Football players are taught to be brave.
Dealing with an injury? Go through the proper recuperative measures, train as hard as you can to overcome the setback, and get back on the football field.
Strained muscles and broken bones heal. Now it’s time to get back to work.
When it comes to head trauma, however, research on the brain and its reaction to intense physical contact on the football field has revealed startling information. Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy (CTE) – the end result of physical contact as it relates to the brain – has become a very real part of the game.
It is attributed to the suicides of NFL players Junior Seau and Dave Duerson, the latter of which captained the 1982 Notre Dame team and went on to win a Super Bowl with the Chicago Bears.
Citing Pittsburgh Steeler great Mike Webster as well as Duerson, 24-year-old Chris Borland – a linebacker out of Wisconsin and third-round draft pick by the San Francisco 49ers -- had 107 tackles in his rookie season before abruptly retiring from the game after one season due to concerns with head trauma and the long-term impact on his quality of life.
In the summer of 2013, Irish Illustrated spoke with Notre Dame head football athletic trainer Rob Hunt about a variety of topics, including the concerns over head trauma on the football field.
He discussed with us the strict protocol Notre Dame follows when it comes to players diagnosed with concussions.
“I don’t know if it’s the true concussive nature as much as mismanagement of the concussion over time that has caused a bigger problem than the concussion itself,” Hunt said.
Advancements in the construction of helmets have helped. Precautions such as reducing the amount of contact throughout the fall and spring limit the opportunities for concussions. But there’s no dodging what helmet-to-helmet contact does to the human brain.
There’s no helmet on the market – and likely never will be – that can prevent concussions.
“The helmet will not eliminate concussions,” Hunt said. “It’s impossible. Your brain is suspended in your skull. The helmet was developed to protect the skull.
“They’ve gotten really good at designing a helmet that reduces the amount of force that’s going into the skull, which has helped protect the brain. But it will not eliminate (concussions). If the head falls back and stops, the brain keeps moving and it’s going to hit the side of the skull.
“Anytime the brain is shaken enough where those neurons stretch and/or tear, you now have a neurological change. Headache, dizziness, lack of balance, memory loss, vision problems…these are the symptoms you see. Some resolve quickly, some take weeks, months, years for it to return.”
The reality of CTE will hit home even stronger come Christmas Day when Columbia Pictures releases “Concussion” starring Will Smith, who plays Bennet Omalu, a forensic pathologist whose autopsy on Webster led to the discovery of Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy.
The movie takes the stance that the NFL fought against Omalu’s efforts to shed light on CTE and tried to suppress information on brain damage suffered through repeated contact on the professional football field.
Over the last two months, Irish Illustrated has discussed the topic of head trauma/concussions and CTE with a cross-section of Notre Dame football players. Here are their comments on various aspects of the topic.
PROPER TACKLING TECHNIQUE
Jaylon Smith: “Especially when I started playing football, I was taught the right way to tackle and just the basics of the game. I’m very fortunate. There are a lot of people out there who don’t get taught the right way.
“It’s really just each and every day you gain more knowledge of the sport that we’re playing. It’s one of the last gladiator sports and we have to understand that it’s the position we’re in. It’s a risk, but we’ve just got to rely on faith in your technique and stuff like that based on what I’ve been taught. But freak things happen.”
Isaac Rochell: “It starts with having good technique and good tackling form. There are things you can’t avoid, but there are some things you can control.”
A ONE-OF-A-KIND INJURY
Cole Luke: “It’s different than all the other injuries. You can play with a concussion whereas with an MCL or an ankle or a shoulder, you physically can’t play. It’s one of the things that we take very seriously. If you actually are hurt, you owe it to your teammates to take yourself out. Our medical staff does a great job with that. Our staff takes all the precautions.”
Matthias Farley: “Mine wasn’t that bad, but you can’t go get some stim(ulation) on it.”
CHRIS BORLAND’S DECISION TO RETIRE
Cole Luke: “I don’t blame him because there are risks for the future. Obviously he has a family that he has to take care of and it’s proven it can shed plenty of years off your life. It’s sad to look at, but this game is what brought us here and what gave him the opportunity to provide for his family in the first place. It’s really your call in the end. A lot of guys love the game, a lot of guys love their family, and a lot of guys love both. So it’s a hard decision.”
