Column: Head trauma issues surface once more in NFL

By Ron Cook - Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

Ben Roethlisberger is expected to play next season, his 14th with the Steelers. But what if Roethlisberger surprises everyone by retiring? Could you blame him? He has been a big part of two Super Bowl wins. He has Hall of Fame creds. He has made a fortune and has an estimated net worth of $70 million. Wouldn’t you think about walking away from a brutal game with your health if you were him? When you have three young children at home? When you want to be able to do things with them and their children instead of being physically limited?

Two days after the loss to the New England Patriots in the AFC championship game, Roethlisberger wouldn’t commit to playing in 2017. He talked about being there for his family and how he was envious of close pal Heath Miller, who walked away from football with his health.

“I’m not trying to be a drama queen or whatever they say I am,” Roethlisberger said. “And I’m not saying I’m not coming back. I just think it’s prudent for anyone who’s played the game as long as I have to talk to the people you love and make the best decisions about your future for you and your family. All that says about me is that I’m smart.”

All indications are Roethlisberger has decided to keep playing. Everyone is counting on it at Steelers headquarters. They are planning on taking another run at the Super Bowl with a powerful offense led by Roethlisberger, a superb offensive line, Le’Veon Bell and Antonio Brown.

But the sad news from the weekend is enough to make Roethlisberger or any player have second thoughts about continuing to play.

The family of Hall of Famer Gale Sayers revealed he has struggled with dementia since being diagnosed four years ago. Dwight Clark, who made one of the iconic plays in NFL history — “The Catch” to beat the Dallas Cowboys in the NFC championship game after the 1981 season — revealed he has amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS), better known as Lou Gehrig’s Disease, a degenerative neurological condition with no known cure. Sayers is 73, Clark 60. Sayers’ wife said football led to his problems. Clark said he believes football played a part in his.

No one in Pittsburgh should have been shocked by the revelations. Maybe no other city has had the troubling experiences with football-related health issues that ours has.

Just this month, there was a Washington Post story about a lawsuit involving 1,800 former players against the NFL and its teams, claiming the clubs violated federal drug laws for decades by prescribing powerful, addictive painkillers to players. “It was the direct reason I retired,” former Steelers center Jeff Hartings said. “I had to take so many drugs (to keep playing). I knew it wasn’t healthy.”

In December 2008, former Pitt All-American and Steelers No. 1 draft pick Paul Martha was diagnosed with brain disease that he believes is the result of 10 concussions he had in the NFL. Martha, a brilliant attorney after his football career, ran the four-time Super Bowl-winning San Francisco 49ers in the 1980s and the two-time Stanley Cup-winning Penguins in the early 1990s for the DeBartolo sports empire, as well as the Civic Arena.

And, of course, there were former Steelers Mike Webster, Terry Long and Justin Strzelczyk, all of whom died young with brain disease. Webster has become the grizzled, craggy face of the NFL concussion issue.

But the Sayers and Clark news provided two national jolts about the likely link between football and brain disease, the biggest jolts since Hall of Famer Junior Seau shot himself to death in 2012. Sayers was such a terrific running back/kick returner for the Chicago Bears that he made the Hall of Fame despite playing just seven NFL seasons from 1965-71. Clark’s catch started the 49ers on their way to their dynasty of the 1980s. He played nine NFL seasons from 1979-87.

“Like the doctor at the Mayo Clinic said, ‘Yes, a part of this had to be on football,’ ” Sayers’ wife, Ardythe, told the Kansas City Star. “It wasn’t so much getting hit in the head. It’s just the shaking of the brain when they took him down with the force they play the game in.”

“I’ve been asked if playing football caused this,” Clark wrote in a statement. “I don’t know for sure. But I certainly suspect it did. And I encourage the NFLPA and the NFL to continue working together in their efforts to make the game of football safer, especially as it relates to head trauma.”

That is the hope of Roethlisberger and all NFL players.

Most will continue to play for as long as they can. They love the money. They love the fame. They love the thrill of competition. I think of something former Steelers defensive end Brett Keisel said shortly before he retired: “The feeling I get in my stomach coming out through the tunnel on game day is indescribable. I won’t be able to get that after I’m done playing. You can’t get that anywhere else. It’s impossible.”

Many players will continue to justify their decision to keep playing despite the long-term health risks. I remember former Steelers safety Ryan Clark, known for his ferocious hitting, touching on three ways during an interview in 2010: “Nothing’s going to happen to me. The bad stuff happens to such-and-such. Not me … I never think about what I’ll be like when I’m 60. You never think about being that old. I might tell my accountant how much money I want to have when I’m 60, but I don’t think about what my quality of life will be then … I put my faith in God. I’m going to be OK.”

Those justifications are predictable. But they have to be getting a little harder for NFL players to believe every day.


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By Ron Cook

Pittsburgh Post-Gazette