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Concussion Crisis in Football

Aired November 27, 2010 - 07:30   ET


DR. SANJAY GUPTA, HOST: Good morning. I'm Dr. Sanjay Gupta. And welcome to the show.

Today, we're talking football. And what I'm about to show you is a terrifying highlight reel.

Premiere athletes, some of the strongest of the strong, taken out by a concussion. So far this NFL season, there's been an average of almost one concussion per game. And, you know, as terrifying as that is, as big hits always are when they happened, days or weeks later, when many players return to the field, these concussions often become sort of an afterthought.

But a cautionary tale about concussions is emerging among many camps. Those blows may be causing brain damage that looks a lot like dementia. We're going to talk about that and we're going to talk about the impact of concussions on young brains as well on SGMD.

Let's get started.


GUPTA: An undeniable part of football culture is hit hard and get rewarded. The crowd goes wild. You may even get a few slaps on the back in the locker room. If you're the one who gets hit, the football culture says: play through it, be tough, even if you get a concussion.

I talked about that culture with former Super Bowl MVP quarterback Kurt Warner.


UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Shotgun snap, blitz coming. Warner steps up --

GUPTA (voice-over): It's a chilling moment in football.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: And Kurt Warner is hurt. Warner is down.

GUPTA: A player is hit and does not get up.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Kurt Warner, he's on his back.

GUPTA: January 16th, 2010, former NFL quarterback Kurt Warner was that player. UNIDENTIFIED MALE: And the trainers race out --

GUPTA: He got up, and later, he returned to the game.

(on camera): Do you feel like now in retrospect you ever stayed in the game or was sort of pushed to stay in the game when you shouldn't have?

KURT WARNER, FORMER NFL QUARTERBACK: Yes. There's no question that's happened.

A lot of guys when they get, you know, those hits or those concussions, they think, OK, well, I'm just going to kind of play through it here for the short term and it's going to get better.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: He was just lifted up and deposited --

GUPTA (voice-over): Playing through it is part of football, says Warner, a big part.

WARNER: Probably 100 percent of the guys that play my sport in the NFL have been there. And I think for a long time it was felt like, well, if you didn't get dizzy or if no memory, then you really didn't suffer a concussion.

GUPTA (on camera): What does a concussion feel like?

WARNER: It's like a mental fogginess where you almost seem like you're separated from the situation. You're in it, but you're kind of looking at it from the outside looking in.

GUPTA (voice-over): According to the NFL, there are more than 100 documented concussions every season. After a big hit, doctors on the sidelines test players for signs of concussion, memory problems, confusion, dizziness.

But there is no definitive answer to the most important question: who should continue playing and who should come out of the game?

(on camera): The first Sunday in September 2003, Giants game, you got hit. They were worried about you.

WARNER: Right.

GUPTA: What were you experiencing at that time?

WARNER: I don't know. I didn't think at the time -- I never thought it had anything to do with the hit. But that's exactly what it's like when you get a concussion. I felt like I was fully functional. But in actuality, I wasn't.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: How many of you have by show of hands had a concussion?

GUPTA (voice-over): Kevin Guskiewicz, formerly a Pittsburgh Steelers trainer, studies concussion impacts on the brain in high school players --

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: This is showing moderate levels of atrophy.

GUPTA: -- and retired NFL athletes.

In his study, players who've had three or more concussions, get MRIs.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: I'm going to say three words.

GUPTA: -- and memory tests.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Apple, penny, table. Now, you say those words.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Apple, penny, table.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Good. What were those three words I asked you to remember earlier?

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: I don't remember. Penny -- I don't remember.


GUPTA: Memory problems are not the only thing they're finding.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: The brain has shrunk.

GUPTA: Concussions may be shrinking memory and learning centers in the brain, thwarting its ability to transmit signals.

(on camera): Did you retire because of concussions?

WARNER: No, not because of concussions. But there's no question, you know, as I contemplated the big picture and, you know, thought about life after football, do I want to put myself at risk for another concussion or for a worse concussion?

GUPTA: Many players, of course, decide to play through it.


GUPTA: Now, there's no question, there's a reluctance to talk about this. But more and more people are asking: could football be too dangerous in certain situations? Now, for its part, the NFL has instituted rule changes and heavy fines, even suspensions to players who hit illegally, by leading with their heads when tackling. Those hits can cause a concussion.

