Head trauma, CTE and the future of the NFL

Karl Walter

The sobering reality is the NFL, as we know it, won't likely be the same.

Bennie was a good friend of mine growing up. The quintessential "big" kid, Bennie was about six feet tall when he was 13, and always was a great athlete.

Ryan was my class's super star. Voted Most Athletic, starting quarterback and point guard from his freshman year on. He didn't have Bennie's height, but if he did, he would have been one of the top football recruits in the country. Except basketball was always his first love, and would have been a major recruit on the hardwood as well.

Ryan lived a few houses down from me, and Bennie was in the neighborhood. I spent a few summers playing variations of three-man basketball with those two, and I could probably count on one hand the amount of games we played that didn't result in a fight between them. Insanely competitive and both very talented.

I chose not to engage in a competitive battle between them. My highest and best use was to simply break up the fights before they started, so we wouldn't get in trouble.

After the two of them broke several school records in football (Bennie would eventually give up baseball and basketball, Ryan eventually quit baseball), Bennie would receive a scholarship to play tight end at Michigan. Ryan, at 5-foot-9, walked on the basketball team at the University of Minnesota.

Bennie red-shirted, and eventually finished second to Iowa's Dallas Clark in most receiving categories in the Big 10 and in the nation. He was a second round draft pick by the Houston Texans. The 'U' (what Minnesotans refer to the main college in the state) would be caught amid a massive academic fraud scandal, although Ryan didn't participate in any way (Clem Haskins, the coach behind it all, was fired), he would leave for a Division III school in Minnesota. He got back into football after a two-year absence, and led that school to a national championship his senior year.

Bennie battled knee injuries in successive years, and eventually was released by the Texans. He's considered a "bust" by the common definition, but it's essentially impossible to measure the reaction of one's knee to sharp lateral cuts on grass or artificial turf before the draft. He landed in Seattle, under Mike Holmgren, where they saw value in him as a special teams player. Bennie was a wedge-buster; the guy who previously would ram himself head-on into the primary blocking on kick returns.

Three-person wedges have since been banned in the NFL.

Ryan married a girl I went to grade school with, and is a higher-up in his family's business. A buddy of mine played softball with him up until this year, when apparently he hung up his cleats. He's got a kid and is doing that whole thing.

Last I heard, Bennie had a seizure at the age of 29.

While there may not be enough scientific evidence to confirm the direct link between repeated blows to the head among the living and chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE), if it has webbed feet, waddles around and quacks, it's probably a duck.

That's the focus of Mark Roth's excellent piece in Sunday's Post-Gazette; the long-term effects of CTE on former NFL players, and some discussion on how it's currently impossible to detect among the living.

In the article, Roth references a study in which University of Chicago neurosurgeon Julian Bailes estimates a college football player will have experienced 8,000 blows to the head, with more to come in the pros. That's a sobering number.

While I was never a great football player, I've often told one of my favorite glory day stories, the time when Bennie, the future NFL player, cleaned my clock on a power sweep in practice. I was the cornerback responsible for funneling the play inside. I remember the sound of the hit; kind of like hitting a metal bucket half full of water with a plastic stick. I remember lying on the ground, staring at the sky. Not in pain, but a dull sense of cognition, sort of aware of what just happened, but in no particular rush to move.

It's just the game. Bennie wasn't trying to injure me, but he was trying to hit me. I sat out the next practice or two while the cobwebs dissipated in my head. I've read the same studies and stories about the impacts of head trauma, and wondered how much that hit, and a few other concussions I've received, might affect me long-term.

Reading studies like this, now, what I think about is how much that one, and thousands of others, may have affected Bennie. Ryan, the quarterback who played basketball before returning to a far less physical but still violent level of play, doesn't have any major issues that I'm aware of.

While it may not be provable, it seems like Bennie might.

We rail on about the money these guys make, and how that's the risk they take in playing the game. All valid points, but it's not like Bennie, as a second round pick who played 19 games and was in the league five years, made a truckload of money. Steelers Hall of Fame center Mike Webster had the career of a legend. He died, destitute, and his legacy from from one of the all-time great centers changed to be the center of the first battle over this condition among the NFL.

He barely made anything in comparison to what current Steelers C Maurkice Pouncey will make. Both are likely to have the same risk of his condition.

Roth's outstanding piece of journalism touches on a major issue that will indeed change the face of this game. I've made it clear in this space how I disagree with the direction the league is taking, but know, in the back of my mind, it's as inevitable as the seasons changing.

For all the money these guys make, they eventually ride into the sunset of their careers, but the sun is still high in the sky in their lives. The damage this condition is allegedly doing to the lives of these former players, and perhaps more importantly, to their families, victimless in this entire ordeal, is devastating.

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