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Head injuries are concerns for former Lobos/ex-NFL players

Preston Dennard doesn’t remember his first NFL reception.

He can’t recall his first professional TD catch, either.

“I’m not sure,” said the ex-University of New Mexico star receiver who played nine seasons in the National Football League. “I know my favorite was against the Cowboys on a Monday night; a diving catch on national TV (Dec. 15, 1980). I don’t remember the first one. Some of those things are a little fuzzy.”

What’s not fuzzy is what, quite possibly, started to make things that way.

That, he recalls vividly.

“Oh yeah, I definitely remember my first concussion,” said the 61-year-old Dennard, who played for the Los Angeles Rams at the time. “I was knocked out. It was against the Cowboys in a playoff game in 1979 (won 21-19 by the Rams).

“I got hit in the back of the head, the lower back temple area, going down for a ball in the third quarter. (Rams quarterback) Vince (Ferragamo) threw it low, and I was coming out of the backfield and dove for it. I think it was (the Cowboys’) Charlie Waters who popped me in the back of my helmet.”

Despite the hit that knocked him out cold, Dennard made the catch. But he said, that play might have been the start of a lot of brain issues.

He is one of five former Lobos interviewed for this story who went on to pro football careers and since have retired. Of the five, three said they believe they are suffering from concussions they had during their playing days.

As for the hit, “Today, a blow like that would have been a big, huge penalty,” said Dennard. “But back then, it wasn’t even a penalty.

“… And one of the things about concussions is they have a cumulative effect. Initially, it only takes one pop. Every one gets worse after that.”

Dennard said he is noticing more memory loss, especially short-term memory, but doesn’t know how many concussions he suffered during his playing days.

“I’m sure there were others from symptoms I remember that are now identifiable alarms for concussions,” Dennard said.

Concussions, of course, are huge news these days. They are being listed as the cause of a number of Traumatic Brain Injuries (TBI), especially chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE).

Last summer, a study by the Boston University School of Medicine and the VA Boston Healthcare System announced findings from their study on 202 brains of former football players, including 111 ex-NFL players. The brains were donated by the families of the former players.

The results were, well, brain-numbing.

Neurodegenerative disease was found in 87 percent of all the brains, and CTE was discovered in 110 of the 111 NFL players’ brains.

“That was quite an eye-opener for a lot of people,” said Don Woods, a former Lobo quarterback who was the NFL’s Offensive Rookie of the Year in 1974 as a running back with the San Diego Chargers. “As players, we’ve known it was really bad. That study shows how bad.”

How bad typically depends on players’ longevity in the league, their positions, the years they played and much more. But there’s little disagreement that the sport has caused a tremendous number of brain injuries.

“The time for denying facts and looking the other way is over,” U.S. Rep. Jan Schakowsky (D-Ill.) said following the release of the study. “We must now actively seek out ways to protect the health and (well-being) of players from Pop Warner to the NFL and every league in between.”

When asked recently if he worries about the possibility of brain damage down the line, former UNM and Chicago Bears star linebacker Brian Urlacher didn’t answer directly.

Tony Pomroy shakes hands with former UNM and Chicago Bears great Brian Urlacher, left, after getting his autograph at the VIP mixer at The Canyon Club on Wednesday night in July. (Jim Thompson/Albuquerque Journal)

“It’s all part of the game, whether it’s knees, shoulders, elbows, your neck, your brain, you’re going to get (hurt) somehow,” said Urlacher, 39.

“I have a 12-year-old son (Kennedy), and he wants to play tackle football. I said I wouldn’t stop him from playing, but you have to know that football is a violent game. If you play, you’re going to get hurt.”

Paying physical price

Like Urlacher, the other four ex-Lobos – Dennard, Woods, Robin Cole and Walt Arnold – said they all suffered numerous injuries in their careers.

“We knew we had our bells rung several times, but we felt that we could go out there and play,” Woods said. “You went back out there because you didn’t want to lose your starting position, and you didn’t want to glorify the competition.

Don Woods is shown during his days as a high school track and field coach at West Mesa in 2001. (Journal file)

“You always wanted to be on top of the depth chart – but then it catches up with you.”

Dennard echoed Woods’ words.

“Guys don’t like to look hurt after a big hit,” Dennard said. “They want to get up. Both the guy making the hit and the guy getting hit, they want to get up and act like Superman. It’s all about bravado.”

What has changed, the former players said, is the way the league now handles blows to the head.

“When I played, if you had to come out with a head injury, they just put some ammonia under your nose and sent you back in the game,” Woods said. “It’s different now.”

Woods said he started to suffer “severe headaches” in the early-to-mid 1980s, and they have continued since.

“That’s one of the main reasons I had to stop teaching in 2010,” said Woods, who coached and taught at West Mesa High School.

“The headaches just made it too rough.”

Suicidal tendencies

Arnold, who was a star at Los Alamos High, played in the NFL from 1980-87. He agreed that football is changing.

Former Lobo and NFL player Walt Arnold doesn’t believe he ever sustained a concussion duringhis active playing career, but he is still getting checked outmedically. (Adolphe Pierre-Louis/JOURNAL)

Less contact, per labor agreements, reduces the likelihood of head injuries in practice, though “players aren’t tackling as well because they don’t practice tackling,” Arnold said. Experimentation with new helmets, evolving rules and penalties for head-to-head collisions, he believes, are helping to reduce the concussion-causing hits.

Arnold said that being a tight end didn’t make him as susceptible to concussions as other positions on the field.

“I might have a had a few hard hits in some games, but I was never diagnosed with a concussion. (On the sidelines,) they might say, ‘How many fingers am I holding up?’ They’d probably give you three chances to guess,” he said with a chuckle.

“Nobody ever took anybody’s helmet away, I’ll say that.”

