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The History of Concussions and the Future of the Sport

by Michael Oriard


The Head in Football

THE HEAD IN FOOTBALL

I: Mike Webster’s Brain

The first part of this story, at least its broad outlines, should be familiar.

On September 24, 2002, Mike Webster died from heart failure at age fifty, five years after being inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame. The news was shocking, though not unexpected. A few weeks before his induction in Canton, Sports Center had reported that “Iron Mike,” after seventeen NFL seasons and anchoring the Pittsburgh Steelers’ offensive line during the Super Bowl years of the 1970s, was now bankrupt, homeless, depressed, and wracked by convulsions and spasms. Less serious but somehow more gruesome, when tiny cuts to his legs would spurt blood, Webster and his wife—when he still had a wife—would cover his veins with Super Glue to protect the carpet and furniture.1 A pathologist in Pittsburgh with an interest in head trauma, Dr. Bennet Omalu, did the autopsy. Webster had died of a heart attack, but after hearing about his erratic behavior Omalu wanted to examine his brain. It took him many months to puzzle out those brown stains that he found in the tissue under his microscope, but he came to realize that they were tau protein, indicating chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE), or Punch-Drunk Syndrome, first identified in boxers in 1928.

For the NFL and for football at all levels, Omalu’s finding changed everything instantly, though it would take several years for this realization to sink in.

Long before Webster died, the public knew—from the occasional story about Hall of Fame running back Earl Campbell unable to get in and out of his pickup truck, or legendary quarterback John Unitas attaching his useless hand to his golf club with Velcro—that playing pro football was dangerous to long-term health.2 Surveys in the 1990s and early 2000s typically found more than 60 percent of former players with permanent injuries.3 The crippled ex-pros invariably expressed no regrets about playing and said they would unhesitatingly do it again. The benefits, less financial than personal, outweighed the costs. But these were damaged bodies, not brains, until Mike Webster’s autopsy told a different story.

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