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Head Games: The Truth About Concussions

Aired February 26, 2011 - 07:30   ET


DR. SANJAY GUPTA, HOST: I'm Dr. Sanjay Gupta. Welcome to the show.

You know, for years now, I have been reporting on the consequences of too many hits to the head. I've seen firsthand the brains of athletes who developed dementia too young -- who became depressed, developed anxiety and memory loss too young, and athletes who died too young.

Well, today, we got a story about an athlete, a professional football player who knew something was terribly wrong. His mind had been damaged somehow and he suspected that he knew the cause. So, he left a message behind and then he did the unthinkable. And now, even in death, he is still seeking answers.

David Duerson committed suicide last week and asked that his brain -- and brain like this one -- be do donated to a special laboratory. Why? We'll tell you.

Also, a longtime coach who saw what football was doing to the most vulnerable players of all, kids, not even teenagers yet. It wasn't pretty. So, he decided to try something different -- and it worked.

Let's get started.


GUPTA: We caught wind of a sad but fascinating story this week. A former Chicago Bear, David Duerson, part of the fabled 1985 Super Bowl team and later successful businessman and radio host -- well, he killed himself. In fact, he shot himself in the chest, not his head.

And get this: he left messages saying he wanted his brain to be studied for signs of brain damage, signs of lasting damage from all the hits that he took on the football field.


GUPTA (voice-over): These were the glory days -- the 1980s when David Duerson, Double D, was a member of the insanely talented Chicago Bears defense. Fierce play meant multiple concussions.

ALICIA DUERSON, DAVID DUERSON'S EX-WIFE: Sometimes, he would come home with extreme headaches. There were times when we would meet after the game and he would want me to drive because he felt dizziness or he just didn't feel stable.

GUPTA: Those headaches would follow him and fellow players into retirement.

DAVID DUERSON: Now sitting as a trustee for the players association, you know, I see all these guys and their injuries and I see all their medical reports. And, you know, this sport is a collisive sport. You know, this is not contact, this is collision. And the guys' bodies are paying the heavy price.

GUPTA: Years removed from the field, Duerson also paid a price, suffering with severe pain on the left side of his head. Duerson had been an adept speaker. He was a Harvard grad. But recently ---

A. DUERSON: He had problems putting words together. He had some spelling problems. His vision was blurry. He knew that there was something not right.

GUPTA: For his family, the most alarming clue came by way of a recent text message.

TREGG DUERSON, DAVID DUERSON'S SON: This is a text message that he sent to my mother saying that he loved her and he loved our family, and that to please get his brain to the NFL brain bank.

GUPTA: Phone call after desperate phone call from family members to David Duerson went unanswered.

(on camera): When you heard about your father, how did you hear? Did you receive a call or what happened?

TREGG DUERSON: You know, when I was getting up at 1:30 in the morning and I'm letting the police in, you know, the first thing in my mind is I think they're about to tell me my father died. And, you know, there's no -- it was complete shock.

GUPTA (voice-over): Duerson shot himself in the chest. The details are hazy. But friends and family say the manner in which Duerson shot himself may have been to protect the one thing he could leave behind, the one thing that might help fellow athletes.

Echoing his final text message, Duerson left behind a haunting message. "Please see that my brain is given to the NFL's brain bank."

OTIS WILSON, DAVID DUERSON'S FRIEND: He's always been a strong person on and off the field. Even at the end, you know, he's trying to help somebody.

GUPTA: Tissue from Duerson's brain is actually headed for the Boston University School of Medicine for evidence of brown tangles, damage in the brain called chronic traumatic encephalopathy, or CTE, had thus far been found in more than 30 ex-athletes -- many of whom, like Duerson, played professional football.

In the next several months, Duerson's brain tissue will also be studied. And perhaps the questions that he grappled with just before his death will provide answers for fellow athletes who are still leaving.

WILSON: My only hope that it really makes a difference. And then once they find out what the cause is, that the NFL takes a stand and say, OK, we're going to try to alleviate this problem because if you don't, then all this is for nothing.


GUPTA: It's such an unbelievably difficult time for them. And I'll tell you that David Duerson's family has respected his wishes. And as difficult as it is to talk about, the brain of David Duerson will now be going to a special facility. I have spent time with this facility myself. We're going to talk to one of the people who are trying to give the family of Duerson some answers.

What is happening here is important. It is ground breaking and is potentially historic. Stay with us on SGMD.



GUPTA (voice-over): Impossible to test for, a concussion is a vague injury, invisible until now.

(on camera): This is the brain of an athlete.


GUPTA: Is that right?


GUPTA: That's the only thing you know at this point?


ANN MCKEE, BEDFORD V.A. ADMINISTRATION MED. CTR.: This is the case of an 18-year-old who played multiple sports in high school and sustained several concussions.

GUPTA (voice-over): The brown tangle seen here, evidence of brain damage.

MCKEE: It's not just a few tangles. It's actually, you know, a lot of them.


GUPTA: And we are back with SGMD.

We are talking former Chicago Bears star, David Duerson. He killed himself last week. He was afraid he might have suffered brain damage on the field. He left messages about this, saying he wanted his brain analyzed after his death. It's tough to talk about. But joining me to talk a little bit more is Chris Nowinski. He's director of Boston University's research program that's looking into this.

Welcome to the show, Chris.

CHRIS NOWINSKI, BOSTON UNIVERSITY CSTE: Appreciate being here, Dr. Gupta.

GUPTA: Chris and I were talking in the break. And these are tough circumstances under which to discuss. And I know this is part of the world that you're in now. But I can't get over this one fact, Chris, that, you know, David shot himself in the chest, in part, it sounds like from messages that he left because he wanted his brain to be preserved so it could be analyzed that he could help further research. He was thinking about you, Chris, and the work that you're doing.