But a bigger hurdle maybe overcoming the culture that Kurt Warner mentioned so pervasive in the NFL: playing through injuries.

We did ask the NFL specifically about that and we got this statement: "If anything, we are going in the other direction where people sit out until they are totally symptom-free. There are so many protocols now, if a guy gets pulled out in a game, he cannot go back until he's cleared by the team doctor." Again, from the NFL.

Next, a young player, there are 3 million of them, and they also hit hard. Case in point: 17-year-old Max Conradt, a high school quarterback whose life took a tragic turn following a series of hard hits during a game.

Stay with SGMD.


GUPTA: If you've ever been to a high school football game, you understand that the stakes are quite high. And young football players, not unlike their professional counterparts, play a mean game. In fact, if you look inside those oversized helmets, you can see those young players' eyes are gleaming. You can feel the intensity.

In every way, young players are emulating what their heroes in the pros do, including playing through concussions.

Here is a story of one young player who wishes he hadn't done that.


GUPTA: (voice-over): Friday night, game night.


GUPTA: On a kickoff return, 17-year-old Max Conradt takes a hit.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: I think he's tripped up by Conradt maybe.

RALPH CONRADT, MAX CONRADT'S FATHER: He took a knee to the head and went down for several seconds and was staggering off the field.

GUPTA: A week later --

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Conradt under center.

GUPTA: -- another game.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Back to throw, here's come the blitz and he's mauled over.

GUPTA: Another hit.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: The ball gets taken away from Conradt.

R. CONRADT: He drills his forehead and helmet right into Max's chin.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: For some reason, Conradt let him catch the ball.

GUPTA: Astonishingly, Max continues to play, but then -- JOY CONRADT, MAX CONRADT'S STEPMOTHER: He was walking toward me and he looked at me and he said, "My chin hurts," and then he collapsed.

GUPTA: Max Conradt, star athlete, stellar student, was dying.

What happened: second impact syndrome -- one concussion closely followed by a second one before the brain has time to heal. In Max's case, his brain began to swell uncontrollably.

Max was rushed to the operating room.

R. CONRADT: The head surgeon comes over and puts his hand on my back and he just goes, "I'm really sorry," to basically telling us he's not going to make it. He's not going to survive.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Throw the ball. Throw the ball.

GUPTA: Three operations in 10 days, Max is alive, but barely conscious.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: This is Max's first time back.

GUPTA: It took months before he finally woke up.




UNIDENTIFIED MALE: You were hurt in a football game.




M. CONRADT: Oh my God.

GUPTA: That was 2002.

M. CONRADT: I don't remember this season. I don't remember the football season.

GUPTA: This is Max today. He's 26, living in a home for brain injured adults. He still has no memory of the hit that changed his life. In fact, these days, he has problems remembering, period.

J. CONRADT: I would love it if my son remembered what he had for breakfast today. I would love it if I could look at him and without rancor, remember the way he was before he was injured.

M. CONRADT: Once in a while I get upset about if I can't remember the stuff I want to remember. I wish it never happened. (END VIDEOTAPE)

GUPTA: You know, what sort of interesting or perhaps disturbing about Max Conradt's story is that neither he nor his parents really had any of the symptoms of a concussion. In fact, it was sobering theme we found over and over again among parents, among coaches, among players all over the country.

Let's spend a minute talking about what happens to the brain during a concussion. First of all, the brain is sort of the consistency of Jell-O. And when the head is hit hard, the brain is stretched and twisted inside the cranium. Chemicals start leak out of cells, neurons, sort of the brain's messengers, they misfire. Basically, the brain is thrown into a state of crisis.

Now, with rest, that crisis can subside. The brain can sort of heal itself. But, often, a second concussion happens too soon after the first one and that's when brain cells actually start to die. That's when permanent damage steps in.

You can't see a concussion. But there are some telltale signs that you've had one. For example, headache or pressure in the head, nausea or vomiting, sensitivity to light or noise. Also, confusion, attention and memory problems. Those can all be early signs of concussion.

And coming up, another boy, even younger, only 13 years old goes back into a football game and gets hit over and over again. He seems OK until after the game. And now, everyone is asking this question: when should you take a player like him out of the game and how long should he stay out? I want to talk to a family that's making a difference.

