Last spring, I was in Charleston, South Carolina for a few days and had the pleasure of interviewing a real live Hall of Fame NFL football player named Joe Delamielleure. Joe D. played in the NFL for 13 years – 6 times All-Pro. In Buffalo he was an offensive guard for a group of linemen know as “The Electric Company.” They made their bones blocking for O.J. Simpson. Interesting to note: Joe told me that he was making $24,000 a year and O.J. was making $700,000.
Joe is from Detroit where he was an all-city running back for St. Clements High School. From there, he got an athletic scholarship to Michigan Stat; then coached by the legendary Duffy Daugherty. Duffy wanted to move Joe to guard but Joe didn’t want to do it. Duffy got him to go for it by convincing him that he had a much better chance of a long career in the NFL as a guard: “That’s because you hit people. Nobody hits you.”
Joe lasted 13-years. O.J. lasted 9. During his career Joe never had a surgery. He says that’s because he became a real fanatic about strength conditioning. He still works out 7 days a week, at age 66 and looks like he could still hit you and put your lights out. But he did pay a price for his career in football… hundreds of concussions.
Frank Gifford once said, “Pro football is like nuclear warfare. There are no winners… only survivors.”
Joe was the first guy tested by Dr. Omalu, the man made famous in the movie “Concussion.” Dr. Omalu discovered Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy (C.T.A.) and diagnosed Joe as a Category 3 on the C.T.A. scale. Joe added, “Category 4 and you’re dead.”
So then, how does one know when one has suffered a head concussion?
When I got home from South Carolina, I searched Joe D.’s name on YouTube and found a 3-part interview where he discussed concussions. He was shocked to learn that you’ve had a concussion when you have a blow to your head where you see stars. He figured that in all his years of football and full-contact practices, he had, “seen stars,” thousands of times. Most of his concussions, happened in practices, which I am sure is only because he practiced about five times as often as he played a real game. Joe is upset over the NFL’s policy for dealing with the concussion problem as well as the way they treat older players: “Delay, deny and hope we die.” This interview is well worth watching and I have provided the link in the on-line version of this story.
That all came back to me after a recent bike ride. I had a fall. I was not wearing my helmet. I landed on my elbow and then the back of my head slammed down onto the pavement. When I opened my eyes, there they were: the stars. I remember thinking that they were pretty little blue ones with nice yellow outlines just like the ones Sylvester the cat saw in the old Looney Tunes cartoons. I got up and slowly walked my bike home. Then I laid down in front of the TV where, ironically, I noticed the movie “Concussion” in my On Demand menu. I felt that maybe someone, somewhere was trying to tell me something so, I watched it.
This statement by Dr. Bennet Omalu was especially poignant: “All of these animals have shock absorbers built into their bodies. The woodpecker’s tongue extends through the back of the mouth out of the nostril, encircling the entire cranium. It is the anatomical equivalent of a safety belt for its brain. Human beings? Not a single piece of our anatomy protects us from those types of collisions. A human being will get concussed at sixty G’s. A common head-to-head contact on a football field? One hundred G’s. God did not intend for us to play football!”
Right up there with football, is hockey and all the other “contact” sports that were never factored into the Darwinian evolutionary process. I remember wondering what the results would be if the cloning dudes crossed a woodpecker with a human being. Perhaps a version of homo erectus that we would call: Homowood erectpecker?
That day in August changed my personal views about contact sports, especially contact sports played by our kids.
In her book, Concussion in Young Athletes, Laura Purcell states: “Concussions are common injuries associated with sports, particularly in children and adolescents. Two thirds of sport-related concussions (SRCs) occur in children and adolescents and the incidence of SRCs has been increasing in the last decade. The incidence of SRCs is especially high in football, soccer, basketball, and ice hockey and females appear to be at higher risk compared with males in gender-comparable sports. Recognition and proper management of SRCs is very important to prevent possible secondary injury and worsening or prolongation of concussive symptoms.”
Hockey is unique in this regard. It’s the only professional sport where it’s totally legal for a big guy to line up a smaller more talented guy in his sights and then run into him at full speed when he isn’t looking. It’s a skill we are teaching our fourteen-year-old players in the hopes that they will be able to handle things when they get to the NHL which is ridiculous when you think about the numbers. Imagine not getting to play in the NHL yet dealing with a long term traumatic brain injury received in minor sports. Do you think that’s ever happened?
In the NHL, most teams hire what is known as an enforcer to make sure that the smaller skilled players can concentrate on playing hockey instead of watching out for the cheap shots of the large, less-skillful players. It’s really just professional bullying and we are teaching it to our kids. You watch what goes on in front of the nets and you can tell that these kids are watching too much Don Cherry.
There’s big money in a job like that but the price those guys pay after their short life in hockey is over is definitely not worth it. We’ve seen the tragic consequences play out in the newspapers over the years. I think the “goon” aspect of hockey is keeping a lot of skilled players out of the game and in the future, it will keep a lot more out since the game is now so fast, the players are so big and the risk of long-term mental damage is finally coming to the forefront and parents don’t want to expose their kids to it.
Personally, I think kids should play hockey if they want to play hockey because when it is played by skilled, well-coached players, it is a truly beautiful thing to watch. But that is not all there is to the game and our kids should know the real reality of their chosen sports before they get too far down the road. Don’t just show them the Connors, Sydneys and the Austens. Show them the real numbers and what the average career in hockey is really like. How many people make it to the NHL? How long do they last? What do they do after their career is over? Are they prepared for it? What are their real options? Can they support themselves? Do they live very long?
Here are two more things I think should be done. Your helmet and gloves never come off. If they do, you are gone for the rest of the game. If you even touch another player without your helmet and/or your gloves on, you are gone for two games. Do it twice and you are gone for the season.
If you injure a player with a hit, you are gone until that player comes back. Do you think Ovechkin would have slashed Crosby twice in game 3 of last year’s playoffs (and never got called for it because the refs either didn’t see it or just claimed they didn’t see it) if he knew that he was gone if Sid was gone? (Sid was only gone, thankfully, for one game.)
I found myself embarrassed when I watched a hockey game last year in London. A big kid on the home team hit a guy on the visiting team. He really rang the guy’s bell. The hitter got called for a 4-minute penalty. A group of kids who were obviously friends of the hitter, let out a whoop that enthusiastically expressed the fact that they knew he had really nailed the guy and hurt him. What makes people like that sort of thing? It’s why the fans at games fight each other. If you watch your kid or one of the kids on your team take a dirty hit that was obviously unfair and some other guy starts to cheer for the guy who did the hitting, you want to tear the guy’s head off.
Brain damage is now taking centre stage because of it’s long-term effects on people and until the leagues really put their money where their mouth is and bring it to a stop, our only response is to stop supplying them with players. Hitting may be part of the game but so is brain damage. What is the right thing to do here?
My younger brother Mark died at age 54 due to an aggressive pituitary brain tumor that plagued him for the last ten years of his life. He got what I call, a raw deal; a death he did not deserve. He had four major, traumatic brain surgeries during that process: all of them in good hospitals in London and Toronto from the best doctors my parents could find. My take-away after watching him go through all of that is how little the medical world really knows about the brain. What’s even worse is the fact that the NHL and the NFL don’t really seem to want them to learn too much. It would interfere with their bottom lines.
That’s just my opinion. I could be wrong but cummon now… do you really think so?