Concussion debate in football coming to a head

  • Article by: MARK CRAIG , Star Tribune
  • Updated: June 6, 2012 - 7:23 AM

With mounting medical evidence and lawsuits, football at all levels faces a day of reckoning over concussions that could forever alter the game.

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Paul Wiggin, now a personnel consultant for the Vikings, recalled his playing days when head injuries were not taken seriously. He welcomes the change in attitude.

Photo: Judy Griesedieck, Star Tribune file

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It's Dec. 13, 1959, the last Sunday of the NFL's regular season. Norm Van Brocklin is driving the Philadelphia Eagles down the field against the Cleveland Browns. The Dutchman has no timeouts and fewer than 30 seconds to work with before halftime. Browns defensive back Jim Shofner tackles a receiver but doesn't get up. He's been knocked out and, yes, he has a concussion.

But Shofner's well-being -- immediate and/or long-term -- wasn't a concern or even a fleeting thought as teammates converged over his limp body. What mattered most was this: Van Brocklin was on fire, and an injury timeout would hurt the Browns. Teammates began screaming at Shofner. "Wake up, Jim!" Shofner's eyes stayed closed.

"So we just picked him up," said Paul Wiggin, then a Browns defensive tackle and now a Vikings' personnel consultant. "We tried to stand him up so the referee wouldn't stop the clock. Honest to God, I don't think we ever thought about concussions. As far as anyone knew, a concussion was just a headache, something you played with. Nobody gave concussions any credibility."

Times have changed. Football, while still the most popular of sports among Americans, is under attack. As medical science evolves, players past and present, parents and the media grapple with a tsunami of concerns about the potential long-term consequences of concussions.

More than 2,200 former players -- and counting -- have filed 80 concussion lawsuits against the league. Meanwhile, according to the National Sporting Goods Association, overall football participation across all ages decreased from 10.1 million in 2006 to 9 million in 2011. And after 16 years of growth in high school, 11-man football participation dropped slightly during the two most recent years in which data was compiled by the National Federation of State High School Associations. Despite an increase in the number of schools offering 11-man football, the total participants went from 1,109,278 during the 2009-10 school year to 1,108,441 in 2010-11.

Former MVP and Super Bowl-winning quarterback Kurt Warner is among those who have said publicly that they don't want their sons playing football because of concussions. Meanwhile, more current players are retiring younger and citing concussion concerns as the reason. Veteran guard Jacob Bell, who signed with Cincinnati in April, retired abruptly a month later. His decision was sparked by the suicide of future Hall of Fame linebacker Junior Seau, who shot himself in the chest on May 2.

"I've been thinking about the future of my family and having to deal with some kind of crazy disease that nobody even knows about," Bell told reporters. "Everybody wants to make the money, but what are you really sacrificing? If they tell you we're going to take your brain and whack it with a baseball bat, but we'll give you a couple million bucks, how many people would really do that?"

'It was just ignorance'

Wiggin doesn't begrudge his fellow former players their right to sue the league. But, to him, it was just a simpler time with simpler medical knowledge.

"I don't think it was cruelty; it was just ignorance," Wiggin said. "The world was a lot less complicated."

The culture is changing. But many retirees claim it was unnecessarily slow in coming because the NFL pushed against it, doggedly, for years. Even in 1994, when the NFL joined in discussing the relationship between concussions and long-term cognitive complications, it appointed Dr. Elliott Pellman, a rheumatologist and paid physician and trainer of the New York Jets, to chair its Mild Traumatic Brain Injury (MTBI) Committee. Even as late as 2005, Pellman, who wasn't trained in head injuries, contradicted mounting scientific data when he said returning to play with a concussion "does not involve significant risk of a second injury, either in the same game or during the season." Pellman was forced to resign in 2007. Today, league protocol on concussions mandates that players can't return to a game or a practice after suffering a concussion.

"We're all aware of the consequences and the increased vulnerability of suffering a second, more devastating concussion if athletes aren't treated properly," said Dr. Michael Stuart, vice chair of orthopedic surgery and co-director of sports medicine center departments at the Mayo Clinic. "It's disturbing to know that in the past, we weren't astute enough to remove players from competition when they suffered a concussion."

Wiggin puts it another way. He thinks back to his buddy Shofner and that mid-December game in 1959. At the time, Wiggin was upset because the game clock was stopped as Shofner left the field. Seconds later, Van Brocklin threw an 18-yard touchdown pass to Bobby Walston. Today, Wiggin shakes his head at something else that happened.

"Jim started the second half," Wiggin said. "We were darn lucky back then that we didn't lose somebody back then."

Teammates' rotection

It's Oct. 17, 2010, and the Vikings are playing the Dallas Cowboys at the Metrodome. Vikings safety Husain Abdullah has a concussion, but doesn't know it yet. He doesn't feel right -- "Just kind of out on my feet, I guess," he says two years later -- but doesn't think it's serious enough to pull himself out of the game.

The Vikings offense scores. Abdullah grabs his helmet and joins the kickoff team. He's the designated safety, the last line of defense before the kicker. No one hits him.

Back on the sideline, Abdullah's concussion starts to feel worse. He's confused. As he did four weeks earlier, when he suffered a concussion at New Orleans, he's going up to one teammate after another. "Just asking dumb questions over and over," he says.

"I asked [linebacker] Kenny Onatolu, 'Who hit me, who blindsided me on the kickoff?'" Abdullah said. "He said, 'No one. You weren't even touched.'"

Abdullah thought Onatolu was playing a joke on him. The second or third time Abdullah asked the same exact question the same exact way, Onatolu alerted the team's athletic trainers.

