Friday, February 02, 2007

Concussions causing serious problems for many players

Ted Johnson was a hero with New England but is now a shell of a man due to the effects of concussions

An invisible ailment has been plaguing many of our sports stars for years and although the condition is difficult to pin down the results can be devastating and even fatal.

Concussions have been a part of contact sports since the dawn of competition, they just weren't diagnosed as such back in the "old days." Back then players just got "knocked silly" or had the wind knocked out of them and then went right back out on the field. A study by the Poynter Center states that around 10% of all athletes involved in contact sports suffer a concussion each year.

Now we know that concussions and their debilitating effects can cause long-term damage to the sufferers, especially when multiple or severe such injuries occur. Some players who have retired prematurely due to concussions include Ney York Islanders Hall of Fame center Pat La-Fontaine, Pittsburgh Steelers receiver and current ESPN analyst Merrill Hodge, and just yesterday San Francisco Giants catcher Mike Matheney was forced to hang up his gear due to the effects of multiple concussions.

Two recent stories have really brought the issue of concussions among athletes to light. Back in November right here in Tampa former Philadelphia Eagles great Andre Waters killed himself with a shotgun. His death was puzzling at first, but it was later discovered that the former safety, known for his bone-crushing, borderline illegal style of playing, was left severely depressed and debilitated by brain damage due to the effects of too many concussions. That state of mind most likely led to his untimely suicide at the age of 44.

Now comes this sad story from the Globe's Jackie McMullen about former Patriot linebacker Ted Johnson. Johnson was a stalwart on defense for all three Pats' Super Bowl-winning squads and helped form a devastating linebacking corps with Tedy Bruschi and Mike Vrabel.

Johnson suffered multiple concussions during his 11-year career, at least 30 by his estimation, but it was a pair of back-to-back bell ringers that he endured in the 2002 pre-season that has left him depressed, confused and on the brink of destruction. The first was inflicted by a Giants running back in an exhibition game and the second just 4 days later in practice. Johnson claims he did not want to participate in contact drills so quickly after the concussion from the game, which left him feeling "out of it", but that head coach Bill Belichick had left the blue "contact" jersey for Johnson to wear that day.

Immediately after entering the practice Johnson suffered another concussion after a routine, non-violent tackle. Johnson was furious with New England trainer Jim Whalen for making him wear the blue jersey, but Whalen informed him that it was Belichick's decision.

Now Johnson is so f'd up that he suffers from symptoms that are more befitting of an Iraq war vet than a vet of 11 seasons on the gridiron: depression, dizziness, excessive drowsiness, fatigue, irritability, memory loss, poor concentration, ringing in the ears, and acute sensitivity to noise.

And the fact that he directly blames the Hooded Genius and the Patriots training staff for allowing him to get to this state makes the story all the more stunning.

Not only is this a staggering indictment of Belichick, providing a disturbing inside look at how a team urges its players to play through certain situations while sacrificing the player's health, but it is an extremely sad situation for Johnson, a gregarious, fun-loving fan favorite during his career with the Pats.

To hear what he is like now makes me sick to my stomach. To think that men like Johnson and Waters and all the others would give so much of themselves just to entertain us armchair critics says all you need to know about the importance of sports in today's society.

Unfortunately they are important enough to risk your life for.

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