember all of the things we now associate with concussions such as nausea, severe headaches and sensitivity to light. I could remember many days going home and asking that the lights in my bedroom remain off. The next season I pleaded with my mother and godmother that if I didn’t get anything else, cleats or real shoulder pads, I needed to get a real helmet. I remember getting my Max Pro with the cage just like Herschel Walker. The one with the double bar. Now, I was an official head banger of the nutcracker drill. Some of the other kids still had their buckets and the headaches still persisted every now and then. Although buckets are now a thing of the past, our kids are better equipped and trained in tackling techniques, but as much as you try to eliminate helmet-to-helmet contact, it just can’t be avoided in a sport like football in the manner in which it is played.
So you may not have played professional, collegiate or high school football. According to Dr. Omalu there should be still cause for concern. Especially if you were a child of the seventies and can remember strapping on one of those buckets. Thankfully I can still can. I just wonder at what point that I may not be able to.