Some of the best sports writing in America is being done on the NFL’s biggest long-term issue: concussions.
In the latest installment of the Best American Sports Writing Series, an anthology that I purchase with kid-on-Christmas-Day excitement every February, there are 26 stories that merited inclusion.
And as I recently flipped through the 411-page book with anticipation – Oh, I can’t wait to read that one – I kept stumbling onto stories that dealt directly with concussions and their long-term effects on NFL players.
Of course, great tragedy often makes for great storytelling. And there are plenty of horrific and heartbreaking stories among retired and heavily concussed NFL players.
There is Hall-of-Fame Steelers center Mike Webster who lost his memory and his mind before dying of a heart attack in 2002. There is another ex-Steeler, Terry Long, who committed suicide by guzzling antifreeze. And former Eagles safety Andre Waters, who, at 44, had the brain tissue of an 85-year-old man with Alzheimer’s when he shot himself in the mouth in 2006. And there is ex-Patriots linebacker Ted Johnson, who has three Super Bowl rings and difficulty remembering where he parked his Range Rover.
There are more … ex-players we recognize (Kyle Turley) and others (Gerald Small, Curtis Whitley) who never made a mark, but were irrevocably marked by the brutality of the game.
After reading these stories, the NFL’s proposal to play 18 regular-season games will strike many as more galling than greedy.
Unfortunately, another tragic story unfolded last week as former Bears safety Dave Duerson shot himself in the chest. Prior to committing suicide, Duerson had requested, via text messages, that his family donate his brain so it could be examined for chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE), a degenerative brain disease caused by head trauma.
Here’s a rundown of the three concussion-related stories included in the Best American Sports Writing of 2010 (click the title to read the story).
This Is Your Brain on Football
By Jeanne Marie Laskas, GQ
Story: Dr. Bennet Omalu found brown and red splotches, evidence of cell-killing tau protein, when he examined slides of Mike Webster’s brain. And he soon found resistance from the NFL when he gave a name (CTE) to the never-seen-before brain disease and began publishing his findings in a medical journal. By the end of the story, Omalu has examined the brains of 17 former NFL players with CTE.
Excerpt: “Terry Long had a clinical history similar to Webster’s. Depression. Memory loss. Crazy behavior. In and out of psych wards. He was bankrupt, living destitute and alone. He tried rat poison. He tried other cocktails. Nothing worked until finally he got it right. Omalu took Terry Long’s brain home, sliced it, sent it in for stains, ran the same tests, found the same splotches, the same tau proteins. “This stuff should not be in the brain of a 45-year-old man,” he said. “This looks more like a 90-year-old brain with advanced Alzheimer’s.”
This is Ted Johnson’s Brain
By Robert Sanchez, 5280 Magazine
Story: After suffering two concussions in the span of a week during training camp, former Patriots linebacker Ted Johnson played the 2003 season with a “lingering grogginess.” In 2004, he began taking Adderall to combat his dizziness and confusion. The attention-deficit-disorder drug allowed him to quiet his mind and focus on the field. Johnson retired after the 2004 season and his post-football life has been a mess: divorce, addiction, depression, headaches and fatigue.
Excerpt: “For much of his retirement up to that point, (Johnson) had spent his time inside Room 801 of the Ritz-Carlton residences and in a rented two-story townhouse in Boston, where he locked the door, closed the blinds, and rarely left his bed unless he needed to eat, use the bathroom, or collect one of the four prescriptions he’d become dependent upon. His once-robust list of friends had dwindled – folks simply stopped calling because Johnson stopped answering.”
By Malcolm Gladwell, The New Yorker
Story: Interweaving the stories of Michael Vick’s dogfighting ring and the long-term effects of concussions on NFL players, Gladwell asks if injury and violence are inherent in both football and dogfighting. The story begins with former offensive lineman Kyle Turley enduring a scary episode of vomiting in which his limbs shake and he can’t speak.
Excerpt: “Lately, I’ve tried to break it down,” Turley said. “I remember, every season, multiple occasions where I’d hit someone so hard that my eyes went cross-eyed, and they wouldn’t come uncrossed for a full series of plays. You are just out there, trying to hit the guy in the middle, because there are three of them … And there are the others where you are involved in a big, long drive. You start on your own five-yard line, and drive all the way down the field—fifteen, eighteen plays in a row sometimes. Every play: collision, collision, collision. By the time you get to the other end of the field, you’re seeing spots. You feel like you are going to black out. Literally, these white explosions — boom, boom, boom — lights getting dimmer and brighter, dimmer and brighter.”