Friday, January 30, 2009

The Helmet as Weapon

Concussions and other consequences of helmet-to-helmet hits

Pittburgh's Ryan Clark on Baltimore's Willis McGahee

There was a pretty frightening moment in the Pittsburgh Steelers - Baltimore Ravens AFC title game a couple of weeks ago when Pittsburgh safety Ryan Clark put a brutal (but legal) hit on Baltimore running back Willis McGahee, knocking them both senseless. McGahee was wheeled off the field on a stretcher and sent to the hospital. Clark was also sent to the hospital for a concussion test afterwards. Clark said after the game, "This is the first time I've ever had any head injury. It's the first time I've had to take any concussion test afterwards... If you look at most of my hits, I always try to turn and lead with my shoulder, even the McGahee hit. I try my best to tackle in a way where I don't put myself at risk."

Pittburgh's Ryan Clark on New England's Wes Welker

I'm not quite so sure about that... It was helmet-to-helmet. Clark has a reputation for being an intimidator who can bring the "big hit." It's very similar to the one he put on an unsuspecting Wes Welker as he was running an inside route earlier this season. Years ago, there was a lot of talk about helmets being used as intimidating weapons in NFL games, spurring imitation at lower levels from the NCAA down to Pop Warner.

Florida's Major Wright on Oklahoma's Manny Johnson

With the ensuing outcry, things seemed to get better for a while, but with the pressure to win combined with the intense competitive spirit of the game and glaring media spotlight, it appears to me to be on the rise again. I love football, and I like to watch a tough physical contest as much as anyone else, but there's a right way and a wrong way to tackle. I know these defensive backs love to put a good stick on these flashy receivers who can burn them and make them look bad, but there's something gutless about putting your helmet in the chin of a man who's helpless and completely exposed.

My oldest son loved playing youth football, even though he's not very big. His first coach was great guy, but a stern and demanding taskmaster. My son loved playing for him. Go figure... Sometimes kids can take orders and discipline from other people better than they can from their own parents. At any rate, his coach told me later that the first time he saw my son's lack of size and experience, he thought to himself, "what am I going to do with this kid?" Over time, however, my son impressed him with his coachability and his toughness (a commodity the coach found to be generally lacking in our town). He wound up starting at cornerback and was moved to inside linebacker by the end of the season.

One thing that helped was the fact that I'd taught him how to tackle and his coach had reinforced the same lesson. To tackle someone (anyone) properly, you put your shoulder right into his belt buckle, drive, and wrap up. A ballcarrier can try all the head fakes, eye shifts, and fancy footwork he wants, but the hips don't lie. The hips invariably tell you the direction someone is moving in. A little guy can tackle a big guy this way just using the proper mechanics.

For his second season, my son wasn't able to move up to the next division with his coach and the rest of the squad because he hadn't put on enough weight. He was unhappy with his new coach, because he allowed too much head-to-head contact in practices. This lack of disclipline frustated and irritated my son. When he started complaining of headaches after practices, that was it. No more football.

From that point on he's gotten more serious about his soccer and has become quite good at it, although I still think swimming and diving are his best sports.

The gist of all this? The cost of all the helmet-to-helmet activity is becoming more and more visible in the NFL and elsewhere. The two starting quarterbacks in the Super Bowl, Kurt Warner and Ben Roethlisberger, have each suffered from a number of serious concussions in their careers. In this article, As study reveals NFL headache, concussions could cloud Kurt Warner and Ben Roethlisberger, its says...

A Boston University study unveiled this week uncovered new evidence concerning chronic traumatic encephalopathy, a degenerative brain disease caused by head trauma. Six former NFL players, all dead by 50, were found to have the condition, which doctors say can cause victims to lose control of their emotions, suffer depression and eventually, dementia.

Two of the players, former Eagle defensive back Andre Waters and ex-Steeler guard Terry Long, committed suicide, and a third, ex-Oilers linebacker John Grimsley, died after accidentally shooting himself. Tom McHale, a former Bucs offensive lineman, died of a drug overdose. Justin Strzelczyk, the former Steelers lineman, died in a head-on collision after leading New York State Thruway police on a high-speed chase.

In addition, the study reported the discovery of damage from CTE in the brain of a deceased 18-year-old who suffered multiple concussions while playing high school football.

Ted Johnson, formerly of the New England Patriots, was known as our "Bettis-Stuffer." This linebacker out of Colorado was one of the few defenders in the league who could stop this pantload from Pittbsurgh, Jerome Bettis, one-on-one. The contact from those, and other clashes, left a terrible legacy for Johnson.