Durham Smythe: “Personally, when these big things happen like Chris Borland retiring, it raises it to the top of the conversation.”
James Onwualu: “The new movie coming out, ‘Concussion,’ we were talking about it during treatment. Yeah, I’ll see the movie. It will be weird. It will be interesting to see how they do it.”
Durham Smythe: “It’s something that’s come up a lot recently. They’ve made the movie with Will Smith. I want to see it because it’s relative to what we’re doing. But it’s not something you can actively think about. Personally, I haven’t had too many issues with it. It’s not something you really want to think about unless it has consistently happened to you.”
Max Redfield: “I had a concussion my freshman year. I got over it in a week. I had a couple concussions in high school, nothing that was reoccurring or anything I noticed on a day-to-day basis.”
Cole Luke: “Last year. After getting my concussion in the Purdue game, coming off it, you have a little fear of getting another one, which would have ruined things. I’ve probably had more than one, but only one diagnosed.”
Durham Smythe: “I’ve had one since I’ve been here, but it wasn’t a severe one. I was out for five or six days. For me, personally, it was minor, not a big deal. I hit someone and I felt weird. It’s hard to describe. I didn’t have massive headaches or anything like that. It was a weird feeling for about 12 hours, and then I felt fine. It was precautionary after that.”
Matthias Farley: “I’ve had one concussion. I didn’t have any residual effects. It’s nothing I’ve ever thought about or worried about. Injuries are part of the game.”
Torii Hunter, Jr.: “I haven’t had any concussions diagnosed. I’m sure somewhere along the way minor concussions have happened.”
Isaac Rochell: “I’ve never had a concussion. I’m sure I’ve had something close to a concussion that went undiagnosed.”
James Onwualu: “I’ve had two, one in each of my first two seasons.”
Tarean Folston: “No, I haven’t had a concussion. I don’t know. God is watching over me.”
Durham Smythe: “I played with (Texas quarterback) David Ash in high school and he had a bunch of problems. They seemed minor, but those effects lasted for months. He eventually had to quit football. I’m glad nothing like that has happened to me, but when you hear stories like that – especially someone so close to you – it affects you.”
James Onwualu: “It’s important to learn about it medically and look at the new technology. Our equipment guys do a great job of giving us the best helmet to fit us. I just switched helmets, just because I feel more comfortable in it, a little more safe.”
James Onwualu: “It’s definitely a concern for a lot of players. It’s tough because you’re ready to do anything, but at the same time, it’s scary. You’re seeing athletes suffer from post-concussion syndrome. It’s somewhat scary, but as long as you’re playing the right way with the right gear on, we’ll be all right. It’s definitely scary, but it’s a part of our game.”
PART OF THE GAME
Max Redfield: “It is what it is. It comes with the game. We all know that and accept that. You can’t give it any consideration because you know you’re going to strap up the next day and practice and you know you have a game on the weekend. Obviously, it’s in the back of your head as a human. If your head gets hit a lot, you’re going to have some kind of trauma and you’re going to lose some brains cells.”
Cole Luke: “You don’t really want to focus on getting hurt in a game because that’s when you’re more likely to. You just want to play full speed, balls to the wall without any regrets.”
James Onwualu: “It’s a tough thing. You only get one brain, right? I try to take care of it as much as I can. We really don’t have much regard for our body because the sport has become what it’s become. You just got to go for it.”
Tarean Folston: “I don’t really think about injuries because once you think about it, you play scared and when you play scared, you don’t play fast. I don’t think about any type of injury when I’m playing.”
Isaac Rochell: “I kind of look at it from a religious standpoint. Right now, this is what I’m given in life and I have an opportunity to take advantage of a platform. I don’t have time to worry about things like that. I think all that stuff will work itself out. I just have to approach it as grinding and not worry about it.”
“I’m not necessarily concerned about it. I don’t really have a comment on it. It’s a part of the game. I don’t think you can play worrying about it.”
Torii Hunter, Jr.: “That’s something that we try not to think about. You have to go out there and play because if you play timid, that’s when you start messing up. You’ve just got to go out there and be fearless. If it happens, you’ve just got to deal with it.”
Matthias Farley: “I personally never think about it and I don’t think most of the guys on the team think about it. It’s a known thing, a known risk, but it’s part of the game.”