A Few Thoughts on Head Injuries, News and Notes from Camp

Wow, has this first part of my weekly feature been tough to write. The subject matter concerns head injuries, and it will be tackled from strictly personal viewpoint.

Perhaps the simple shift from reporter to temporary first person essayist is proving jarring stylistically. But a confusing swirl of emotions probably bears more responsibility for this curious, numbing pause, causing a deep mental freeze, and preventing the necessary keypunching.

It started yesterday, as I did a daily cruise through baseballthinkfactory.com, a fantastic hub where hardball news nationwide is collected and presented for the connoisseur’s reading pleasure. I quite inevitably stumbled upon a fascinating report regarding Lou Gehrig, the iconic Yankees star thought to be killed in 1941 by amyotrophic lateral sclerosis.

Gehrig’s stature, and amazing displayed courage, dictated that he become synonymous with the rare disease that took his life. The sickness is a medical conundrum. But while combing through the usual baseball articles yesterday, I made a stunning discovery, stumbling upon this article, written by Chris McGreal and featured in the Guardian.

http://www.guardian.co.uk/science/2010/aug/17/lou-gehrig-disease-baseball-death

The piece, culling information from a soon to be published, peer reviewed medical journal of Neuropathology and Experimental Neurology [Editor in Chief: Raymond A. Sobel] suggests that numerous blows to the head suffered throughout a relentless athletic career may have set Gehrig down a path of untimely demise. In fact, a heretofore-undiscovered disease, striking victims of repeated head injuries, may not even be amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, despite similar symptoms. In essence, Lou Gehrig may not have even died from Lou Gehrig’s disease. Too many pitches to the head, one too many hard headfirst slides into second, these may be real explanations for Gehrig’s death, instead of vague guesses.

I was left flabbergasted. Of course, the dark irony of this situation, at least concerning Gehrig, is grimly apparent. But there was another story here, churning through my conscience, as if an ignored, inconvenient epiphany was rapping maniacally upon the door, impossible to ignore, yet difficult to engage.

A night out took my mind off the issue, how I had viewed athletes as a fan, and for most of my life. I awoke at two in the morning, for reasons unknown. Frustrated, after tossing and turning, I turned to the television, eventually engaged by an episode of Real Sports. Gumbel and company were all over this story, running a follow-up feature on Harvard grad Christopher Nowinski, a former Pro Wrestler who saw his promising career derailed by concussions. Nowinski threw himself into studying brain damage, publishing a book, challenging the National Football League to first acknowledge their relationship with the problem, before initiating proactive measures to protect it’s athletes.

The stories are well known already, and terrifying, former players driven to the darkest depths due to head injuries, their prior livelihood spent smashing the opposition perhaps an explanation.  There’s Andre Waters, just for one, who committed suicide, his brain tissue deteriorated.

Nowinski and his team are being praised in medical circles for breakthrough research. As time rolls onward, more evidence may surface, deeply human tragedies that chill the bone, contemporary cautionary tales that must be recognized.  When it was revealed that the late Chris Henry had been living with brain damage; who among us didn’t consider the consequences? As I watched the Real Sports feature, I was aghast at the state of these strong men, either already gone, hobbling, or barely able to breathe. I pondered the fragility of our bodies, and brains, felt the scar on my own head.

Of course concussions are dangerous. Is it really shocking they could lead to long-term damage? Is it really surprising that such a violent sport would yield bodies broken in the name of transient glories? See, I thought of myself, growing up as a fan, believing these football players somehow above the same laws of frailty that apply to every life. Common sense refuses to compute, in the name of the game, and entertainment. Those monstrous shots delivered by defenders to prone receivers become highlight fodder for Youtube instead of dangerous collisions. Vicious practices are old school, not excessive. I guess the real question is, could football even exist in this rationalistic light? The great thing about sports is their close relation to art, activities of direct participation or observation that rise above the normal bounds of reality, teaching us to strive and dream. But the difference is, movies have trained stuntmen. Writings and paintings are visions, fascinating because they aren’t real, but something else entirely… But these players are human beings. They aren’t polygons on a virtual football field. There aren’t landing pads waiting to catch their fall. No one, except those within their own fraternity, could possibly understand the commitment.

