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Researchers: Football concussions haunt athletes

Repeated injuries or even one severe concussion may require surgery or lead to long-lasting problems with movement, learning or speaking.</a>

Repeated injuries or even one severe concussion may require surgery or lead to long-lasting problems with movement, learning or speaking.

TAMPA — Doctors say they have found evidence of permanent, concussion-related damage in the brain of former Tampa Bay Buccaneer lineman Tom McHale, who died last year of an accidental drug overdose.

It it is the sixth time, researchers say, they have found such evidence in a former NFL player.

The findings were announced Tuesday by the Center for the Study of Traumatic Encephalopathy, a collaboration between Boston University 's School of Medicine and the non-profit Sports Legacy Institute, based in Waltham, Mass.

Advocates unveiled the research the week of the Super Bowl to call attention to the sport's "dark side."

A Boston research team studied the brain of McHale, who played offensive guard for the Bucs from 1987 to 1992.

A Pinellas-Pasco Medical Examiner's autopsy of McHale showed no obvious signs of brain damage.

But researchers say a microscopic examination revealed the presence of a destructive abnormal protein that researchers say is created in the wake of a concussion.

"To the naked eye, grossly, the brain looks normal," said Chris Nowinski, president of the Sports Legacy Institute. It is only when the tissue is magnified 600 times and chemically stained that the presence of the protein and its damage becomes clear.

And for the first time, researchers said they have found the same damage in the brain of the youngest person they've ever examined -- an 18-year-old football player who died.

"This is an issue that affects every contact sport athlete, especially the 1.5-million kids playing football," Nowinski said.

Before the news conference, NFL spokesman Greg Aiello referred tampabay.com to guidelines the league established in 2007 to address concussions. They include neuropsychological testing of all players and re-testing of players taken out of a game.

They also included giving players and their families information about the symptoms of a concussion and creating a hotline where anyone can report the suspicion that a player with a concussion is being forced to play.

"Medical decisions must always override competitive considerations," the league's guidelines state.

The NFL said it would have a further statement later today.

Nowinski called the guidelines "a step in the right direction, but they certainly have not made the game safe."

"We still haven't found an NFL player over 25 who does not have this progressive brain damage by their 40s," he said. "The fact that we found it in the youngest case ever is extremely significant."

But Nowinski said the teen's "damage is not extensive enough to believe that he would have been showing symptoms" of chronic traumatic encephalopathy, a progressive degenerative brain disease found in athletes who have suffered multiple concussions.

Still, advocates say both findings bolster the conclusion that football's violent collisions cause life-long injury and that the damage can be inflicted early.

Nowinski, 30, says he speaks from experience.

He suffered two concussions as a defensive tackle at Harvard. Then, after receiving his degree in sociology with honors, he became a professional wrestler with World Wrestling Entertainment.

There, his ring persona was an Ivy League snob, and he suffered four more concussions. After his sixth, inflicted by Bubba Ray Dudley's kick to his chin, Nowinski began suffering from chronic headaches, memory loss and depression, a collection of symptoms diagnosed as post-concussion syndrome.

He went on to write a book, "Head Games: Football's Concussion Crisis," and to become an advocate for giving NFL players more information about the risks of concussion.

Nowinski also helped found the Sports Legacy Institute with Boston University neurologist Robert Cantu. Along with neuropathologist Ann McKee and neuropsychologist Robert Stern, Cantu took part in the research of brain tissue from McHale and the high school player.

At the request of his family, researchers are not naming the high school player or saying what position he played. Nor will they say how he died other than to say it wasn't from a blow to the head while playing football. Nowinski said the family contacted the institute after their son's death to request that it examine his brain.

The research announced today is being reviewed by other scientists. That's a standard practice before research is published in respected scientific journals. Nowinski said he persuaded the researchers to make their findings public now "because this is a public health issue."

The center also announced the addition of a dozen more former NFL players who have agreed to donate their brains for similar research, including two Pro Football Hall of Famers: former Green Bay Packers safety Willie Wood and former Buffalo Bills and Cleveland Browns guard Joe DeLamielleure.

"Signing up for the registry does not imply you have problems," Nowinski said. "These are people who support the work."

The Sports Legacy Institute previously arranged for similar examinations of other NFL players after their deaths, including former Philadelphia Eagles safety Andre Waters, 44, who committed suicide in his North Tampa home in November 2006.

In 2007, Pittsburgh neuopathologist Bennet Omalu said he found brain damage that would have caused depression and advanced dementia after examining the remains of Waters and three former Steelers linemen who suffered from severe depression:

* Mike Webster, 50, who died of a heart attack in 2002 after experiencing many personal problems.

* Justin Strzelczyk, 36, who was killed in 2004 when he crashed his pickup while fleeing police.

* Terry Long, 45, who committed suicide in 2005.

The other player found to have the same progressive brain damage was the late John Grimsley, 45, a linebacker for the Houston Oilers who accidentally shot himself last year.

In response, the doctor who co-chaired the NFL's concussion committee said the only scientifically valid evidence he had seen of chronic encephalopathy was in boxers and steeplechase riders.

Around that same time, however, the league established its concussion guidelines.

That was long overdue, Nowinski said this week. He said he applauds that the NFL now fines players who make helmet-to-helmet hits, the most dangerous impact, but he said there is more that could be done.

Nowinski said he felt bad for Baltimore Ravens running back Willie McGahee after the running back was knocked unconscious in the AFC title game by Pittsburgh Steeler Ryan Clark.

Noting that the hit was legal, Nowinski said, "that just illustrates the problem with the game itself. That's what attracts everyone to the game. That's what attracted me as a player and a fan, and yet it has such a dark side."

-- Richard Danielson can be reached at Danielson@sptimes.com or (813) 269-5311.

Researchers: Football concussions haunt athletes 01/27/09 [Last modified: Wednesday, January 28, 2009 11:29am]
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