By MARCIA C. SMITH / ORANGE COUNTY REGISTER
The NFL is a day away from hosting the Super Bowl, the most irresistibly gaudy, glitzy and gut-bucket championship of the year.
Goliaths and gladiators collide on the gridiron, playing an aggressive, rugged brand of tackle football for the amusement of an expected 110 million TV viewers.
Junior Seau’s suicide in May 2012 and the later finding that he suffered from CTE renewed the call for improved safety for football players, especially when it comes to head injuries.
But the controversy over head injuries in this brutal game, debates over player safety, three suicides of former players in the past two years, mounting scientific research linking head trauma to long-term brain disorders and the largest class-action lawsuit in sports looming over its players’ helmets have put America’s most popular sports league on the defensive.
Football is under attack.
Even President Barack Obama delivered a hard hit last week, telling The New Republic, “I’m a big football fan, but I have to tell you if I had a son, I’d have to think long and hard before I let him play football.”
Concerns over the dangers of football’s violent and repetitive hits resurfaced as a national hot-button issue on the morning of May 2, when former USC and 12-time Pro Bowl Chargers linebacker Junior Seau, 43, put a .357-caliber Magnum to his chest and fired a bullet through his heart in his Oceanside home.
AN NFL WIDOW
As soon as she heard the news, Eleanor Perfetto immediately – and correctly – suspected Seau suffered chronic traumatic encephalopathy, a degenerative brain disease that can be caused by the vicious blows he sustained and delivered during his 20-year NFL career.
Perfetto’s husband of 25 years, Ralph Wenzel, a former Pittsburgh Steelers and Chargers guard from 1966 to 1973, died June 18 of complications from dementia. He was 69.
He played in an era when “seeing stars,” “getting your bell rung” and “taking a ding” weren’t alarming symptoms of a concussion but badges of courage earned by soldiering on for the sake of a paycheck, a spot on a depth chart and the respect of your teammates.
In 1995, he began wrestling with depression and short-term memory loss. Soon after, Perfetto helplessly began to watch “his brain and his body literally deteriorate from him being an extremely healthy, active, intelligent man who ran five miles a day, lifted weights, taught school, read biographies and loved old movies … to being someone who sat in a vegetative state in a wheelchair, who lost 80 pounds of muscle mass, who couldn’t walk, and in the end, couldn’t recognize his own name,” she said.
Six months after his death, researchers at Boston University’s Center for the Study of Traumatic Encephalopathy told Perfetto on Dec. 18 that Wenzel had “very severe CTE, one of the worst cases they’d ever seen.”
On Jan. 10, neuropathologists at the National Institutes of Health said that Seau, despite never being diagnosed with a concussion while in the NFL, also suffered from CTE.
Since the 2006 suicide of Philadelphia safety Andre Waters, the disease has been detected in 33 of 34 brain examinations of former NFL players, including Atlanta “Gritz Blitz” safety Ray Easterling, 62, who died of a self-inflicted gunshot wound April 19, and four-time Pro Bowl Chicago safety Dave Duerson, 50, who shot himself in the chest Feb. 17, 2011.
Perfetto believes the NFL played a role in her husband’s dementia and ultimately his death. Her lawsuit is among at least 195 others involving more than 4,000 former players and their families that have been consolidated in a master complaint filed in federal court in Philadelphia.
The plaintiffs accuse the NFL and official helmet-maker Riddell of “deliberately and fraudulently” misleading players by concealing information connecting football-related head trauma to long-term brain damage. They contend that the NFL failed to properly treat players for concussions and “exacerbated the health risk by promoting the game’s violence.”
Seau’s family also filed a wrongful-death suit against the NFL in Superior Court in San Diego on Jan. 23.
Perfetto won’t be watching Super Bowl XLVII even though everyone around her Annapolis, Md., home is talking about the Baltimore Ravens’ matchup with the San Francisco 49ers.
“Why? What a waste,” she said. “It’s a whole lot of money and a whole lot of hype for something that could be very damaging to the guys playing the game but also to the kids watching it who want to go out and do the same thing.”
David Sparks, a past president of the Huntington Beach Pop Warner, said he believes that his league’s 500 players are “100 percent safe.” His coaches sit through yearly clinics on concussions. Helmets are inspected every two years.
Newly hired El Dorado coach Mike Crawford, 33, said he’d sit a disoriented player after a hard hit and have him examined by a trainer rather than let him play with a possible concussion.
He also plans to have every player in the program wear headgear – lycra Gamebreaker helmets with shock-attenuating foam inserts – at every practice not involving a helmet.
Veteran Mater Dei coach Bruce Rollinson made concussion prevention “a personal passion” in the six years since he watched two of his pass-rushing players violently collide head-to-head when the quarterback stepped out of their crosshairs.
“Nothing is going to prevent the concussion completely because the reality is that this is a fast, physical game of collisions,” he said. “What we can do is minimize the impact on the body, take every precaution and be aware when head injuries might occur.”
Which is why Rollinson has players wear helmets and full pads at every possible practice, fully anticipating that players will always try to go full speed and hard contact would be inevitable. And it’s why he agreed with the team doctors’ program for all players to have baseline neurological testing at the start of each season.
“I’m from the old school where you hit ’em till you can’t see straight, but I don’t believe that anymore,” said Rollinson, 63, who played flanker at USC in 1971.
“When I lose my keys and later find I left them in the freezer, I stop and think: Is it age or all the shots I took playing the game?”
Clay Matthews Jr., 56, retired in 1996 after 19 NFL seasons as a four-time Pro Bowl linebacker with Cleveland and Atlanta. He said he suffers no headaches or memory issues from his bruising, headbanger’s-ball playing days but wonders “if something might pop up later.”
As the linebackers coach at Oaks Christian High in Westlake Village and father of two current NFL linebackers, Clay III and Casey, Matthews said he is concerned about the modern NFL game with bigger, stronger and faster players. Clay III, the 2010 NFC Defensive Player of the Year, already has sustained two concussions in his four seasons with Green Bay.
“At this point, I think they (the NFL) are doing everything they can to err on the side of caution,” the father said.
“The facts are that in some way, shape or form, they will be hurt, and the belief was that everything could always be fixed. Now we’re learning that might not be the case with head injuries.”
Educational pamphlets on concussions were sent out to players in 2007. Stiffer penalties for helmet-to-helmet contact have been implemented in recent years.
In 2012 the league awarded $30 million to the NIH for medical research and rolled out NFL Total Wellness, a program with enhanced mental health benefits and a confidential toll-free hotline developed and operated in part by specialists in suicide prevention.
There are plans for independent neurological consultants to be on the NFL sidelines in 2013. The NFL Players Association has asked for the establishment of a chief of safety post.
NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell, who has helped make the league a $9.3 billion enterprise, delivered his customary state-of-the-league address Friday, reaffirming the NFL’s commitment to make the game safe.
He spoke of escalating discipline for illegal hits, implementing postseason physical and mental health player evaluations, and treating head injuries conservatively.
“We have more to do, but we will keep working on it,” he said.
There’s no more time for head games.
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