Athletes at Risk - CBS46 News

Athletes at Risk: A look at the lasting effects of an athletic career

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Concussions are a part of any contact sport, but none more than football. On-field concussions have sidelined the careers of players like hall of famers Steve Young and Troy Aikman. The issue has dogged the game for the past few years and has been called a public health crisis by experts. Players know they may leave the game with a broken body. They may also leave with a broken brain.

Reporter Jennifer Mayerle looked at the new research that continues to emerge about the long-lasting, debilitating effects of concussions and repeated blows to the head. More attention is being paid to what happens at the youth level and in the aftermath of an athletic career. 

One of the things that excites audiences about football is one of the things hurting players. The hallmark of the sport is being able to play through pain. Football is tough mentally and physically.  And for most in the game, "It's a dream come true," according to former Falcons linebacker Coy Wire.

Wire spent nine years in the NFL. At 6' tall, No. 52 was smaller than most linebackers, but he was a constant defensive contributor on the field. Wire played his final three seasons as an Atlanta Falcon.

Wire told Mayerle there are a lot of big impacts, car-crash type impacts.

"Some of the big ones I don't remember because I was literally unconscious. Absolutely, I remember the little ones where, little hits to the head. You say you got your bell rung, you say you feel a little woozy, a little dizzy, but you just shake the cobwebs off," Wire said.

Wire feels the impact of his playing days every day, with a titanium plate and four screws in his neck. The Stanford grad is smart enough to know his mind could be next.

"We have to start retraining our brain, how we approach head trauma," Wire said.

Researchers found concussions and the repetitive hits to the head over the course of a career can result in irreversible brain damage and a devastating degenerative disease. Dr. Robert Cantu is a renowned neurosurgeon. He also serves as a senior adviser for the NFL's head, neck and spine committee.

"Concussions are a violent shaking of the brain inside the skull. The most important thing is to recognize it. The majority of concussions are still not recognized on athletic fields. You should remove them from practice or play and they should not be allowed to go back that day," Cantu said.

In 2009, the NFL changed its concussion policy to reduce the number of helmet-to-helmet hits. The NFL created a PSA campaign alerting people to the dangers of concussions and the league requires an informative poster to be hung in each locker room.

The most significant change, according to Cantu, came in 2011; moving the kickoff from the 30 to the 35 yardline.

"That's the most violent play in all of football because individuals are coming at full head of speed, often in opposite direction," Cantu said.

The changes in the game, and league's acknowledgement of potential risk from head injury comes too late for players who are no longer playing in the league.

Ray Easterling is just one in a list of former NFL players who took their own lives, and part of a larger group who complained of memory loss, headaches, depression and other symptoms, after their years on the gridiron. Easterling played eight seasons at safety and was part of the "Gritz Blitz" defense for the Falcons.

"It was wonderful being married to him the first 13 years. It was wonderful. He was just fun to be around. Loved life, loved playing, loved just being himself," widow Mary Ann Easterling said.

Easterling said after that, Ray changed. He suffered concussions during his time in the NFL.

"Several that we documented. Definitely there were dings and there were, you know, that brain jiggle, that whiplash, that happened many times," Easterling said.

"I always study the brain with the patient in mind, trying to solve the mystery of why they were acting that way," neuropathologist Dr. Ann McKee said.

McKee has studied the brain for nearly three decades. She heads up the Brain Bank at the Veterans Affairs Medical Center in Bedford, MA, and along with Dr. Cantu, is one of the co-founders of Boston University's Center for the Study of Traumatic Encephalopathy.  Most recently, she began studying the brains of deceased NFL players.

The thing we've been seeing over and over again, which is very disturbing, is we see this neurodegenerative disease. This condition called Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy, which is characterized by a buildup of this protein called tau," McKee said.

One of the players is former Chicago Bear Dave Duerson. Duerson killed himself in February of 2011. He left a note with wishes for his brain to be studied.

"What we found in his brain is really substantial disease, a lot of abnormalities in his frontal lobe, the part of the brain that would control judgment and processing of thoughts. He had a lot of involvement with his temporal lobes, part of the brain that would be important for impulsivity and irrational behavior. I think what was disturbing about that was that he was only 50 and he actually had very substantial changes," McKee said.

McKee made the Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy, or CTE, diagnosis by looking at stained slides of Duerson's brain.

