Old Age or Past Concussions? CTE Topic Haunts Former NFL Players

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November 14, 2013 Thursday
698 words
'Is it age? Or is it the concussions?';
Topic haunts many former NFL players
Christine Brennan,cbrennan@usatoday.com,USA TODAY Sports

Former Super Bowl MVP Doug Williams doesn't think he has CTE, the degenerative brain condition linked to concussions. But when he can't recall the name of an opponent while reminiscing with a friend, or leaves home without his keys, or even forgets his suitcase once on the way to the airport, he wonders.

"I've got two little girls, 5 and 7 years old, and when I look at what is happening with Tony Dorsett, that's my biggest concern," Williams said in a phone interview Wednesday. "If I'm still around, and they get to be older, what will I be?"

It's a question that almost every football player of a certain age is asking himself these days, especially after hearing the news last week that Dorsett, 59, a stalwart of their era, was diagnosed with chronic traumatic encephalopathy and is suffering from memory loss and depression.

"We all have some forgetfulness and we don't know what it's from," Hall of Fame cornerback Darrell Green, a businessman and TV analyst, said over the phone. "We used to never really think of it, but it's starting to be more of a conversation now at our reunions. It's starting to be something every one of us is talking about.

"That's the kind of conversation guys are having now, talking about people's well-being, things we never used to talk about."

They were teammates during the Super Bowl glory days in Washington: Green, Williams, Dexter Manley, Mark May and Fred Dean. Now in their 50s, they see each other at reunions and pitch in on one another's charities. Three of them were part of the NFL concussion lawsuit that settled for $765 million: Manley, May and Dean. Two of them, Manley and Dean, are suffering in ways the others thankfully are not.

"I forget that I have a meeting at work," said Dean, an offensive lineman now working at Howard University, who estimates he suffered at least five concussions during his five-year career. "A lot of times I forget my wallet. I sometimes forget who I'm talking to on the phone. You told me 10 minutes ago but I already forgot your name. It's scary."

May, an offensive lineman who is an ESPN college football analyst, was in touch with Dean recently for a charity event.

"He told me one day, 'I didn't talk to you,'" May said. "And I said, 'Fred, I sent you an e-mail and you answered the e-mail.' And he said, 'Oh, yeah, yeah.'"

Manley, a defensive lineman who is director of marketing for an industrial cleaning firm, has had two operations in the past seven years for a cyst on his brain that he thinks might be related to concussions.

"I have short-term memory loss and can't remember all of my customers' names," he said Wednesday. "It sounds funny and sometimes we laugh, but they are patient and understand and help me through the situation. I keep all my information on my Blackberry and use that to look up their names. I can also be talking to them and then forget what I'm talking about. It's kind of embarrassing but people help me out."

When these men were playing in the NFL, almost no one took concussions seriously. Few even bothered to mention the word.

Instead it was this: "You got your bell rung," Williams said.

Said May: "You'd get dinged, you saw sparklers, you'd walk off the field woozy, they'd put one of those ammonia tablets under your nose, that cleared you up, and two series later, you were back in the game."

How many times did that happen to May? "Practices and games over 13 years? Probably a minimum of 30 and a maximum of 150."

Williams, a veteran quarterback and the former head coach at Grambling, said it happened to him, too.

"I did get hit in the head, but it was a different era," he said. "They'd give you those ammonia tablets, smelling salts, and it would wake you up and you'd go back in. People played hurt all the time."

They all say they forget things now, or realize they have to focus much harder. And they invariably ask themselves, as May did, "Is it age? Or is it the concussions?"

"You hope it's just normal," Green said, "but you just don't know."

"I don't want to say I am worried as much as I am concerned," Williams said. "You just have to live your life and hope that what's happening to some of the guys around the league doesn't end up happening to you."

November 14, 2013

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