Slowly, the evidence should pile up and research be refined as NFL alumni pass.
Former Vikings linebacker Wally Hilgenberg died of ALS and donated his brain to a Boston University's Center for the Study of Traumatic Encephalopathy. About nine months before his death on Sept. 23, 2008, Hilgenberg gave a wonderful speech to a packed ballroom for Search Ministries talking about his faith and a life of appreciation, despite his condition at the time.
Not one Vikings alumnus I've talked to over the last decade, whether at games or at alumni events, has ever complained about his condition. Most, in fact, don't even want to discuss their ailments, even if their secrets are given away by a hunched back, trembling hands, a limp or the use of a cane. Their wives are usually in lock step with them, willing maybe to discuss the medical conditions but fully aware that nearly every one of those players would do it all over again knowing what they know now.
"We screwed up a lot of our bodies, but I think we'd all probably do it again," Bobby Bryant, 67, told Viking Update's Tom Speicher for a magazine story. "It was great to be part of building something that had quality and made a lot of people happy."
The players in the early decades of the Vikings – the 1960s and ‘70s – didn't make anywhere close to the money of today's players. It was still a very good living in those days (the $10,000 signing bonuses might have represented the annual salary of the average American then), but with that generation of player now in their 60s and 70s, the hits – and the resulting evidence of the damage done – are starting to show.
It's a generation prideful beyond most. They shunned medical attention back then, as Bryant told the tale of having Hilgenberg pop his shoulder back into joint in the huddle between plays, and many of them held off about facing the truth they surely knew would be laid out in front of them by seeing a doctor in the ensuing years.
Now, however, there is starting to be greater transparency and awareness from the league, and very thankfully so from this perspective. Heroes – insomuch as that term should be applied to football players – from the Vikings' early years shouldn't be left out in the cold by the league they helped build, and finally the league is recognizing that. Players are starting to receive better medical assistance and better access to medical specialists where they are needed.
For some, it may have come too late. We may never know if Hilgenberg's ALS could have been prevented or at least delayed had research on the brains of deceased players been studied sooner, but seeing brown spots stain the areas of cross-sections of Hilgenberg's brain, representing areas where it was concussed, lead many to believe some of the neurological disorders later in life might have been lessened to a degree with earlier help and detection.
An autopsy report on former Bears safety Dave Duerson last week brought the subject back to the forefront.
Vikings head coach Leslie Frazier and linebackers coach Mike Singletary were teammate with Duerson on the defensive side of the ball in the Bears' dominating and Super Bowl-winning 1985 season. Duerson committed suicide last month and made sure that friends and family knew he wanted his brain donated to the NFL's "brain bank" for studying the long-term impact of concussions on a player.
Singletary said he wasn't sure what kind of affect concussions had on Duerson, but he said former players need to avoid stress when they leave the game of football.
"As far as the whole concussion/brain thing, I really don't know much about that. I would speak to the player after the game was over," Singletary said in an interview on ESPN. "I think when you're done as a player, it's so important that you try to keep yourself out of stressful situations. You make sure that you handle your personal life as best as you can … whatever it might be. Stress plays a huge role in the lives of us all. I think if you look at the stress that Dave Duerson had on him, I had no idea that was part of the equation. I've since understood it a lot more."
Duerson became a successful businessman after his playing career, but eventually his marriage and his professional life went south, apparently sending him into depression. Shortly after Frazier was named the full-time coach for the Vikings in January, he received a voice mail from Duerson, who was interested in getting into coaching at some level. Frazier tried to get in touch with Duerson, but ….
"I missed him and it haunts me knowing what has happened now that we didn't connect," Frazier said at the NFL Scouting Combine, shortly after Duerson's suicide. "We were good friends, good teammates and it's still, it's troubling that he's not here."
The autopsy report described the scene at Duerson's residence after he shot himself in the chest (to preserve the brain) and spoke to a proud and organized man. He had documents spread out on the dining room table. More documents were laid out in a bedroom, along with framed certificates and a folded American flag. There was a football statue in his closet, and nearby a note specifying that he wanted his brain donated to the NFL's "brain bank." From an outside perspective, it's a strong indication he was concerned that all the hits he took in the NFL affected not only his neurological state, but the trickle-down effect it must have had on his post-football life.
"When I talked to some of my former teammates who were in more recent contact, they hadn't seen those (changes in personality) either," Frazier said. "I don't know. Just hard to come to grips with the fact he's no longer with us. It's just very, very hard. It's just hard."
Like Hilgenberg and others, we can only hope that their deaths and selfless acts to donate their brains to research can help lead to a legion of other players being saved from the different infirmities that are believed to at least have some sort of connection to the playing days. Even if the research saves just one life in the future, it will save someone's friend. Unfortunately, Frazier and Singletary weren't that lucky when it came to medical field diagnosing what afflicted Duerson.
"He was a great guy. He was a smart guy. Notre Dame grad, well-educated, smart," Frazier said. "The transition from the National Football League – and it's been well documented – it's not an easy transition as you guys know. You know the stories of guys who have played for the Vikings and have had a tough time making the transition from player. It's hard; it's hard. But Dave was a super person, a great friend. We had a lot of good moments together, a lot of great conversations. When I was coaching at Trinity (College) he lived five minutes from the campus, if that. Always would be over at our games, supporting me and cheering me on. We'll miss him, miss him a lot."
Tim Yotter is the publisher of Viking Update. Follow Viking Update on Twitter and discuss this story on our subscriber message board.
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