Chicago Sun Times
May 8, 2023
The Bears’ rookie minicamp last week was a nice affair, full of hope and hustle.
After the team’s much-hyped draft, allegedly the best in many years, everything is sky blue in Beardom. Sixty-plus eager minicamp players. Gung-ho coaches. Grunts. Diligence. Excitement. Sic ’em, boys!
But concern for the future?
It’s an axiom that young football players feel invincible, incapable of imagining what it’s like to be 30, let alone something crazy like 50 or beyond. Maybe it has to be that way in a pro sport in which too much logic might send fellows running for the hills.
But the big money and the lure of manly competition, of success and stardom trump health concerns.
And there’s really only one big concern. Head trauma.
That is, concussions. Unfortunately for football, the head is still in the middle of the shoulders. A tackle or block without the head being involved in some way is hard to envision.
Maybe you noticed the big spongy blobs the Bears players wore over their helmets at the minicamp. They’re called Guardian Caps. According to the Guardian website, the company tried to introduce actual soft-shell helmets to reduce impact force about 10 years ago. Nobody in football wanted them. Thus the removable cap.
They’re only for practice, not games, and, as the company semi-laments, “reducing impact in practice was more than nothing.’’
But concussions and potential chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE) still linger in the air like demons.
Just think about all the former football players who have ended their lives under the torment of CTE, often at young ages, to be reminded.
The Concussion Legacy Foundation, which oversees research at the Boston University CTE Center and its UNITE Brain Bank, lists 10 NFL draft picks since 2005 who died with CTE.
Some deaths were suicides; some were drug overdoses; some were unspecified. One, Kevin Ellison, wandered onto a California freeway. Two — Phillip Adams and Aaron Hernandez — murdered people before killing themselves.
Perhaps you saw a photo of recent Louisville, Kentucky, mass killer Connor Sturgeon, back from when he was a star high school basketball player in Indiana, wearing a soft helmet in games. Myself, I’ve never seen such a thing. Not in basketball.
But Sturgeon had a history of concussions from youth football and needed protection. At 25, he was seeing two mental health officials, complaining of brain issues, before he went to the bank where he worked and shot people.
Sturgeon was killed at the scene by responding police. His family has said his brain is being studied for CTE, which, unfortunately, can only be diagnosed after death.
Sometimes the CTE sufferers aren’t young, but their pain is just as severe. Irv Cross, the erudite former Northwestern star, TV sports commentator and former Pro Bowl cornerback for the Eagles and Rams, died at 81 two years ago. For at least five years, he had suffered from problems with ‘‘balance, memory and delusions,’’ said his wife, Liz Cross. It was ‘‘very embarrassing and depressing for him.’’
The CTE Center recently determined Cross had Stage 4 CTE. There is no Stage 5.
Since its beginning in 2008, the Boston research center has found CTE in the brains of 345 of the 376 NFL players studied (91.7%).
It has been determined that the longer one plays football, the greater the chance of developing CTE. Nor is it just football. Be it hockey, soccer, lacrosse, wrestling, even swimming — a concussion’s a concussion. And sub-concussive hits, maybe even while wearing big foam hats and no shoulder pads, accumulate with time.
I reached out to Chris Nowinski, the PhD and former Harvard football player and pro wrestler whose many concussions led him to study brain trauma and become the co-founder and CEO of the Concussion Legacy Foundation.
From his vantage point, what did he think about the starry-eyed NFL rookies?
“I am happy for all the players drafted,’’ he said. “I also recognize they are now becoming old enough to understand CTE, and I’m certain some would rather walk away from the game than risk CTE, like Chris Borland did.’’
(Borland is the former Wisconsin and 49ers linebacker who quit the NFL after one stellar season because of brain-trauma concerns.)
“But after you’ve risked developing CTE for 10 to 15 years for free already,’’ Nowinski continued, ‘‘how do you walk away when they are finally going to pay you for risking your brain health?’’
But every happy rookie ought to ask it.