Friday, February 02, 2007

This is What Everyone is Afraid Of

Following the Steelers game against Atlanta this past season there was a great deal of discussion -- including here at Pittsburgh Steelers Fanatic -- about just how much time should pass before Ben Roethlisberger went back on to the football field. Mr. Roethlisberger had suffered a concussion during the off-season, and then again against the Falcons, and the concern for many was that any additional head injuries might jeopardize his career.

During this off-season we have been exposed to the story of former Eagles defensive back Andre Water's suicide, and the subsequent comments by University of Pittsburgh neuropathologist Dr. Bennet Omalu in which he stated that "Mr. Waters' brain tissue had degenerated into that of an 85-year-old man with similar characteristics as those of early-stage Alzheimer’s victims."

Now comes a frightening, and compelling, the Boston Globe's Jackie MacMullan in which she describes the damage apparently done by numerous concussions to former New England Patriot Ted Johnson.

What follows is an extended excerpt of Ms. MacMullan's article (click here to go the complete version, registration is required) which focuses on the head injuries and their cumulative affects. Much is being made of the Bill Belichick connection to this story, but most of that has NOT been included here -- we have chosen to focus on the physical/psychological affects of the concussions rather than the culture of the NFL that allows coaches to ignore the well-being of their players.

"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.

He has tried to make himself well. He has been in counseling, taken antidepressants . . . [and] [w]hen they made him feel sluggish, he began taking . . . an amphetamine. He developed an addiction to the stimulant and was admitted to McLean Hospital in the summer of 2005 to receive psychiatric care. The doctors took films of his brain, he said, but they were not conclusive . . .

The numerous head traumas, said Dr. Robert Cantu, co-director of the Neurological Sports Injury Center at Brigham and Women's Hospital, have left Johnson with post-concussion syndrome as well as signs of early brain damage that Cantu fears is permanent.

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 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 said he can pinpoint the beginning of the decline in his health to Saturday, Aug. 10, 2002, in an exhibition game against the New York Giants.

Giants running back Sean Bennett had just caught the ball in the flat, and Johnson steeled himself for the head-on contact.

'It was a terrific collision,' Johnson recalled. 'I think I blacked out for a second. The guys could tell right away I was in trouble, so they pulled me off the field immediately. The trainer [Jim Whalen] asked me a few questions on the sidelines. I don't even remember what he said. The team doctor [Bert Zarins] might have come over, too, but honestly, I was out of it.'

The Patriots' medical staff ruled Johnson out for the remainder of the game . . . [but] [p]ressure to perform in a sport where there are no guaranteed contracts and where being 'soft' is the worst moniker that can be thrust upon you creates a culture in which players feel they must play through almost anything.

After his second concussion, Johnson was held out two weeks. When he returned to practice, he said, he noticed a shift in attitude toward him. When the team went through a light practice at the beginning of the week to prepare for the Sept. 9 season opener against Pittsburgh, Johnson did not take reps with the regulars. He surmised -- correctly -- he would be inactive for the first game of the year.

Johnson was stunned. After practice, he grabbed a garbage bag, dumped all of his belongings from his locker into it, and took off . . .

After conferring with his agent and the Players Association, it soon became apparent to Johnson he had no recourse. The team sent him a certified letter stating if he did not return in five days, his contract would be voided. He reluctantly reported back to work, but his relationship with Belichick remained strained. It wasn't until a few weeks later, when the coach asked him to join him in his office for a meeting, that Johnson confronted him.

'I told him, "You played God with my health," ' Johnson said. ' 'You knew I shouldn't have been cleared to play, and you gave me that blue jersey anyway."

'Bill said, "I had to see if you could play." That's when I lost it. I told him, "After all these years, you had to see if I could play?"

'Bill finally admitted, "Hey, Ted, I [expletive]. I made a mistake. . ." '

Although Johnson was reinstated, the balance of the 2002 season was a challenge. He returned to action against the New York Jets in Week 2, Sept. 15, a game the Patriots won, 44-7, but he said during huge chunks of the game, he was unable to focus on his assignments, hampered by a persistent "fuzziness."

'The one touchdown the Jets scored was my fault,' Johnson said. 'I adjusted incorrectly. I was supposed to be the play caller, the middle linebacker, and half the time I didn't know what the hell was going on. On the very first play of the game, the tight end got open for a big gain because I vacated the spot in the zone where I was supposed to be.

'Our safety, Lawyer Milloy, was waving his arms at me, trying to direct me, but I was so confused I didn't know where to go.'

There were more incidents of memory loss and confusion. His teammates, he said, often covered for him out on the field.

'I remember one game when I was in the completely wrong coverage,' Johnson said. 'I'm yelling to Mike Vrabel to go outside, and he's looking at me like I'm crazy. I was telling him the exact opposite of what he should have been doing.'

Johnson estimates he had at least a 'half-dozen' concussions in his final three seasons, but reported only one, fearing his reputation as an injury-prone player would be perpetuated . . .

Chris Nowinski is a Harvard graduate and former World Wrestling Entertainment wrestler. He was forced to retire in 2003 after suffering multiple concussions that resulted in severe migraines, memory impairment, and depression.

He did not seek help until one night, while sleeping in a hotel, he woke his girlfriend up by trying to climb the wall of the room. She shouted to him and grabbed him in an effort to wake him, but he remained in his trance-like state, jumping off the bed and crashing through a nightstand.

He awoke 15 seconds later, surrounded by broken glass, his girlfriend screaming his name.

Nowinski sought treatment, then began researching athletes and concussions. He wrote a book, 'Mind Games,' and, after meeting Ted Johnson through a friend, commissioned the former Patriot to write the foreward. But, as Nowinski's book went to print last fall, Johnson, not ready to tell his story, abruptly yanked his foreward.

'It's difficult to watch how much Ted struggles with the aftereffects of his concussions,' Nowinski said. 'He can trace his troubles back to those two in a row in 2002. I can do the same with my history. It's heartbreaking how much it has cost him.'

Johnson finished second on the team in tackles that 2002 season, and came back to play eight games the next season (he missed the final eight with a foot injury) and 16 games in 2004. Johnson planned on suiting up in 2005, but, he said, the thought of absorbing that first hit "made me physically sick." On the eve before training camp, he contacted owner Robert Kraft and informed him he was retiring.

"Robert has always cared for him," said a team official. "But Ted Johnson is a very sick young man. We've been aware of the emotional issues he's had for years. You can't blame all of his behavior on concussions."

That, said Cantu, is open to debate. Head trauma can alter people's personalities drastically, he said. So can the stress of such a nebulous condition . . .

Earlier this week, Johnson requested his medical records from the Patriots. He was pleased the concussion he suffered in that game against the Giants in 2002 was documented, along with notations he was not cleared to play. The subsequent concussion he suffered in practice four days later is also on record.

He wants the NFL to establish specific rules about how and when teams should hold out players with head trauma. Cantu said the NFL should fund studies on concussions, but then leave the actual research to the experts.

'It's a huge, inherent conflict of interest otherwise,' Cantu said.

'It's not just the New England Patriots that need to change how they do things,' Johnson said. 'It's the entire culture of the NFL.'

Last spring, Ted Johnson, who missed football and his teammates, was invited to play in a Patriots charity golf tournament. He happily accepted, and agreed to emcee the program that would follow.

On the day of the event, Johnson was a no-show. Repeated phone calls to his home and his cellphone went unanswered.

Only later did the team learn what happened. It was one of those dark, dark days when Ted Johnson simply could not drag himself out of bed

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