Read Johnson's story in: 'I don't want anyone to end up like me' - The Boston Globe

"Officially, I've probably only been listed as having three or four concussions in my career," Johnson said. "But the real number is closer to 30, maybe even more. I've been dinged so many times I've lost count."

It has all unraveled; his career, his marriage, his health, his reputation. Former Patriots linebacker Ted Johnson was once a Super Bowl champion and a fan favorite, admired for his jarring hits and thoughtful approach to a violent game.

But now he is a struggling ex-athlete who has become unreliable and unreachable -- making promises and commitments he does not keep -- the subject of steamy tabloid gossip, shunned for an alleged domestic abuse incident involving his wife.

Johnson, 34, suffers from such severe depression that some mornings he literally cannot pull himself out of bed. When the crippling malaise overtakes him, he lies in a darkened room, unwilling to communicate with his closest family members.

The 10-year NFL veteran believes his current state is a direct result of a career in which he absorbed "countless" head injuries, including back-to-back concussions suffered within days during the 2002 season, when he says the Patriots didn't give him proper time to recover.

Desperate for answers, Johnson scheduled an appointment to receive electric shock treatment before deciding at the last moment to forgo that option.

Johnson's multiple symptoms include depression, dizziness, excessive drowsiness, fatigue, irritability, memory loss, poor concentration, ringing in the ears, and acute sensitivity to noise.

According to Dr. Cantu, who has been treating Johnson since last May, post-concussion syndrome can occur from a single concussion, but is more likely to occur after multiple concussions, and most likely to occur when the patient has endured back-to-back concussions without time for the first concussion to clear.

Johnson toyed with going public with his story before. He shared his struggles with the Globe last summer, but later requested his comments be put on hold. The recent suicide of former NFL defensive back Andre Waters, who had multiple concussions and suffered from depression, finally prompted Johnson to come forward.

"I want people to realize that you don't have to 'black out' to have a concussion," he said. "Most times, the symptoms of a concussion don't show up for hours, sometimes days. And this isn't just happening in the NFL. High school kids get concussions, and aren't properly monitored.

"Every day there is a new study linking concussions to depression, as well as early onset of Alzheimer's disease. It doesn't have to happen. It shouldn't happen.

"I don't want anyone to end up like me."

One of the things that bothered me the most about Clark's hits is that they remind me very much of the one that Jack Tatum left on Darryl Stingley which left him paralyzed.

Listen to WBUR ON-Point: Concussions and the NFL NFL wives speak out. Are their husbands suffering brain damage from playing in the National Football League?


Garpu said...

I did hear that WBUR thing...I was out there, actually. I couldn't help but feel for the wives. It can't be easy to marry one person, and wind up married to another after 10-20 years. (Not that all people don't change, but you don't expect your relationship to change *that* much.)

cowboyangel said...

I was thinking of posting something myself this week on that BU study that came out. But you've done a much better job, especially bringing in the experiences of your own son.

It's a sad situation, and I really don't know how football is going to survive the increasingly obvious brain damage being done to the players. I just don't think proper tackling or stiffer fines on helmet-to-helmet hits are enough. The players are too big, too strong, and too fast, and the circumstances on the field too chaotic. Look at Eric Smith's hit on Anquan Boldin earlier in the season. I really don't think Smith was trying to hurt the guy, but you're talking about too very fast, powerful men who, at the last moment, wound up in awkward positions that left one with a shattered jaw and the other knocked out. The league penalized Smith, but I don't know what he could've done differently. Let Boldin just score?

There are many other factors - the fans' love of big hits, repeated clips of big hits, coaches wanting to out-tough the other team, teams not monitoring concussions well enough, etc. But I still think the real crux of the matter is the game itself. It's violent and dangerous. And I don't see how this situation can be resolved without some major changes to the game itself.

National Flag Football League? National Touch Football League? :-)

We'll here more and more about this in the next few years.

It's too bad - I do think it's a great game. No other sport combines so many elements - athleticism, grace, beauty, speed, chess-like strategy, and brute, animal force.

Off-topic - Does Arizona have a chance tomorrow?

Jeff said...


I know what you mean. Can you imagine living with some behemoth of superhuman strength who can go off in a rage in an instant?

Hi William,

I suppose the violence is inherent in the game and it has always been dangerous.... did you ever read the novel Studs Lonigan from years ago? I wonder, though, if the equipment has contributed to making it even more so. Take a look at what Ryan Clark was doing in those two videos. He wasn't tackling, really. In both cases, he was waiting in the right position, ready to launch himself head-first like a missile when the opposing player came near. He was deliberately trying to put a hurt on these guys. I don't know. In rugby they wear hardly any equipment and they don't seem to have these kinds of injuries.

