TAMPA — This time, the headline was too close to home. Too disturbing. Too shocking.
Vincent Jackson dying alone in a nondescript, Brandon hotel room a week after the Super Bowl was as preposterous as it was heartbreaking. This wasn’t thousands of miles away like Junior Seau. This wasn’t a minor name that was hard to place. This wasn’t a notorious loose cannon who seemed destined for a prematurely sad end.
This was Vincent Jackson. Football star. Local philanthropist. Children’s author. Businessman.
And now, perhaps, victim of the sport that helped define him.
Yes, that’s a headline too painful to ignore. And yet, the fear is that it will still go unheeded in too many ways. By players who rationalize invincibility. By a league that prioritizes profits. By parents who see nothing wrong with elementary school children playing tackle football. By fans and, yes media, accustomed to looking the other way.
“I just hope it stays fresh on everybody’s mind. I hope people take action,” said former Bucs center Randy Grimes, who runs a chapter of his Athletes in Recovery program out of the WhiteSands alcohol and drug rehab center in Plant City.
“I want the stigma of being an alcoholic or drug addict or having mental health issues taken away so people will raise their hands and families will ask for help. Unfortunately, it takes something like this to remind us. Just like with Junior Seau; but it doesn’t stay in the news long enough. There’s always another news cycle and you won’t hear about the Vincent Jacksons anymore.”
Just to be clear, there has been no official determination of Jackson’s death. But there are clues to suggest Jackson, 38, was struggling with alcohol abuse, a point raised by Hillsborough County Sheriff Chad Chronister in a radio interview. Jackson had been arrested twice for DUI earlier in his NFL career.
Chronister also said Jackson family members had concerns about chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE), a degenerative brain condition caused by repeated trauma. According to a family spokesman, Jackson’s brain is being donated to Boston University, which has pioneered CTE research.
Twenty years ago, this conversation would not even have taken place, and that’s progress. But it’s still not enough. The NFL has made strides with helmet safety, concussion protocols and prescription drug abuse, but there is still a long way to go.
For an industry that is approaching $20 billion in annual revenues, there should be no excuse for players falling between the cracks when it comes to post-career care. Not when it’s become increasingly obvious that the game itself has played a large role in so much misery.
It isn’t just the toll taken on knees, hips, shoulders and backs and the temptation to quell the pain with opiates. It isn’t just the repeated blows to the head that creates protein clumps that destroy brain cells and change personalities. It isn’t just the psychological and economic adjustment of living outside the adoration of the NFL. It’s all of those things combined.
Former Buc offensive lineman Tom McHale was so cognizant of the need to prepare for a post-football life that he gave up a starting position at the University of Maryland to transfer to an Ivy League school (Cornell) without athletic scholarships.
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He ended up playing nine years in the NFL and then prepared to settle into the life of a restauranteur with his wife Lisa and their three boys. By age 45, McHale was already dead due to an accidental overdose.
In a search for more answers to his dramatic personality changes, Lisa had his brain examined and he became one of the first half-dozen NFL players to be diagnosed with CTE posthumously. She said he retired with offers on the table from NFL teams because he wanted to be sure he was healthy enough to enjoy life, but he never realized the effects nearly 20 years of high school, college and pro football had on his brain.
“There are some very, very significant consequences of the game,” Lisa McHale said Thursday. “We don’t know at this point if (Jackson’s death) was in any way related, but given his exposure and history it would be shocking if it wasn’t. And you have to realize, these are guys that, by all accounts, were remarkably great, great guys with supportive families. So you see this and realize if it can happen to them, it can happen to anybody. That is an important message.
“It just makes me so profoundly sad to consider just how big a problem this is. And I think we’re going to be seeing it more and more. Because this group of players, now entering their 30s and 40s, started playing the game at a much younger age. I would hope it’s a wakeup call to parents. It’s not worth the risk. Not for young boys.”
In a 2017 study done by the Concussion Legacy Foundation, the brains of 110 out of 111 deceased NFL players were found to have some level of CTE deterioration. Those numbers are likely skewed because the donated brains came from families with suspicions about deterioration, but foundation CEO and co-founder Chris Nowinski said those players represented almost 10 percent of the deaths in the NFL during that period. That suggests a minimum of 10 percent of players suffered brain damage, and he estimates it is closer to 40-50 percent.
Nowinski, who was a football player at Harvard and a WWE wrestler, said there is a glaring need for more programs throughout the country specifically designed for athletes, military personnel and other occupations at risk for head injuries.
“We have a helpline, and, in the last 18 hours I’ve talked to two NFL wives of relatively young men. One who is dramatically struggling and another whose wife is concerned he’s heading down this path,” Nowinski said. “The problem is there is not enough support out there. There are programs in place for former NFL players, but a lot of them still reach out to us as an independent non-profit. It’s not easy to get the help that people need. Because this doesn’t just happen to the individual, it happens to their families. And the impacts are profound.”
It was McHale’s death in 2008 that helped Grimes finally seek out help to battle the opioid addiction that had ravaged his life in the first decade after he left the Bucs. He had been embarrassed to seek help and said too many NFL players try to tough it out in silence.
“There was a lot of guilt and shame on my part,” Grimes said. “I was Mr. Second-Round Draft Pick. I married my college cheerleader sweetheart and had two great kids, and here I was sleeping on the floor of a vacant house with no utilities. That’s where my addiction took me.
“Over the last 10-11 years, I’ve worked with hundreds and hundreds of former players. There are a lot of guys out there who, for whatever reason, haven’t raised their hand and asked for help yet. The NFL and the (players association) need to step up with this. They need to get on board helping these guys transition better and staying in touch with them afterward.”
John Romano can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow @romano_tbtimes.