Sunday slant: Hard hits, devastating toll

The late Wally Hilgenberg's brain was on display for the country to see last Sunday, a reminder that some of the hard hitters of decades gone by have been and are being punished even more severely after their playing days are done. We also look at the inside information the Ravens have on a couple of Vikings and other notes and quotes from the week.

Wally Hilgenberg is still making news after his death last fall.

Last Sunday, the award-winning television show 60 Minutes aired a feature on the long-term effects of concussions suffered in the NFL, and Wally Hilgenberg's brain, which his wife Mary donated to science, was used as evidence that multiple concussions can cause long-term trauma to football players.

The issue has become a touchy subject for the NFL. The league needs to show compassion for the players who made the game great 40 years ago while sacrificing their bodies, but the NFL also realizes that the hard-hitting ways of world-class athletes is also what makes it an immense success in revenue and television ratings.

60 Minutes showed a cross-section of Hilgenberg's brain, which was donated to Boston University's School of Medicine, and it was was compelling visual evidence that repeated concussions do have severe long-term effects on the brain. The brain of Hilgenberg had several areas that were colored brown, while a brain without that trauma shouldn't have those discolored sections.

Hilgenberg died last fall of Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerorsis (ALS), commonly known as Lou Gehrig's disease, which is a disease of the nerve cells in the brain and spinal cord that control voluntary muscle movement.

About eight months before Hilgenberg died, I attended a Search Ministries speech at which he was supposed to be the featured speaker. Because Hilgenberg wasn't sure if it would be a good health day or bad day, he taped an interview with former teammate Jeff Siemon days earlier. That interview played on the video screen in front of a packed and otherwise silent ballroom while Hilgenberg sat in his wheelchair on stage and watched.

At the completion of the taped interview, Hilgenberg showed that Jan. 17, 2008 was indeed a good day for him. He proceeded to give an inspirational speech about maintaining his faith during hard times.

"(God) is the author and he is the finisher of every good thing," Hilgenberg said from a wheelchair on the stage of the packed ballroom. "My heart is still good and my heart is still strong for the Lord."

These days, it isn't Hilgenberg's heart or soul at question, it's his brain.

According to the Center for Disease Control, as many as three millions sports-related concussions occur every year, and the question facing the NFL is whether multiple concussions can lead to long-term disabilities or depression.

60 Minutes featured former Patriots linebacker Ted Johnson, who estimated that he suffered 50 concussions but kept on playing, even though he said he couldn't always see the sideline to get the defensive signals. Not too many years later, Johnson was suffering from depression.

"I was in bed with no contact with anybody. I would get up, go eat and go back to bed. That was my routine for a long, long time. … Close to a year and half," Johnson told CBS.

Dr. Robert Cantu of the University of North Carolina treated Johnson and co-authored a study that found a correlation between concussions and the onset of depression and dementia. He told 60 Minutes that he estimated, with the size of NFL players running about 20 miles hour, the impact of some collisions would be the equivalent of crashing a car into a brick wall at 40 to 45 miles per hour.

The repeated impact on the head can bring on Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy (CTE), which Dr. Ann McKee of Boston University said inflicted Hilgenberg. The condition was first noticed in boxers. CTE doesn't show up until decades after the concussions, according to the CBS report, and leads to dementia.

"I've look at brains from people who have lived to be 110 and you just don't see anything like what you see in these athletes," McKee said.

The NFL commissioned phone interviews with 1,000 retired players, and a study the league released about three weeks ago found that players under age 50 were 19 times more likely to be diagnosed with Alzheimer's, dementia and other memory-related issues when compared to the general population, according to 60 Minutes.

The programs also featured former Baltimore Colts tight end John Mackey, now 68 years old and in an advanced stage of dementia. He can barely communicate while living in an assisted living community in Baltimore. Because his wife Sylvia couldn't afford the care for him, Mackey is one of about 100 players who receive $88,000 a year from the NFL for their care.

That's a start, but it's only the tip of the iceberg when it comes to the biggest league in the most popular sport in America taking care of those who sacrificed their bodies for the love of the game. Hilgenberg, Johnson and Mackey are only a small portion of those who have suffered or are still suffering, quite possibly because of the hits they endured while playing.

