VERO BEACH, FLORIDA – Perhaps the NFL thought the furor over head injuries would go away after it awarded $765 million to over a thousand concussed ex-players.
The recently released movie “Concussion” dashed any sweep-it-under-the-rug hopes the league may have entertained.
In case it slipped your mind, the paid-off group had brought a class action suit against the league several years ago.
They claimed the NFL had failed to adequately educate its players on the risk of developing brain disease.
And after the buyout, the issue did indeed seem to fade somewhat from the public’s consciousness.
But, much to the league’s chagrin, Concussion has reignited the head trauma debate anew.
The flick stars Will Smith as Nigerian-born, former Pittsburgh coroner Dr. Bennet Omalu and details how, in 2002, he became the first person to diagnose CTE (Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy a degenerative brain disease) in a deceased NFL player Pittsburgh Steelers Hall of Fame center Mike Webster (and, later, in several other Steelers who had died).
It was Omalu’s conclusion that the 70,000 blows to the head he estimated that Webster absorbed in his career were the cause of Mike’s CTE.
Further, Omalu also tied Webster’s post-NFL mental and personal struggles (more on this later) to his CTE.
In Concussion, when the good doctor confronts the NFL with his research findings, the fit hits the shan.
The league, of course, goes into full lie and deny mode.
And goes after Omalu, seeking to discredit him.
One of the main characters for the first half of the movie was, of course, Mike Webster.
MAS can personally vouch for the spot-on portrayal by the actor who played Mike, David Morse (Tom Hanks’ fellow good-guy death row guard in “The Green Mile”).
Y’see, MAS once crossed paths with Webster, at the Pro Bowl in Hawaii during the 1980s.
Our encounter may have been one that portended the future.
At the time, MAS was a Honolulu ABC-TV sports announcer.
“Iron Mike,” as he was known pre-Tyson, was the bulwark of an offensive line that opened holes for running back Franco Harris and provided pass-protection for QB Terry Bradshaw, back when the Steelers were en route to a series of Super Bowl wins.
MAS’s assignment was to grab a bunch of postgame interviews in the winning AFC locker room.
There, the players frolicked in various stages of undress, amid the usual loud shucking and jiving, guffawing and towel-snapping.
Except in the far corner of the room, where Mike Webster sat quietly alone.
Hunched over, motionless.
Webster was still fully dressed in his game gear.
When he caught MAS’s eye, Mike motioned yours truly over.
In as gentle and polite a manner as MAS has ever experienced in dealing with an NFLer (MAS had to lean down and strained to hear Mike speak), Webster pointed across the room and softly asked, “Sir, will you please ask that lady reporter over there to leave. I feel very uncomfortable.”
Now, this incident occurred at the beginning of the gender-integrated postgame locker room and a few players, though not many, still objected to their once male-only sanctuary now being invaded by female media members.
After MAS somewhat reluctantly conveyed Webster’s request, the lady scribe in question graciously acquiesced and departed.
A much-relieved Webster thanked MAS profusely afterward.
Mike’s personal feelings on the women-in-the-locker room issue aside, during that interaction MAS detected a certain air of melancholy in Webster’s persona.
There was a haunted look in Mike’s eyes, something seemed amiss with him.
Turns out, maybe there was.
After retirement, Webster sank into a severe depression and suffered from myriad other mental health problems.
He eventually fell into homelessness and lived a tortured existence, one that included self-mutilation, before passing away from a heart attack at age 50.
MAS never will forget Mike’s forlorn countenance that Sunday in Hawaii.
Looking back, MAS now realizes that the eyes truly are windows to the soul, especially seemingly troubled ones.
It’s very possible Webster’s CTE may have already begun to affect Mike at the time MAS met up with him.
Yet, Dr. Omalu’s opinions in this regard were, and still are, refuted by the NFL and some in the medical profession.
Connecting the dots between concussions and CTE and any resultant mental health issues, naysayers in the film contended, is too simplistic.
Skeptics say other personal problems could have been the cause of players like Webster and late Hall of Fame linebacker Junior Seau developing CTE and having trouble in their football afterlife (Seau would commit suicide).
Thus, sitting through Concussion, movie-goers with untrained scientific minds (like MAS and most non-neurologists) will sometimes find it difficult to know which side to believe.
Also, it is important to remember that this is a typical Hollywood “based on true events” flick.
Tinseltown is well-known for embellishing for dramatic, i.e. moneymaking, effect some elements of a “real-life” situation.
So, when Concussion portrays the NFL hierarchy an uncaring, money-hungry, image-conscious monster (which it often IS) one must be leery of poetic license being at play.
But possible medical and dramatic inaccuracies in the movie aside, one HUGE truth remains: As a result of Dr. Omalu’s findings, the NFL realized, either out of sincerity or merely for PR purposes (your choice), that it needed to do more in the area of concussions.
And it subsequently did.
There was the big payout mentioned earlier and a renewed financial commitment to head trauma research.
And a slew of protective rules, such as outlawing hits aimed above an opponent’s shoulders.
Also, a new concussion identification protocol was established.
Independent doctors now put a suspected concussed player through a complex series of tests before he is allowed to return to action.
MAS chuckles, sort of anyway, when he thinks back to the “protocol” used in the Gridiron Stone Age when he was a high school and college linebacker.
In those ancient times, the concussion protocol involved an ammonia capsule.
The doc would crack one open and wave it under your nose.
If that bad boy made your head snap back, that meant you still had your senses if not your wits and you were good to go.
MAS knew right away when the ammonia capsule was almost shoved up his schnozzola and he still couldn’t smell a thing that he was in deep kimchi.
MAS suffered four concussions that he is aware of.
But who knows how many times MAS or any other player thought he had just had his “bell rung”, when in actuality he had been concussed.
Thank goodness, Dr. Omalu’s CTE discovery has served to heighten the awareness in today’s NFL players and gridders of all ages of the possibility of concussion-related brain diseases.
Many are now at least asking questions.
A few chose not to chance things any further.
Like Chris Borland, a promising San Francisco 49ers linebacker who abruptly retired after his rookie season.
But most NFLers still seem more than willing to roll the dice in a world where their fellow inhabitants are scarily becoming ever bigger, stronger and faster.
They choose to play on.
With all due respect to Concussion and the well-meaning Dr. Omalu.
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