Tommy Mason

TOMMY MASON, 75, running back with Minnesota, LA Rams and Washington, 1961-71, died on 1/22/15. The first draft pick in Vikings history suffered multiple concussions during his career and was part of the “88 Plan,” a program that provides up to $88,000 per year for care for former players suffering from dementia or Alzheimer’s.—SF Chronicle 1/23/15, AP.

Iron Mike

Mike Ditka, who spent 35 years as player and coach in the NFL, said he wouldn’t want his child to play football. “I wouldn’t. And my whole life was football. I think the risk is worse than the reward. I really do.” A 2014 Bloomberg survey found that 50 percent of Americans don’t want their children to play football. Ditka also confirmed to Bryant Gumbel of HBO that drugs were “plentiful” during his time in the NFL. Gumbel would also not want his child to play football.—“NFL Hall Of Famer Mike Ditka: I Wouldn’t Want My Child To Play Football”, Huffington Post 1/18/15, Maxwell Strachan.

Doug Cunningham

DOUG CUNNINGHAM, 69, running back with San Francisco and Washington, 1967-74, died on 1/13/15 from complications of dementia in Jackson, MS. A fine runner with blazing speed and shifty moves, he’s a member of both the Ole Miss and Mississippi Sports Halls of Fame.—“Ex-49ers running back Doug Cunningham dies in hospital at 69”, SF Examiner 1/14/15, AP.

Mike Patterson

MIKE PATTERSON, 31, defensive tackle with Philadelphia and NY Giants, 2005-14, had brain surgery on 1/26/12 to remove an arteriovenous malformation.  Bone was cut away to remove a tangle of blood vessels behind his right eye and seal off nearby veins.  During August 2011 training camp he had a seizure lasting nearly 4 minutes, but played in 15 games during the regular season.—“Mike Patterson ready for Eagles camp after brain surgery”, NFL.com 7/26/12.

Jeff Tarpinian

JEFF TARPINIAN, 27, linebacker with New England and Houston, 2011-14, blacked out for about 30 seconds after a November 2011 practice.  His vision had blurred and his arm locked.  The diagnosis was a cavernous malformation and he underwent brain surgery to remove abnormal blood vessels near his cerebellum.  Tarpinian understandably did not reveal the surgery, as he knew it would be an employment-killer with other NFL teams after New England let him go.  But Houston was aware of it when they signed him and he has played for them as a backup.—“Texans Linebacker Reveals He Had Brain Surgery Two Years Ago”, Deadspin.com 12/25/13, Samer Kalaf.

Zack Follett

ZACK FOLLETT, 27, linebacker and special teamer with the Detroit Lions, 2009-10, suffered a career-ending helmet-to-helmet collision with the Giants’ Jason Pierre-Paul on 10/17/10.  He lay motionless on the turf, was strapped to a backboard, and taken off the field on a motorized cart.  Unable to recover from his injuries, he retired the following August at the start of training camp.  He had suffered a neck stinger in his junior season at Cal.  Though he led the nation in ‘tackles for loss’ as a senior and received favorable comments on nfl.com, it was also noted: “Tackled with his head down too often in 2007, leading to some missed tackles and, more important, putting his spinal cord at risk.”  Three of his cervical vertebrae out of alignment, he wakes up every day with pain and tightness in his neck, shoulders and upper chest, sometimes making it difficult to get out of bed.  He has delayed neck surgery and therapy, as he and Detroit are in dispute over workers compensation claims.  Follett has found religion and preaches his faith, opened a flourishing coffee business, and has been with his girlfriend for 2 years.—Warszawski: “Life after football percolates for Zack Follett”, FresnoBee.com 11/26/14, Marek Warszawski.