And so, as a lifelong football junkie, and current learning journalist, I am left convinced that those aforementioned, mixed feelings are the result of two clear conclusions: That something must be done. And I don’t know what.

To the League’s credit, they have donated money to further research. But I hope my dilemma, found in thought number two, is not shared. Because something does need to change. Drastically. Quickly.

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Center Nick Mangold shared his logical rationale for missing the first preseason game, along with other insights. “I just didn’t feel right,” said Mangold, regarding Monday. “I don’t have the medical definition or anything. In five years of being in the NFL, I’ve had my share of bumps, bruises, and everything in between. This time it just didn’t feel right. I was fortunate we took it seriously  and the chance to sit down for it.”

Mangold didn’t believe he had been concussed. “As far as I know,” before the blunt center added, “I wasn’t puking, so I guess that’s a good start.” Mangold believes he’ll be able to suit up for the second preseason game against Carolina. “I would assume. That’s my assumption going into it. I wouldn’t see any reason for a change.” He also offered an early assessment of the offensive line.  “We’re coming along.  The battle at left guard is still going on, in full fury.  It’s still a work in progress in watching to see how it all plays out, and trying to help out.  Today it seemed like it was a little bit of a rough one for both of them.  Just trying to keep them going, and keep them fighting.  Other than that, I think we’re doing some good things in protection, (we did) some good things in the game.  Our guys picked up some blitzes and were pretty good at making different calls and everything.  I’m excited about the progress that’s been made so far, but it’s not time to sit back and relax,” finished Mangold.

In light of continuing discoveries about head injuries, no malady should be considered minor and no decision to rest questioned, as Nick Mangold did against the Giants. Mangold feels fine now, but caution should always come first. His mature and patient approach should become the rule.

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Braylon Edwards, who had a strong effort against the Giants, was eager to advance past the experience, from a team standpoint. “It’s self-explanatory,” began the bearded ball-hawk. “If you watched the game, you saw two halves.  (Head Coach Rex Ryan) told us we had to step it up (in) the second half.  It’s not about the one, two, or three (string players), it’s about representing the Jets.  (During) the second half, we have to (play with) the same intensity that we have in the first half.  (We have to) come out and sustain games.” Edwards would later add, “We were (in Cortland, NY) right after the game trying to get better.  Things we did wrong, (we are) trying to correct.  The first part of practice was about getting better at what we did wrong.  I’m happy we’re here.  (Today) wasn’t the prettiest practice, but in some sense I think we got better.”

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Rex Ryan may have been better served ignoring the indignation of Tony Dungy, who had some harsh comments as it concerned the Jets head coaches’ liberal use of profanity. But Ryan, ever himself, did in fact offer a rebuttal. “I’ve been a big admirer of Tony Dungy. I’m sure a lot of people are. I felt that he unfairly judged me. That was disappointing to me. I made a phone call to Tony and I’ve invited him to come to camp, or anytime, to spend a day with me and the organization. I think that maybe he’ll have a different take on it.”

Of course, Tony Dungy wasn’t the sole topic on today’s agenda.

On the drop-off between the starters and backups during the Giants game: “Skill is one, but I thought it was the intensity. Obviously, the ones were all excited, but when we came out of halftime, we were flat. We missed a field goal and then they hit the big play. [Dwight] Lowery had great coverage, but sometimes it’s hard to defend a perfectly thrown ball and the kid [Victor Cruz] made an unbelievable catch. After that, it snowballed. It looked like we had no fire. There were some guys hitting people out there but it just wasn’t consistent. The intensity wasn’t consistent.”

On Nick Mangold: “They’ve done all those types of tests. He’s fine, he had a little bit of a headache. I said “Forget it” so I played doctor on that [laughs]. He’s fine today. He was out there and he’s fine.”

And the pivotal left-guard competition: “I thought both played pretty well. It was good for Vlad [Ducasse] to get in there, see what it’s like in an NFL game, the intensity and everything else that goes along with it. Now, he’ll be more prepared for it the next time. But I thought he did OK. I thought [Matt] Slauson did pretty well. I was happy with the way Slauson played.”

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