So far, out of 19 former NFL players brains McKee has studied, 18 of them were diagnosed with CTE. It's a diagnosis that, at this point, can only be made after death.

"As the player ages, even if he doesn't have any more hits to the head, the disease in some people becomes very progressive and starts really taking over most of the brain. That's one of the curious features of this. There's a long latent period between time a person experiences the head injuries, and they have to be repetitive head injuries, and there can be a period of years of doing well. Then there's this slow, subtle deterioration," McKee said.

More than 500 people have signed up to be a part of the brain registry to donate their brain after death, including dozens of current NFL players, other pro athletes and members of the general public.

"We need to know what the extent of this disease is. We've seen it in some individuals but we have no idea what the prevalence is in the general population," McKee said.

Athletes of other sports are also at risk. CTE was first diagnosed in boxers. It's been found in hockey players, and members of the military who have been exposed to trauma in combat. McKee even found CTE in an 18-year-old high school football player. 

The findings are alarming some of the biggest names in the game. Earlier this year, former Cardinals QB Kurt Warner made waves when he said he'd rather not have his son play football. And, Tom Brady's dad said he might not have let number 12 play knowing what he knows now.

"I think age is a factor here. Younger kids are more prone to concussions. Their brains are not milonated, their heads are disproportionately big, and their necks are weaker. All of this sets them up for the given amount of brain trauma being more injurious to the brain than it would to an adult. I don't believe youngsters under the age of 14 should play collision sports as they're currently played. Tom Brady himself didn't play football until high school and he played precious little in his first year," Cantu said.

Girl's sports are not exempt. A study suggests girls are 64% more likely to suffer concussions than boys in high school soccer. Cantu believes it's because girls have weaker necks and don't absorb shock as easily. Girls can also take longer to recover from head injuries.  

Washington State was the first to pass a tough youth return-to-play law. The Lystedt Law requires players, coaches and parents become educated about the dangers of concussions. A player must sit out if suspected of having a concussion and before they return to play they must be medically cleared.

The law is named after Zachery Lystedt. In 2006, the then 13-year-old suffered a concussion during a middle school football game. He went back in after just a few plays. Lystedt later collapsed, and suffered a life threatening brain injury. He was left permanently disabled.

Since Washington's law passed in 2009, most of the country has adopted the law or something similar. This year, NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell and NCAA President Mark Emmert sent a letter to the remaining states, including a letter to Georgia Governor Nathan Deal, urging them to pass similar legislation. Georgia remains one of six states without a law pending.

During this years' legislative session, current and former Falcons lobbied for House Bill 673, Georgia's return-to-play act.

"I can remember, after one play, getting up, seeing the sky was a shade of yellow.  And there were green dots.  I didn't know I had a concussion at that time," Falcons kicker Matt Bryant said.

Former Falcons linebacker Buddy Curry also testified.

"I just think it's important that somebody other than the coach or the parent is making the decision for the kid to go out and play in the game," Curry said.

Curry and former Falcons teammate Bobby Butler formed a non-profit called Kids and Pros, where former NFL players host camps for kids. For 10 years, the two who played together in the 80's, have put an emphasis on playing safe.

"We've got to take the head out of the collision. We've got to teach new techniques that's going to take the head out of the collision," Butler said.

The camps teach what Butler and Curry call safe and proper blocking and tackling techniques.

"Instead of the strike plate being the face and front of the body where you're exploding your arms and you're ripping your hips.  The strike plate now is under the chin shoulder to shoulder. Now when I'm ripping, I'm coming up here and my head is up during the collision," Curry said.

Curry and Butler are two of thousands of players suing the NFL. The lawsuit claims the league knew the dangerous after-effects of concussions and did nothing to protect the players.

"I've never been the same since," Butler said.

"It concerns me about myself with my family. I want to protect my family if something happens to my brain, if it's worse than it is now, and my memory continues to decrease," Curry said.

Ray Easterling was part of the very first concussion lawsuit filed against the NFL. Easterling said Ray loved the game.

"He loved the teamwork. He loved the subtle ways he could communicate with his teammates," Easterling said.

Later in life Easterling could barely communicate at all. He took his own life in April 2012. Easterling's autopsy showed he too suffered from CTE, a result of repeated hits to the head.

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