Ben Utecht

BEN UTECHT, 33, tight end with Indianapolis and Cincinnati, 2004-09, retired from football after suffering his fifth documented concussion in a preseason game, one that left him unconscious for 90 seconds before being carted off to an ambulance.  The Super Bowl champion underwent an 8-month rehab and recovery from traumatic brain injury.  “It’s unlike any other injury in that it truly affects the soul.”  He began to have memory loss at 29, and has experienced headaches, dizziness, blurred vision, mild stuttering, sleepless nights and night sweats.  The Minnesota native suffered his first concussion in organized middle school football and has endured more concussions than he can count, including at least one he can’t remember getting.  “And there are some injuries that you can play through, absolutely.  But not brain injuries.”  He’s heard of parents being called weak for not letting their sons play football and believes that is advocating for brain disease, since he believes there is no way to play football without concussions occurring.  A father with 3 daughters, Utecht would allow a son to play football, but not until high school.  He has nothing against football and nothing against the NFL, and is appreciative of his opportunity to play in the league, though he wants better care given to the players.  He has spoken out on his condition at Senate committee hearings and is the national spokesman for the American Brain Foundation and the American Academy of Neurology.  “One of the things that scares me the most is being trapped inside a coffin in my mind.”  An accomplished lifelong musician, he has written a song to his family with a view to the possibility of his brain’s further deterioration: “You Will Always Be My Girls”.  His wife Karyn, daughters Elleora, Katriel and Amy appear in a moving video that accompanies the song.—“Former Colt Ben Utecht deals with traumatic brain injury”, indystar.com 11/22/14, Dana Hunsinger Benbow.  CBS This Morning 6/27/14, Jim Axelrod.  Neurology Now interview with Mike Smolinsky, Managing Editor, on YouTube. [I learned of Utecht’s story from   http://mothersagainstconcussions.org/ ].

Steve Smith

STEVE SMITH, 50, fullback with the LA Raiders and Seattle, 1987-95, has been afflicted with ALS since July 2002.  He cannot speak because of a ventilator and receives food through a feeding tube.  He communicates by using his eyes to control a computer’s voice-activated system.  In addition to medical professionals, he’s cared for by his wife Chie and son Dante, who also played football and said of his father:  “…he’s a prisoner in his own body…”  As recently as December 2012 the captain of the 1986 Penn State national championship team was able to stand with the assistance of Dante and a therapist.  Smith has not given up hope of being cured and pushes to try any new medical procedure that could possibly help him.  He has received enormous support from the Penn State community.  Boston University neuropathologist Ann McKee says that brain damage can lead to ALS.  Toxic proteins that form after brain trauma and lead to depression and dementia may also cause ALS.  Though ALS strikes only 1 in 100,000 in the general population, the disease afflicts athletes in far greater numbers, slowly destroying the muscles and leading to death by respiratory failure.  Donations for Smith can be made by calling 1-800-242-0335. —“Boston University study by Ann McKee finds link between concussions and Lou Gehrig’s disease”, NYDailyNews.com 8/17/10, Michael O’Keefe.  “Penn State’s Steve Smith still amazes from his hospital bed”, ydr.com 12/24/12, York Daily Record, Frank Bodani.

Darryl Talley

DARRYL TALLEY, 54, linebacker with Buffalo, Atlanta and Minnesota, 1983-96, has told The Buffalo News that he is suffering from depression and has contemplated suicide in what he considers side-effects from his hard-hitting playing days.  A key player on the Buffalo teams that went to 4 consecutive Super Bowls, he says he’s had too many concussions to count and at least 75 times he saw flashes of light after being hit.  He has memory loss, trouble sleeping, and lives in constant pain as a result of 14 operations he had during his playing days to repair various injuries.  Financially, Talley has had trouble making ends meet since the company he owned closed in 2008 and has received financial assistance from former teammates.  “It would be easy to call it a day…I’m convinced I’m not dead yet.  But the future doesn’t look bright.”—“Former Bills star Talley suffers from depression”, AP NFL website 11/28/14.  11/29/14 Update: According to ESPN.com, within 2 days of Talley’s press conference Buffalo Bills fans had raised over $100,000 to help him. Contributions can be made at http://www.gofundme.com/hvkgjo

Damaged But Left Out

Boston University researcher Robert Stern said that many of the 76 deceased NFL players found to have CTE would not have qualified for awards under the $765 million concussion settlement had they lived, because some never developed dementia, Alzheimer’s and other neurological problems covered.  Retirees who exhibit mood swings, aggression, depression or other aberrant behavior, which can be indicators of CTE, would not be compensated.—“Concussions”, Chronicle News Services 10/9/14.