Do the Cardinalss have a chance? I think they do. They are peaking at just the right time and their best player (Fitzgerald) is breaking out into the most gifted phase of his career at the same moment. Still, defense wins championships.

What's the prognosis on Hines Ward? If he plays, I say Pittburgh wins. If he's out, the Cards have a chance.

I wish I had a rooting interest. I don't especially like either team very much.

cowboyangel said...

Interesting what you say about the equipment being part of the problem. I guess I should've picked up on that in your title - "The Helmet as Weapon." You may be right.

But the league went to equipment in the beginning because players were literally being killed on the field back in the 1910s and early 20s. So I don't know if that's the only issue. But, yes, some players really do use their helmets as weapons.

(And I remember when Kevin Mawae played with a broken arm, he definitely used his cast as a weapon! I thought it was great at the time, but I guess it's not that funny. I, too, like me some good violence on the field now and then, I have to admit.)

As far as rugby goes. . . I just did a quick search in Lexis-Nexis - you wouldn't believe how many articles are coming up on rugby-related deaths and serious and fatal spinal cord injuries.

A couple of highlights:

There were 22 deaths in Rugby League in New South Wales (NSW alone!) from 1976-1987.

And from an article in the London Times: RUGBY is the most dangerous sport played in Britain and is causing death and injury on an unacceptable scale, a specialist in sports medicine said yesterday.

Rugby players run four times the risk of death and at least three times the risk of serious injury compared with players of other team games such as soccer, cricket and hockey, according to Jon Nicholl, acting director of the Medical Care Research Unit at the University of Sheffield.

About 1,000 people a year suffer serious injuries playing rugby, including fractures, damage to the head or face or other injuries requiring treatment. It is ''by far the most dangerous sport'', Mr Nicholl told a conference on the medical hazards of sport and exercise organised by the Royal College of Physicians.

No one in the NFL has died from on-field injuries since 1971. (I think that's the year.) That's almost 40 years and thousands of players without a death.

What surprised me was also finding an article (from two weeks ago) on concussion/dementia problems in soccer:

"It is the cumulative effect of such injuries [collisions, getting kicked in the head], combined with the repetitive heading of footballs[!!!], that has long been thought to increase the risk of dementia in players."

Ward will play. The question is how bad is his ankle?

On paper, I don't see how Arizona wins. But I didn't think they were going to get past carolina or Philly either.

Yeah, I don't really care for either team at all. I'm hoping for a good game, though not expecting one. I have a feeling it will be over pretty quickly. I'm going to cheer for Arizona, simply because I don't want to see the Steelrs win again, and I like teams who haven't won in a long time.

Onthe other hand, I don't think the Bidwill family really deserves a championship, so I won't be heart-broken ifthey lose.

Jeff said...

OK, so rugby and soccer are dangerous too. Why do I try to argue with a guy with a master's degree in library science? Damned statistician... :)

I've always respected the Steelers, but I don't necessarily want their Super Bowl record embellished beyond what they have already.

I could pull for the Cards, but Kurt Warner really, really bugs me, going back to his St. Louis days. I'd been enjoying his sojourn into oblivion.

At the begining of the season, SI had Hines Ward ranked way down in its list of Best Receivers. I don't think he was in the top 20. For my money, there isn't a receiver in the NFL I'd rather have than him.

Although, I always want to wipe that smile off his face when we play against him.

cowboyangel said...

OK, so rugby and soccer are dangerous too. Why do I try to argue with a guy with a master's degree in library science? Damned statistician... :)

Hey, don't blame the messenger. I wasn't in any of those scrums breaking people's necks. It was simple curiosity after you brought up the subject. I had no earthly idea that rugby was so dangerous.

I know what you mean about Warner, though he hasn't bothered me as much in this latest go-round. Perhaps because I know how much he's struggled in the last few years. Have to give the guy credit - it really looked like his career was over. And he did play very well against the Eagles.

On the other hand, Hines Ward irritates me even more than Warner. He pushes the same "I'm a good Christian and nice guy off the field" schtick as Warner, but he's a dirty player. I've seen him take cheap shots at people on more than one occasion. It's not just playing tough, as he so publicly claims.

Interesting that you'd pick him over other receivers. I think he's good, very good in certain situations, but I'd prefer Larry Fitzgerald... Or Andre Johnson. Or Wes Welker! Why don't you guys trade Wes to the Jets? Maybe for Favre, in case Tom can't play again?

Jeff said...

Yeah, I was snooping around last night and I noticed a lot of defenders don't like Hines Ward for his crackback blocks and such.

You want Wes? Ha, no way man, we're keeping him. :)