"The guy just isn't acting right," Onatolu said in one of those moments that Vikings head athletic trainer Eric Sugarman constantly strives for in his efforts to change the culture. Abdullah was examined, pulled from the game before halftime and did not play the following week at Green Bay.

"Over the last couple of years, it's gone up a lot, the number of players who come up to me and say, 'Hey, you better check this guy out. He doesn't know what he's doing,'" Sugarman said. "It's remarkable, and it's exactly what we want because sometimes we don't see it. That's what we emphasize: Self-report and report on teammates. It's nothing to joke about."

Abdullah started 24 games for the Vikings the past two seasons. He suffered concussions in his first, fifth, 22nd and 24th starts. Two weeks after his fourth concussion, he was placed on injured reserve. After the season, heading into free agency and fully prepared to retire, he went to Pittsburgh to seek advice from Dr. Micky Collins, one of the country's leading concussion experts. Abdullah came away assured his risks were no greater than anyone else's. But he remains unsigned.

"I wasn't going to even try to play until I sat down and talked to the leading expert," Abdullah said. "It's not worth it. I read one article where a guy went back to a second-grade reading level because of a concussion. And we've all heard about all the other problems guys are having."

Abdullah thinks it might take another generation or two before players fully accept the changing culture.

"I think there's still more guys that would try to play through it," he said. "Football is a manly sport, so a lot of people today still have that mentality, 'Oh, I just got my bell rung.' You can't expect that mentality to change completely overnight. We're guys who grew up in the '90s. Maybe it will be different for today's kids."

Generation Next using caution

It's Oct. 20, 2010, and Eden Prairie, the No. 1 team in the state, is playing at Wayzata, the No. 2 team in the state. The winner will remain undefeated and win the Lake Conference title heading into the playoffs. Andrew Larson, a junior for Eden Prairie at the time, is one of the state's best running backs playing in one of the biggest games of his life. But the second half opens with Larson on the sideline, his helmet tucked under the arm of an assistant coach, just in case. Larson's night is over after 73 yards rushing, even after passing a concussion exam in the locker room at halftime.

Larson was covering a punt in the first half when he was blindsided by a helmet-to-helmet blow. It caught him on the side of his helmet and rattled him. He felt fine a moment later, but when a teammate told Gary Smith, the team's head athletic trainer, that Larson wasn't acting right at halftime, Smith administered the concussion exam.

"I passed every question they threw at me," Larson said. "But then Smitty asked me if I had a headache. I said, 'Yes'"

That was all it took. Game over for Larson. Wayzata won 28-27 in overtime.

"It cost us the conference title, but, you know, so what?" Eden Prairie coach Mike Grant said. "We're going to be safe. Andrew was fine the next day and the next week. He didn't have a concussion. But that night, our medical staff didn't think he was OK. And that's fine by me. I don't make those decisions. Gary Smith was with Herb Brooks during the 'Miracle on Ice.' Coaches need to let the trainer make those decisions, and I have the luxury of having the best one in the state make them for me."

Larson obviously wanted to return that night. But he said he "totally understood."

"There isn't a day goes by that we don't read or hear about the dangers of concussions," said Larson, who will play football for Harvard in the fall. "It's so well-known to everybody now. So you can't say you don't know. I do think some teams, some doctors are way too sensitive about it. But I think my generation has more respect for doctors.

"I'm only going to be playing football the next probably five years. So I don't want to do something stupid that's going to ruin the rest of my life."

Coaching can make a huge difference in player safety, Grant said. He doesn't allow full contact in practice and preaches the throwback art of shoulder tackling.

"ESPN and, really, all media glorify the high helmet hits," Grant said. "We tell kids that if they hit like that, they're not playing for us. The game can still be hard-hitting and physical. It just has to be smart and we have to eliminate the high hits to the head."

NFL's influence

Grant applauds NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell's attempts to change that culture at the highest level. He believes once it's changed there, it will trickle down to the kids.

"What happens on Sundays has a tremendous influence on these kids," Grant said. "All you have to do is go to a high school game and watch how a kid reacts when he leads with his helmet and hits a guy high. He'll stand over the guy and celebrate. Why? Because that's what he's seen guys do on Sundays."

Several improvements in the prevention, recognition and treatment of concussions have been made by the NFL. More are sure to follow. One leading concussion expert believes the NFL can do more by thinking outside the box and adopting a radical rule change.

Dr. Julian Bailes, a renowned neurosurgeon, former team doctor for the Pittsburgh Steelers and consultant to the NFL Players Association, believes the league should eliminate the three-point stance so that linemen aren't necessarily banging heads on every play. Citing data collected on G-forces from impact sensors in helmets, Bailes the cumulative effects of repeated lower impact collisions are also harmful.

"I think the NFL has done a lot, and I acknowledge that," Bailes said. "But where we're heading is I think we have to work to take the head out of the sport. I think we have to take head contact out of football as much as possible. I played 10 years. I've been a sideline doctor 20-some years. I get it. I know that's easier said than done. It's fundamentally changing the sport. Players don't like it. A lot of fans don't like it. But I think that's where this is headed."

Of course, one of the basic tools in the battle against concussions is educating players.

"I truly think young players are starting to get it," said Chris Ashton, an assistant athletic trainer who works with the University of Minnesota football team. "They're starting to understand that it's not worth it. It's not worth not being able to remember the grocery list -- or worse -- when they get older because they want to be a tough guy and play through it now."

That's good news to at least one of those players that helped prop up the unconscious Shofner 53 years ago.

"I think it's great to see all the changes," Wiggin said. "I used to think nothing of it when a guy got knocked out, like in boxing. Today, I see it and it makes me shudder to think what could have happened."

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