Dave Duerson’s self-diagnosis was confirmed. The former Chicago Bears safety suffered brain damage during his football career.
What no one — even the most qualified medical experts — can say with certainty is how early it began.
That is the scariest part of a sad and scary story.
The inclination is to link Duerson’s chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE) exclusively to his 11 seasons in the National Football League. His family says he had at least 10 concussions during his professional career.
While the impact of that is undeniable, and likely the source of extensive damage, we can no longer pass this off as an NFL problem.
It is a football matter.
Certainly, Duerson’s death reinforces the need for continued advancements in the diagnosis, treatment and prevention of concussions. He ended his troubled post-NFL life in February, at age 50, with a gunshot wound to the chest, leaving a note requesting his brain be sent for analysis.
Researchers at the Center for the Study of Traumatic Encephalopathy confirmed his suspicions. They found Duerson had “classic” CTE, that his brain structure was severely impacted in regard to judgment, inhibition, impulse control, mood and memory.
Again, while his NFL career may be largely to blame, Duerson was like every player we watch on Sundays. He took numerous blows to the head in youth football, high school and college. Most did not result in diagnosed concussions, though perhaps more would today with the increase in testing and awareness.
Regardless, recent research tells us the accumulation of those non-concussive hits can negatively impact brain function as well, a numbing reality for anyone who loves to play, coach, watch and/or write about football.
A Purdue University study released last fall found players can suffer cognitive loss without experiencing a concussion.
After administering preseason MRIs and cognitive tests to establish a baseline, researchers placed six accelerators in the helmets of 21 Lafayette (Ind.) Jefferson High School players, providing an immediate measure of the frequency and severity of hits.
They found an excess of 16,000 “impacts” during Jefferson practices and games in 2009, with one player incurring more than 1,400.
Four players were diagnosed with concussions during the season, but four others who experienced no concussion symptoms were found to have more brain impairment than those who were concussed.
The study also found blows between the forehead and top of the head to be the most damaging. Players are instructed to keep their heads up when making contact to avoid neck injuries. The study suggests that also could help them avoid brain injuries.
The bottom line is football may be more dangerous than we knew, or cared to know. It is unsettling to admit a game you love could be inflicting long-term damage, from youth leagues on up.
The Illinois High School Association recently adopted stricter guidelines for athletes diagnosed with a concussion, requiring they be evaluated by and get written approval from a licensed medical professional before returning to action.
It was a positive step. Yet, if routine but repetitive collisions can cause permanent damage, football may be headed toward fewer contact days each week. Some are suggesting a “hit count” similar to a pitch count in baseball.
They consider it a start. Purists would call it the beginning of the end.
How about you?