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Dr. Manuel Gonzalez-Brito has some long and impressive titles at Palm Beach Children's Hospital, and as the medical director of the pediatric concussion center, he also has a long reach.
He's deep into the research on traumatic brain injury, for instance, and well-versed in all the frightening questions that arise when reading the new Sports Illustrated story on what has become of Nick Buoniconti's life.
The cognitive degeneration. The frequent falls. The difficulty completing simple tasks. All of that and more for the Miami Dolphins Hall of Famer at the age of 76.
"I was born in 1972," said Gonzalez-Brito, a Miami native, "and my dad was a big Dolphins fan. I grew up in a house where every conversation that me and my dad had that was important in life started with how the Dolphins were doing."
At 7, Gonzalez-Brito started playing football himself in youth leagues. As a teenager he played at Miami's Columbus High School, and at Buoniconti's old position, middle linebacker, where violent collisions are sought rather than avoided.
All these years later, the doctor figures he probably had a few concussions playing the game, but he doesn't dread the onset of neurological deficits because of it, and he doesn't forbid his son, Max, from playing football, either.
Max also played high school ball for Columbus as a tight end, and next month he begins training at Florida International University as a player on a team coached by Butch Davis. Much earlier, in youth football, he was coached by his dad, the brain specialist.
"I wouldn't want my son to have a motorcycle," Gonzalez-Brito said in weighing the relative risks of activities that cause young people to meet him at the hospital, "but I wouldn't say ban motorcycles. Me personally, my family, we would have long discussions, and I wouldn't want him to have one. Football should be the same kind of discussion.
"It's a conversation that should be had with a child and his parents and with a doctor informing them of the risks of playing the game in general. You want to see if the risks outweigh the benefits. Some families see a huge benefit from playing the sport, where the players have a very fruitful life without any health problems whatsoever. Do you want to take that out of their hands? I would say no."
There is no perfect answer, and the perfect Dolphins of 1972 know that. Sports Illustrated is promising more stories this week about the cognitive problems of Jim Kiick and others.
Every paragraph packs a punch for South Floridians who were here for the franchise's golden Super Bowl years. The emotions that bubbled up in March, when Chicago Bears legend Gale Sayers was linked to severe dementia and San Francisco 49ers star Dwight Clark to ALS, will be stronger now.
Connecting the dots is easy for the public to do and difficult for researchers to confirm to everyone's satisfaction. They are trying, all the time, and the NFL has tried to tamp down criticism that pro football hasn't done enough to protect players. A $1 billion concussion settlement benefiting former players is the biggest part of that, along with stronger penalties for spearing and greater emphasis on following concussion protocols, but to guys like Buoniconti, it comes off as too little, too late.
Is football the sole cause of all this heartache?
"As scientists, we're trying to sort that out," Gonzalez-Brito said. "Certain things we know are true. Other things we just kind of need to figure out."
The Mayo Clinic took an early swing at it. High school football players were studied in Rochester, Minn., between 1956- 70, documenting their head injuries and following their cases for 40 years. Overall, those players were found to have no greater risk of developing degenerative brain diseases later in life than their peers in other varsity sports did.
So do you lean on that study's hopeful results, released in December, or give more weight to a study from 2012 that showed NFL players who were active in the league between 1959- 88 were three times more likely to die as a result of diseases that damage brain cells compared with the general population?
Don't ask me. This is as much crystal ball as football. Even an indomitable physical force like LeBron James is worried enough to say that his kids shouldn't play the game. If there is any common sense to apply here, it is that a string of concussions is bad for anybody anywhere. Carry that thought over a longer period, and what was bad necessarily gets much worse.
"My son actually did suffer one concussion while in high school," Gonzalez-Brito said. "Coming across the middle, he got hit pretty hard. He popped back up, took a knee and was seen by trainers right away. I sent him to a colleague of mine, and he got treated appropriately and recovered. That was during spring football, and he didn't return that spring."
That's about as safe as you can make football, but there's a problem for the Nick Buonicontis of the world. You can't make a long professional career out of this game by playing it safe.
[email protected] Twitter: @Dave_GeorgePBP
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