Quar­ter­backs worry about health

Play­ers happy to see safety mea­sures, want care for vets

USA TODAY US Edition - - SPORTS - Josh Peter @joshlpeter11 USA TO­DAY Sports Con­tribut­ing: Tom Pelis­sero and Brent Schrotenboer, Lorenzo Reyes

Rather than sign big con­tracts, Joe Theis­mann said, maybe NFL play­ers should start their pro ca­reers by sign­ing some­thing else.

“I think one of the things to con­sider,” Theis­mann said, “is if you de­cide that you want to play pro­fes­sional foot­ball, you should sign a let­ter of ac­knowl­edg­ment that says that you un­der­stand the risks and what could pos­si­bly hap­pen.”

Theis­mann and other quar­ter­backs are learn­ing about those risks in un­set­tling fash­ion.

Last week, it was re­vealed quar­ter­backs Kenny “The Snake” Stabler and Earl Mor­rall were found to have had chronic trau­matic en­cephalopa­thy (CTE). The brain dis­ease stems from re­peated blows to the head and ap­peared to erode the qual­ity of life of Stabler, who died at 69 in July, and Mor­rall, who died at 79 in 2014.

On Thurs­day, Hall of Famer Joe Mon­tana told USA TO­DAY Sports about the ex­ten­sive phys­i­cal prob­lems he suf­fers from, in­clud­ing nerve dam­age in one of his eyes as a re­sult of head trauma in­curred dur­ing his ca­reer.

“It acts like a lazy eye to some de­gree, be­cause ev­ery time you’re tired, it kind of goes wher­ever it feels like a lit­tle bit,” said Mon­tana, who led the San Fran­cisco 49ers to four Su­per Bowl ti­tles. “Not dra­matic but just enough where you can’t read or you have to re­fo­cus.”

With new ex­am­ples of how quar­ter­backs are vul­ner­a­ble to the long-term ef­fects of head trauma and con­cus­sions, USA TO­DAY Sports as­sem­bled a vir­tual roundtable of quar­ter­backs to ad­dress the is­sue. Even for the pan­elists who suf­fer from mem­ory loss, none for­get what they en­dured on the foot­ball field.

THEIS­MANN, started his pro

ca­reer with the Toronto Argo- nauts of the Cana­dian Foot­ball League from 1971 to 1974, then played for the Wash­ing­ton Red­skins from 1974 to 1985 and led the Red­skins to the Su­per Bowl ti­tle in 1984: “Once I had a linebacker break his right arm on my hel­met on the left side of my fore­head. Cracked the hel­met, knocked me out early in the first quar­ter. I went to the side­lines, I sort of gained con­scious­ness with about a minute to go in the half, a lit­tle smell salts. Went in at half­time, came out and prob­a­bly played one of the best halfs of my life.”

RAN­DALL CUN­NING­HAM, a four-time Pro Bowler who played from 1985 to 2001 with the Philadel­phia Ea­gles, Min­nesota Vik­ings, Dal­las Cow­boys and Bal­ti­more Ravens: “I’d get hit, and my head would hit the ground and I would have like dou­ble vi­sion. So like for half an hour, it was like some­one put their hand side­ways in the middle of my face, where if I went to throw I would see two peo­ple. But I played with that. I would play with it for a half an hour. I don’t know what it was that (the med­i­cal staff ) gave me, but half an hour later, it would go away.”

RO­MAN GABRIEL, a four­time Pro Bowler who played for the Los An­ge­les Rams from 1962 to 1972 and the Ea­gles from 1973 to 1977: “We used to have a team doc­tor, and he was ev­ery­thing. If you got hit in the head, he’d ask you your name, who you were play­ing and what the day was. You used to mem­o­rize what the doc­tor would ask you so you could an­swer those three ques­tions and get back in the game.”

JAKE PLUM­MER, played for Ari­zona Car­di­nals from 1997 to 2002 and the Den­ver Bron­cos from 2003 to 2006: “I think more than just the hits, it’s just the life­style of foot­ball. Train­ing and sup­ple­ment­ing and forc­ing your body to re­cu­per­ate real fast, and they’re real quick to get you some opi­oids to help you with the pain. I think a lot of that, too, can play a part in brain func­tion­ing.”


THEIS­MANN: “I have post-con­cus­sion syn­drome. I’ve had (brain) scans done. I’ve no­ticed mem­ory is­sues. At times I’ve no­ticed bal­ance is­sues. I get up out of a chair some­times, I take that first step, and I’ve got to catch my­self on the leg of the chair or on the un­der­neath of the ta­ble so that I don’t fall.”

