NFL Head Injuries: How Concussions Effect Players in the Long Term

  on May 04 2012 5:57 PM

An old classmate once suggested that I had played too many varsity football games without a helmet.   

More than likely, he was jesting.  But the hard-shell Riddell helmets we used in the '60s are not much different from the headgear NFL players use today.  No cushion, lots of compressed air on impact and the false sense that, helmeted, one could  run headfirst into a brick wall.

From Midget League through college, I was lucky never to have been knocked cold on a football field, but I got my "bell rung" countless times.  In every case, a headfirst tackle caused me to see tinsel rainbows and hear television jingles.  I always thought a concussion required one to leave the field woozy or worse. I never realized until today that those optical and aural effects were signs of concussions.

Whether my brain was damaged by all the collisions, I'll never know, but at age of 67, I seem to have senior moments on a daily basis.  For example, I occasionally catch myself about to toss an empty dinner plate into the garbage rather than the sink.  Good thing I don't have a baby to throw out with the bathwater.  Out of morbid curiosity, I plan to leave what is left of my brain to science. 

In the case of Junior Seau, we can speculate whether his brain was altered by the number of big hits he made in a career that spanned at least 24 years, including college.  A former teammate estimates that Junior suffered 1,500 concussions that were mild enough to keep him on the field, but strong enough to give him the tinsel and tunes effect.  The accumulation of so many staggering  blows could easily have damaged Seau's brain cells without any of them being severe enough to have forced him to seek medical attention on the sideline.  

Some people think the helmets are at fault. leading one to wonder whether a return to leather helmets and pads might cushion the awful clashes that today's hard shells magnify.  

Maybe not. 

We don't know how many NFL players from the 30s, 40s and 50s suffered post-career depression or other signs of brain damage.   Perhaps, a similar percentage as today.  Besides, there is no equipment change that can prevent a team like the New Orleans Saints from bounty hunting with the aim of shortening an opponent's career.

Rather than equipment redesign and better policing of NFL rules, I suggest a limit on the number of seasons one can engage in professional football.   Since most running backs are blown out by the age of 28, I think banning anyone from playing after the age of 30 is a conservative way to limit post-career distress. 

Football is a great sport, but it is designed for young still-resilient bodies and not inflexible middle-aged carcasses.  Unlike one's fists, the brain does not  toughen up from repeated pounding.   By age thirty, enough is enough.  Besides, limiting pro football players to a maximum of 10 seasons would open up high paying jobs for a lot more college grads, which the economy needs.

Alas, we'll never see a rule or law requiring a star to hang up the Riddell before his gravy days are over,  but if I had a son entering the NFL, I would urge him to plan to retire at age 30 while he still had his health. 

The money, believe me, is not important.