(While I am on hiatus for the next month, I am leaving behind six articles--(July 1) Jamie Brandon, the former King basketball star, (July 2) Q&A with Los Angeles Dodgers general manager Ned Colletti, who grew up in the Chicago area, (July 3) thoughts about the 2010-11 basketball season, (July 4) the impact on head injuries to high school football players, (July 5) the rise and fall of Quincy basketball and (July 6) the release of my fourth book, "Dusty, Deek, and Mr. Do-Right: High School Football In Illinois." Please archive past articles. And enjoy the summer)
The brilliant series on the physical and neurological issues involving the 1968-70 Northwestern football teams written by Sun-Times sports columnist Rick Telander brought to mind that I had written a high school-related story on the subject last November. However, due to space limitations, it never was printed. It was timely then. It is timely now.
Bruce Gaston, St. Rita's 6-3, 300-pound defensive lineman, has thought about it. Anyone who plays football understands it is a contact sport, a collision sport, even a dangerous sport. You know you are taking risks. But you play the game because you love it, not because you fear it.
"I don't think someone who plays football thinks of the negative part of it," Gaston said. "They know the perks and the problems and the negative things that come from it. You know there are risks and injuries, always the possibility I can get hurt. But I know I am fundamentally prepared."
So how do Gaston and others who have played the game respond to the recent survey that reported six percent of former NFL players over 50 have a memory-related illness or disease such as dementia or Alzheimer's?
"I don't think about numbers," Gaston said. "But it is a number to think about. I could be among those six percent someday. But I haven't had a concussion. It doesn't concern me as much because I don't know if it could happen to me or not. You play the game as long as you can, hoping it won't happen."
Gaston is assured that, if he does suffer a concussion or a serious injury, he will be well taken care of. Paramedics, doctors and trainers are present at every game. "I know I'm in good hands if something happens," he said.
But what about those six percent? NFL players lose their medical coverage five years after retirement. Why? Because the NFL Players Association bargained for free agency with the owners in exchange for medical coverage, a sore point with veteran players.
Loyola coach John Holecek played in the NFL for eight years and never was diagnosed with a concussion. But he was aware that NFL in the training room stood for "Not For Long" in the NFL if you spent too much time in the training room, that coaches hated to look at injured players.
As a high school coach, Holecek is "super cautious" and very concerned about the health of his athletes as they get bigger and faster and the risk of concussion or serious injury rises.
"Players heed to be more careful when they have a concussion," he said. "If a kid is diagnosed by doctors, he is given a memory test. He won't play until the symptoms, vision or headache or memory, are gone.
"Technology is better now. Helmets are supposed to be so much better. But we had guys out with concussions at every level this year. It's part of the game. A large percent is unavoidable. But with better technique and split-second reactions it takes to avoid hits, you can limit it."
But Holecek said that NFL players think they are invincible, that the other guy will be injured, never you.
"You never think about tomorrow," he said. "This (six percent) statistic will show that repercussions are there, that athletes should think about tomorrow. Without statistics, they ignore the issue.
"It has always been about the best or toughest or most athletic. It will never happen to you. But now, if you have a history of headaches or concussions, you have to worry about it. And the NFL has to worry about it more and more. It is up to the players to take care of themselves."
Don Beebe knows the feeling. The Aurora Christian coach played nine years in the NFL and suffered six major concussions. Recently he learned that a former college teammate had died and the doctor said his brain was the most deteriorated of any he had ever seen.
Beebe talked to former teammates with the Buffalo Bills and Green Bay Packers. "Should I be concerned about it?" he asked himself. "As the father of four, the last thing I would want is to have a dad whose brain is deteriorating. There's no treatment, no precautionary things I could do."
He once saw Hall of Fame quarterback Jim Kelly get knocked out during a game. When he was revived, he was so dizzy that he walked to the opposing team's sideline. He had no idea where he was. But he returned to the game a few plays later.
Beebe believes it could be avoided with better equipment. He has ever helmet he wore from high school to the NFL in his den. He looks at them today and realizes that his high school helmet didn't protect anything. And he is convinced that the helmets worn by today's high school players are more protective than the ones he wore with the Packers. In fact, helmet manufacturers are currently designing helmets that they claim will be concussion proof.
But Beebe is worried about the future. Even though he admits high schools are more safety conscious, he still sees a lot of schools that don't have a doctor or trainer on site during a game.
"We have come a long way but some schools still don't have medical-trainer personnel on staff," he said. "Kids aren't in shape as they used to be. There are no gym classes. Kids are fatter, more out of shape than before. It should be a source of concern to the schools."
Former Chicago Bears offensive lineman Tom Thayer said he became aware of the repercussions of his sport while watching Mike Ditka go through hip replacement surgery. But he realized the danger of head abuse when he observed the deterioration of boxing legend Muhammad Ali.
"It is silly to think that there isn't some type of residual effect from beating your head all the time," Thayer said. "It is naive to think you will walk away clean. Two thousand collisions a year. Regardless of the helmet, it's silly to think there wouldn't be any effects. I would be too afraid that I had a concussion. Getting your bell rung is a badge of courage in the sport, a way of earning your stripes."
Thayer, who played at Joliet Catholic, said he never went to a trainer and said: "I think I have a concussion. What do you think?" He said: "You constantly push something aside every day. That's what separates players who are around for a short period of time from the ones who have long careers."
Technology and safety factors, including immediate treatment, are better today compared to, say, the archaic medical practices of the Dick Butkus era when doctors and trainers did whatever they needed to do to keep their players on the field. Second opinions were left for the offensive coordinators.
"You know the risk you are taking when you start playing football," Thayer said. "But when you get older, you are willing to do anything to achieve your goal. You don't think it will happen to you. But ex-players are reminded of it at every alumni reunion."