And it’s those helmets – especially at certain positions – that, many times cause as much damage as they prevent.

“There are a lot of positions that are more inclined to concussions,” Arnold said. “Look at (safety Dave) Duerson, (linebacker) Junior Seau, (running back) Tony Dorsett; they were players that were having a whole lot of helmet-to-helmet contact.

“I don’t think you’ll see a whole lot of offensive linemen get it, because the way the blocking rules have changed (allowing blocking with hands).”

Dorsett has been diagnosed with having signs of CTE, even though a Mayo Clinic report from last year said there is currently no reliable way to diagnose CTE until an autopsy. Last month, however, researchers announced some breakthroughs in diagnosing CTE among the living.

Eventually, the hope is to use a range of neuropsychological tests, brain imaging and biomarkers to diagnose CTE.

Duerson’s and Seau’s brains showed they both had CTE, and both committed suicide.

So did former New England Patriots star Aaron Hernandez, who hanged himself in April in the prison cell where he was serving a life-without-parole sentence for murder. Last month, his lawyer announced a lawsuit against the NFL and the team, accusing them of hiding the true dangers of the sport.

Concussion monitors, protocols and improved equipment all help, but Dennard agrees with many doctors and experts who say only so much can be done to protect the brain.

“Football is football,” Dennard said. “You can’t make equipment that much better to lend itself to head defense. If you’re going to take a giant hit, you’re going to take a giant hit.”

Assessing the damage

Arnold, a 59-year-old Albuquerque real estate broker who played for four NFL teams, said the league is doing a great deal to help current and former players.

“The NFL gives me a tremendous amount of information all the time. They just started a program that’s, basically, for everybody who ever played in the league.

“You had to register by a certain date (in August), but everyone who did is being sent to a neurologist to get a baseline assessment.”

Arnold said he took his first baseline assessment on Tuesday in Phoenix and already has been scheduled for another. He said Tuesday’s assessment was “a lot of memory testing.”

Arnold said money is put aside – “$4 or $5 million” – for treatment and care if his baseline assessment changes and he contracts ALS, Alzheimer’s, pre-dementia or dementia.

“So there’s some big dollars that the league is stepping up with.”

The league, which was accused of ignoring the severity of injuries and misleading players about the dangers of the sport for decades, ended up losing a class-action lawsuit. It was filed in 2011 and settled in 2013 for $765 million.

But a federal judge overseeing the case was didn’t know if that was enough to cover the more than 20,000 ex-NFL players covered under the suit for the next 65 years. There were multiple rounds of negotiation, and the judge approved a revised settlement in 2015 that removed the $765 million cap on damages, with the new deal expected to cost the NFL somewhere over $1 billion.

The NFL must help diagnose, treat and pony up the big bucks to former players who are suffering from injuries. The worse the injury, the more the money.

The league estimates that 6,000 former players, or nearly three in 10, could develop Alzheimer’s disease or moderate dementia.

Fewer than 200 of those retirees opted out of the settlement, while 99 percent approved.

“The NFL is taking it on,” Arnold said. “I don’t think the sport that’s doing much about concussions is soccer. It seems, for the rest of the world, they don’t care.”

Cole, a feared linebacker with the Pittsburgh Steelers from 1977-87 who played 12 NFL seasons in all, said he had at least eight concussions.

Robin Cole had a 12-year NFL career, 11 of those seasons (1977-87) with the Pittsburgh Steelers. (Journal file)

“I try not to personally worry about (long-term brain injuries), but I do have concerns,” said Cole, who lives in Pittsburgh. “I keep myself abreast of everything. I try to get to the doctor if I hear of something that helps, some kind of treatment.

“I kind of align myself to what’s paying off to help, and I’ve been proactive in trying different treatments.”

Cole, 62, said he has gone through Hyperbaric Oxygen Therapy (HBOT), a new and FDA-approved treatment for TBI being made famous by Hall of Fame quarterback Joe Namath. Cole said his longtime friend and former NFL star Marv Fleming introduced him to the therapy in 2010.

The patients are placed inside a pressurized chamber, Cole said for “about an hour,” and oxygen is pumped into the brain.

“It’s pure oxygen,” Cole said. “Marv told me how Joe Namath had, like five black spots on his brain before the therapy, but four are now gone. The only one remaining had shrunk.

“They can’t guarantee what it can do for everybody, but I have felt the difference with my memory,” Cole said. “I know I didn’t have any black spots when I did it in 2010, and tested again since and didn’t have them.”

Is money enough?

Woods, 67, said he appreciates the way the NFL is now dealing with ex-players. But he is concerned, in his case, that most of the damage has already been done.

“I’ve been diagnosed with (signs of) CTE for about 15 years. It’s progressing,” he said.

Woods said he hasn’t tried any new procedures on his brain, because “at my age, I don’t think much is going to work. I would just be going through the motions. I’m trying to live day by day. … Everything, pretty much, hurts on my body.

“I broke my arm in my very first game, and I played with a broken arm for years and couldn’t use my right side.”

Despite all of that, the strapping Woods looks like he could still blast through a tight hole on the line of scrimmage. He said he works out every day from 7:30-to-10 a.m. at a local gym.

All five Lobos interviewed for this story have stayed in great shape since their playing days.

But there’s no telling what shape they will be in during the coming years – or how much assistance they might need in dealing with concussion issues or other NFL-related injuries.

“The NFL is talking about paying a lot of money for medical expenses for former players,” said Woods, who had pain shots in both shoulders on Thursday and has hernia and back surgeries scheduled for the next few weeks.

“But you’re also talking about million-dollar equipment in some cases, like some guys having to speak into a computer to translate what they are saying.

“They are talking about paying up to $5 million in some cases. But that still might not be enough.”

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