Stay with SGMD.


GUPTA: Welcome back to SGMD.

Today, we are focusing on head injuries, specifically concussions. Think of them as brain injuries that often go unnoticed and we now know can cause lifelong problems.

The problem is that players are getting hit and they're staying in the game, only to end up with a traumatic brain injury. In fact, that's what happened to 13-year-old Zackery Lystedt. His injury was catastrophic. In fact, he almost died, we hear.

You are looking at slow-mo of the first hit he took. He took many hits over the course of that same game and he played the entire time. It wasn't until after that anyone realized just how bad it all was.

In fact, he fought for his life for seven days and was in a coma for 30 days. And based on what happened to him, Washington state Zackery Lystedt law last year. Since then, at least 24 states have looked into similar legislation, nine states have passed it.

Now, among the requirements, youth athletes suspected of suffering a concussions or head injury must be removed from play. Before they can return to action, they must receive written medical clearance from a licensed health care provider trained in evaluation and management of concussions. And athletes and their parents must sign an informational sheet about the dangers of concussion at the start of each season.

It's been four years since some of that video that you just saw, some of those hits that Zackery took.

But now, Zackery and his father, Victor, join us. Thanks to both of you for being on the show.



GUPTA: Zackery, let me -- let me start with you. How are you doing?

Z. LYSTEDT: I'm feeling better. Better and better as each day goes by.

GUPTA: What do you -- what do you -- how are you getting along? I mean, are you able to walk at all with a cane? Or what's your life like?

Z. LYSTEDT: As long as I trust the person and I trust that they are not going to let me fall like that.

GUPTA: Right, that makes sense. I understand you are going through 40 hours or so of therapy a week still.

Victor, I mean -- let me ask you, do you remember the specifics of this particular game that we are talking about? What happened?

V. LYSTEDT: Oh, yes. Well, you know, I was at the game and never really missed any of Zack's sporting events. So, I didn't actually see him, you know, take that first hit where he was running down the boy and I didn't see him actually hit his head or any of that. I didn't actually even know that was my son until I heard a couple of the boys say, you know, hey, everyone, take a knee, Zack's hurt.

And then, you know, of course, you get a little concerned. But by that time, the coaches had made it out or a coach, and they were walking him off the field. It was really close to the halftime and they were kind of around him. They went to their halftime events, and came back and he was back in the game. So, that's kind of what I know about the game.

GUPTA: So, it sounds like it was a pretty significant hit. You know, we can see from the video there. You know, one of the things that I wanted to ask you and I think a lot of parents have been asking me as we've been talking about this, you know, there's a law, obviously, that you and Zack were instrumental in getting passed. But what is the obligation you think for a parent who maybe the parent of a football player who watches their son get hit and the coach doesn't take him out of the game? What sort of obligation do they have?

V. LYSTEDT: Well, I mean, you know, when you sign up to be a parent, you know, your obligation is to take care of your child. And, you know, education is the key here. You know, why we -- why we wanted this law passed in our state. Now, we want it passed in our nation. It's for the educational part.

If you are a good parent, I guarantee you're going to make the right decision. If you feel that your child has some sort of a concussion or even if you suspect a concussion, you know, it's important that the trained medical providers that know how to manage concussion treat that concussion. It's not made -- it's not left up to a coach, a parent or a kid to make those decisions.

GUPTA: Zack, I know you -- obviously, the law is named after you. So, you've become quite famous around this. But have you -- have you heard about an impact or do people talk to you about this law, Zack?

Z. LYSTEDT: (INAUDIBLE) say like I've done American miracles. (INAUDIBLE) I just tell them, like, I just try my very hardest to do everything that I'm supposed to do.

GUPTA: Well, Zackery, I really appreciate you coming on -- and, Victor, as well.

I mean, so many people need to hear these messages and hear what happened to you. And obviously, this is something we're committed to as well. So, I appreciate it. And happy holidays for the rest of the year to both of you. Thanks so much.

Z. LYSTEDT: Thank you.

V. LYSTEDT: Thank you.

GUPTA: Thank you.

Also, you know, I got a chance to speak to one NFL player who told me that it was these types of concussions that we've been talking about that actually pushed him to the brink of taking his own life. Sadly, that's a reality for many ex-players who've had concussions. You're going to hear his devastating story. That's next.