Sunday marks the return of former Viking Matt Birk to the Metrodome. Birk, who is one of three active NFL players that have agreed to donate their brains to research upon their death, now plays for the Baltimore Ravens. The matchup between punishing running back Adrian Peterson and physical defenders like Ray Lewis and Ed Reed will bring the crowd to their feet. It's an exciting sport and has been for decades.

Guys like those featured in the 60 Minutes report willingly sacrificed for the love of the game, but the game has slapped them back. There isn't an easy answer on how to solve the problem. But there has to be solution somewhere, and there has to be further research so the wives of future players don't have to donate their brains to research 40 years from now.

EXTRA INSIGHT?

Back to the modern excitement …

Will Ravens defensive coordinator Greg Mattison have extra insight on Percy Harvin? Mattison was a co-defensive coordinator and defensive line coach at the University of Florida from 2005-2007, when Harvin was electrifying the Gators offense.

"Very, very competitive, quick, fast football player," Mattison said of Harvin. "The thing that people don't realize about Percy is he's so strong. He's a really, really built-up, strong guy. He's very, very explosive. You knew he was going to be a hit in the league. You just knew that. That's the way he's always played."

Ravens special teams coordinator Jerry Rosburg will also have to be concerned with Harvin on kick returns. Harvin is second in the league with a 31.2-yard average on kick returns, despite not holding that duty at Florida.

"He's a guy that you can tell that in his college experience, he's had the ball in his hands a lot, and he knows how to exploit holes, cut off the blocks, and he does a very good job of that," Rosburg said.

Ravens offensive coordinator Cam Cameron is pretty familiar with one of the Vikings' biggest defensive threats as well. Cameron was the offensive coordinator with the San Diego Chargers from 2002 to 2006. Allen was in the AFC West with Kansas City from 2004 to 2007.

"I've experienced it twice a year in the AFC West. Indoors on turf is even more of a challenge than outdoors in Kansas City, when we played him there," Cameron said of Allen. "He is one of those high-motor guys that is just a great player, end of story. He loves to play the game."

Cameron said the Vikings' pass rush is what has led them to the top of the league charts in turnover ratio.

"If you look at, I think it was last year or the year before, one of every seven sacks is a turnover. So, they lead the league in sacks. Teams that lead the league in sacks are going to get more turnovers than teams that aren't getting sacks," Cameron said. "They obviously do a good job. They're pretty much a zone-coverage team, so everybody is looking at the ball. The quarterbacks have to get the ball out relatively quick, and they know it. So they're just staring at the quarterback and have been getting great breaks on the ball because they know the ball is going to come out fast. That helps the secondary tremendously."

The Vikings lead the league with 18 sacks. Denver is next with 16.

NOTES

  • The Ravens have 11 sacks, led by OLB Jarret Johnson's four. "He plays 100 mph every game, and I think that's the way everybody in the Ravens feels – that that's how you're supposed to play," Mattison said. "That's the way we play. The thing about Jarret is (he's) playing nicked up, and he's playing through pain and everything like that. He just continues to go. You can't say enough about Jarret Johnson."

  • Former Vikings running back Doug Chapman is writing a column for the NFL Player Association and recounted an ugly couple of weeks in Vikings history in his latest offering.

    "In my second year with the Minnesota Vikings, our head coach, Dennis Green, was fired with one game remaining in the season. It had been a rough season and the constant ‘whispers' about Coach Green being on the hot seat did nothing but divide the locker room and make an already bad situation that much worse for the players and the organization as a whole," Chapman wrote. "It also didn't make things better that management waited until the last minute to make a decision, never once going on the record to state their intentions despite the rumors of his job being in jeopardy for several weeks."

  • The Washington Redskins re-signed punter Glenn Pakulak to their practice squad. Pakulak worked out for the Vikings earlier this season when they were facing a left-footed punter. The Vikings also brought in punter Ricky Schmitt for a couple of workouts the past few weeks, according to Scout.com's Adam Caplan, for the same reason, despite the team acquiring a new JUGS machine that head coach Brad Childress was excited about.


    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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