by Justin Rasile
Do we have an issue on our hands and in our heads?
24 years old. Prime of his career. Jaw dropping stats and an incredibly bright future. The recent news of Chris Borland retiring has been a major sports story for the past few days and it looks as though his decision may resonate throughout the NFL for quite some time. In fact, his choice may be the beginning of a trend. He barely started 8 games in his rookie season and in that time he accumulated 107 tackles and 2 picks. Fantasy football leagues that use the individual defensive player format were drooling over this kid when he racked up 18, 17, 13, 16, and 14 tackles in five separate games. Seemingly mind blowing stats that helped lead some teams to their fantasy championships and gave 49er fans hope for their defensive future after a dismal offseason (which included Patrick Willis’s stunning retirement to keep his body in tact as well). Then Borland made a stunning announcement that after just one year of professional football, he would be retiring from the game he loved. And not because of an ACL or Achilles tear or any kind of noticeable injury, but for the potential damage that you cannot see until years down the road. Within the past five years, the realization of brain injuries and their connection to football has been astronomical. CTE, chronic traumatic encephalopathy, is a degenerative disease in which repeated blows to the head cause brain tissue to erode and tau protein begins to build. This leads to depression, anxiety, memory loss, aggression, and even suicide. There may possibly be a link to football players, CTE, and the short fuses that players have when they are involved in these domestic abuse cases because you sometimes don’t think clearly. CTE has been found in MANY football players. There have been multiple reports that state in their research that they have found CTE in over 95% of deceased football player’s brains. Stunning statistics that seem never ending and only seem to be increasing as more information and brains are gathered.
One of the greatest books I have ever read is League of Denial written by Mark Fainaru- Wada and Steve Fainaru. In it they do some amazing research on the recent history of brain diseases and how it has affected the NFL and their players. They detail a once great man and pro football hall of famer center Mike Webster. Webster was considered a smaller player and always carried a chip on his shoulder during his illustrious 16-year career. He was known as a gentle giant off the field and had a great relationship with his family and friends. Although as a center, you are in the trenches with the largest athletes in the world and collision and pain are a forgone conclusion. Helmets are constantly banging and heads are taking huge hits. There are over 50 offensive plays run a game so headaches are going to be a constant. It’s the things that we don’t see that are the real issues. Broke, memory loss, mood swings, and depression were just a few of the issues that Webster had as his brain deteriorated and his body began to shut down because of it. But the most disturbing story about Webster was when he asked his son to taze him with a stun gun just so he could fall asleep for twenty minutes. Webster died in agony and there was nothing he could do about it.
All of this research we now have on our hands, and the more we are gathering, are giving players an inside look into what could happen to them down the road in their lives. You can end up like Ben Utecht, former Indianapolis Colts tight end, who is in a constant battle trying to remember his best friends’ names and memories that seem so close but remain so distant. He has even written a letter for his wife and daughters to be read if he ever gets to the point where he doesn’t remember who they are. Then there is Kosta Karageorge, an Ohio State wrestler and football player, whose body was found in a dumpster dead from an apparent suicide after he was missing for a few days. Brain trauma and concussions are considered to be a factor in the young 22 year olds death. Junior Seau is also a name that should ring a bell in every football player’s ears. He purposefully shot himself in the chest just so his brain could be preserved. Seau even tried to kill himself by driving his own car off a cliff. Now I know I am probably a bad example considering I only played four years of high school football but on my accounts I have had at least four concussions while playing and roughly eight concussions throughout my 24 years of living. Am I scared? You bet your ass I am. Concussions are no joke and something that people cannot take lightly. I am not here as an advocate for stopping what I believe to be the greatest game in the world, and one that I attribute to shaping me into the man I am today. I just believe that people have to stop and smell the roses and take a good long, hard look at their lives and where they want to go with it. The information is there for players and parents to make an informed decision about playing football. And like Chris Borland said, “I don’t want to negotiate health for money”. Truer words have never been spoken my friend.