CUN­NING­HAM: “I don’t know if it’s old age, be­cause I’m only 52. But some­times I’ll try to think of some­body’s name, and it’s not on the tip of my tongue. It’s pretty weird. Be­cause it’s like I pray for peo­ple ev­ery­day, and I’ll sit here and I’ll be talk­ing to them and I just won’t know their name.”

PLUM­MER: “My head hit the turf plenty of times. So who knows what dam­age was done. I won’t say my brain is hazy or foggy, but I have a tough time re­call­ing names some­times. Or at times I find my­self go­ing into a room and for­get why I went in there.”

BROCK HUARD, played for the Seat­tle Sea­hawks from 1999 to 2001, the In­di­anapo­lis Colts from 2002 to 2003 and the Sea­hawks in 2004: “I was notic­ing even for me by the end of pre­sea­son games where a lit­tle lesser hit was start­ing to ding me even more and more. If I had been a starter with sub­stan­tial games and reps and tak­ing lots of dings, I prob­a­bly would feel dif­fer­ently. But in my case, no, I don’t have any longterm con­cerns. Cer­tainly do for some of my team­mates and peers, but in­di­vid­u­ally, no.”

JIM PLUN­KETT, MVP in Su­per Bowl XV for the Oak­land Raiders who also played for the New Eng­land Pa­tri­ots and 49ers dur­ing a ca­reer that spanned 197186: “I think (CTE is) some­thing we all have to be con­cerned about. You look at a guy like Kenny Stabler. This guy was a folk hero and a guy you thought could han­dle any­thing. It was just dev­as­tat­ing to hear he had (CTE).” ON NFL’S CON­CUS­SION PRO­TO­COL

CUN­NING­HAM: “I think that it’s im­por­tant to take care of peo­ple who’ve gone through that. I have friends who strug­gled, like An­dre Wa­ters (who played with the Ea­gles and was found to have CTE af­ter com­mit­ting sui­cide in 2006) and (Ju­nior) Seau (who was found to have CTE af­ter com­mit­ting sui­cide in 2012).

PLUM­MER: “In the (Su­per Bowl), you’ll see, they’re not go­ing to flag some­body for com­ing in with the crown of their hel­met down on de­fense. This is the Su­per Bowl. The vi­o­lence and the phys­i­cal­ity of the game aren’t go­ing away. There­fore, I don’t think brain trauma or con­cus­sions or this is­sue will ever go away.”

BOB GRIESE, Hall of Famer played for the Mi­ami Dol­phins from 1967 to 1980: “I wish they had th­ese con­cus­sion pro­to­cols back in the day. ... They sit them out, whether you’re the top player or 43rd guy on the team. ... The hel­mets are bet­ter. Back in the day, when we wore hel­mets, they weren’t very good at all.”

HUARD, who said quar­ter­backs are not in the same dan­ger as play­ers play­ing linebacker or of­fen­sive and de­fen­sive line: “Not in to­day’s game. If you watch the ’85 Bears doc­u­men­tary, yes. They would be hand­cuff­ing those de­fen­sive play­ers to­day. Just dif­fer­ent game, dif­fer­ent era.”

DREW BREES, MVP for Su­per Bowl XLIV who played for the San Diego Charg­ers from 2001 to 2005 and since 2006 has played for the New Or­leans Saints: “I feel that we’ve come so far in the last three to five years when it comes to rec­og­niz­ing a brain/neck in­jury. ... That’s why you see a guy like Luke Kuechly miss­ing three games this year, as op­posed to the eras pre­vi­ous to us, where he was back in. We know too much now to put a player at risk like that. I think we’ll see the ben­e­fits of that years down the road.”


THEIS­MANN: “Here’s the chal­lenge for the Na­tional Foot­ball League. At what point do you try to elim­i­nate hits and still main­tain the in­tegrity of pro­fes­sional foot­ball? That is the No. 1 chal­lenge that faces our sport. Where is the line drawn where we’ve done as much as we can do for the game to main­tain what it is?”

PLUM­MER: “The NFL claims they want to help, but what can they do? You can’t take away the hit­ting of the game or else it goes bye-bye. A lot of guys that have been play­ing so long, they put the hel­met on when they were 8 years old. It’s just lu­di­crous, let­ting kids put hel­mets on like that.”

HUARD, who praised the NFL for its ef­forts: “They’re are do­ing more than I ever imag­ined, quite hon­estly, than they would when I be­gan play­ing the game. … The game has never been safer. ”

BREES: “It’s un­for­tu­nate that guys 20 years ago, 30 years ago, 40 years ago had to en­dure that for us to un­der­stand the con­se­quences, so that’s why it’s our job to make sure th­ese guys are taken care of. But it’s a learn­ing process, and we need to con­tinue to put the sys­tems in place to help pro­tect the play­ers as best we can.”


Joe Theis­mann played 12 sea­sons, all with the Red­skins.

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