Stay with SGMD.


GUPTA: And we're back with SGMD.

You know, we talked about the dangerous trend of playing through concussions and the concussion problem at the youth level. But what about the long-term impact of the concussion?

Years after leaving the football field, some ex-players' lives begin to spiral out of control. That's what they've told us. That is when for some, memory problems, depression, rage, begin to take over. Here's one player's story.


UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Nice play. Oh! He got drilled into five (ph)!

GUPTA (voice-over): They are thrilling.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Delivered the blow. Came in with a stinger.

GUPTA: And terrifying.

Watch a football game and you can't miss them -- the hits.


GUPTA: But what is the real impact? What is happening to the player's brains?

(on camera): How many times did you take a hard hit playing football?

FRED MCNEILL, FORMER NFL LINEBACKER: There was one time when I had a real serious concussion and it was so serious that I was -- I was dizzy for, like, you know, for, like, two or three weeks.

GUPTA (voice-over): Thirty years ago, Fred McNeill was a linebacker for the Minnesota Vikings. He played for 12 seasons and then two Super Bowls.


GUPTA: Relentlessly hitting opponents was his job.

F. MCNEILL: You got to be able the move, right?

GUPTA (on camera): Right.

(voice-over): No question McNeill is robust physically.

F. MCNEILL: Then you can control it.

GUPTA: But you can tell his brain has paid a price.

(on camera): What has it done to you?

F. MCNEILL: Well, impact is on memory. I meet people and they talk about the conversation that we had, you know, two weeks ago or three weeks ago or a month ago or whatever. And I don't remember.

GUPTA: If we saw each other again, would you remember me? F. MCNEILL: Sanjay, I don't know.

When I started out --

GUPTA (voice-over): The not knowing, it happens often. There was also rage.

TIA MCNEILL, FRED MCNEILL'S WIFE: It got to where I would say things that really shouldn't upset him and he would get angry really quick. His temper was very short.

GUPTA: Followed by remorse.

FRED MCNEILL, JR., FRED MCNEILL'S SON: I think that was the biggest thing for my dad. He felt like it was all his fault.

GUPTA: It wasn't, but there was no doubt he was different.

T. MCNEILL: It was a moment where I realized I wasn't living with the person that I knew and married.

GUPTA: No one seemed to know what was happening to Fred McNeill until reports about other former NFL players who had been through similar issues, like McNeill, they had memory problems, rage issues and depression. Most disturbing, all died young.

Could concussions, the common denominator, be to blame?

(on camera): Little bit different on this?

(voice-over): Researchers at Boston University Medical School are looking deep into the brain and spinal cord of former athletes to find out. What they are seeing is startling.

This is a normal brain. This one a 45-year-old former NFL player. See the brown tangles? That's brain damage. It looks a lot like this 70-year-old brain with dementia.

DR. ANN MCKEE, NEUROLOGIST, BOSTON UNIVERSITY SCH. OF MED.: To see the kind of changes we are seeing in 45-year-olds is basically unheard of.

GUPTA: It's called chronic traumatic encephalopathy. And here's the kicker: those changes are directly associated with rage, memory problems and depression.

F. MCNEILL: I was actually considering not living. I was actually considering that.

GUPTA (on camera): You wanted to end your life?

F. MCNEILL: Yes. I was just thinking it would be so much easier.

GUPTA (voice-over): Today is better.

F. MCNEILL: I feel really good. I can run around this park right now.

GUPTA: But McNeill is still worried about himself and other players.

F. MCNEILL: It's happened to me and it's happened to other players, and it's coming from the concussions and the impact that players have had playing football.

GUPTA: An impact that may be lasting.


GUPTA: Now, we did ask the NFL to respond to McNeill's and other players' concerns that concussions could be causing long-term damage. And here's specifically what the league had to say. "What we're trying to prevent is multiple concussions without recovery. We know there are long term effects of concussion but they have not been fully characterized. The whole goal of the NFL is when in doubt, sit them out, let them recover so that there are no long term effects."

Today's show, we've talked about the short term impact of concussions. We've looked at the science of long term impact of concussions. We've also recognized that young players' brains are still developing.

So, if in doubt, sit it out, a good adage for sure. As more science comes to us, we're certainly going to bring it to you.