And I just -- I just wonder: how does that make you feel?

NOWINSKI: To be honest, it's really -- it's very unsettling. It's not -- it's a situation I think we've always been concerned that might happen because we know how destructive CTE can be. And, you know, although Mr. Duerson hasn't been diagnosed with that, yet, by Dr. McKee, you know, I mean, I think the odds are that he did have the disease. And so, if that's the case, it's just going to be -- it's kind of horrifying.

GUPTA: Can you explain, what can you find out from David Duerson's brain now when it's finally examined?

NOWINSKI: Sure. When Dr. Ann McKee examines his brain, you know, she's going to be looking for any abnormality because, you know, frankly, a lot of diseases and abnormalities can cause a wide range of symptoms that could have contributed to this. But, specifically, we are concerned that we'll find chronic traumatic encephalopathy. CTE, which will be characterized by the abnormal build-up of TAL (ph) proteins in specific regions of the brain, causing the brain to function abnormally.

GUPTA: You know, this is, obviously, early on still. And the whole legacy of this institute -- I mean, there's going to be a lot of people who said they will give their brains to science upon their death. What have you seen so far? I mean, is there anything that you say so far about the results?

NOWINSKI: Well, think the results, to me, clearly show this is far more widespread than we realized or ever wanted to find. You know, families are really contributing to this research and supporting the research. We now actually have 66 cases in the brain bank. And Dr. McKee has completed 40 studies in over -- in almost all athletes. And over 30 had the disease.


NOWINSKI: So, it's -- I mean, it's quite striking to see case after case, especially the ones who took many, many years of brain trauma to find this in almost every one.

GUPTA: And, again, what we're talking about specifically is athletes who have, upon their death, donated their brains to science. Some of them concerned that they were developing what is known as CTE, chronic traumatic encephalopathy, which some have described as almost an early onset of dementia. It's associated with depression. It's associated with anxiety. It's associated with memory loss while one is still alive. And this is in very, very young people.

You know, I couldn't help but think that Dave Duerson wants some answers, even in death. He wants some answers maybe for his family. Is that the right thing to be asking for? Is he going to get answers from all this?

NOWINSKI: I don't know if there are answers for David. I don't think there are real answers to this problem. It's just -- it's simply a tragedy. But the reality is, you know, people will learn from the gift that Mr. Duerson left.

GUPTA: Well, I appreciate that, Chris. And, you know, one of the things we are focused on is some solutions. Obviously, a lot of people will continue to play sports, will continue to play sports like football and like the sport that you were involved in as well. But, you know, we want to keep them as safe as possible when they're kids, when they're adolescents and certainly into the high school and college and professional years.

So, we're going to stay on top of this, Chris. We hope to be able to collaborate with you in the future so more. Thanks so much for joining us.

NOWINSKI: Thank you.

GUPTA: Now, as you listen to all of this, remember, this is not at all an isolated thing. In fact, many ex-players have problems.

Listen to a conversation I had just recently with former Viking Fred McNeill. He started having serious issues with headaches and concentration years after his career was over.


GUPTA: You wanted to end your life?

FRED MCNEILL, FORMER NFL LINEBACKER: Yes. I was just thinking it would be so much easier. And to be sitting at my office late at night and actually sitting there with a pair of scissors and actually thinking that, man, this would be so much easier if I just did this.


GUPTA: It is so just difficult to hear this. So, what is being done to help Fred McNeill -- and really, so many other players, young and old? We got some answers. That's what we're about. And that's next on SGMD.


GUPTA: And we are back with SGMD.

You know, there are more than 3 million football players in the United States. But when it comes to safety, it's the National Football League, the pros that set the standard.

So, joining me from Indianapolis are the co-chairs of the league's advisory committee on head, neck and spine safety. They are neurosurgeons. So, they know this territory -- Dr. Richard Ellenbogen, Dr. Hunt Batjer.

Thanks so much for joining us.



GUPTA: And before the break, we heard from a director of this research laboratory where they have examined more than two dozen brains. They say they have found brain damage, evidence of it in most of them.

Do we have enough evidence now to say that playing football is bad for your brain? Is dangerous for your health?

BATJER: You know, we have known this since the 1920s and the experience in the boxing world where cases of dementia was defined. Chronic traumatic encephalopathy was defined. And, you know, it's not a surprise that repetitive head injury, as you know so well, can cause long-term damage. And I think we are seeing that.

The dimensions of this problem are still to be defined. And that's what Richard and I are embarking on.

GUPTA: As we're reporting, more and more players are concerned. Obviously, many of these players are retired. And so, we're sort of looking back. But for players that are in the league now or young players that I know you talked about and concerned about as well, what is the message to them right now?

ELLENBOGEN: What are we doing in the NFL? Well, we are doing a lot of things. And we're doing a lot of things at the same time.

So, today, just a half hour ago, we were rolling out a new NFL sidelines exam which is a lot stricter, a lot tougher and really endorsed by everybody that we presented to from the competition committee to the team physicians and professional athletic trainers which says, you know, if you are in doubt, take the player out. Sit them out. Let them recover. Because we know, as you've said in your previous programs, that if you let them recover, they have a much better chance of having better long-term prognosis.

We are looking at helmets. We're looking at a whole a variety of things to improve.

BATJER: But also, Sanjay, that the --

GUPTA: Go ahead.

BATJER: Yes. I mentioned that the reported concussions, this year, are up about 25 percent. And I think that reflects what Rich and I have seen in talking to the players, talking to the coaches. They are very, very tuned in, as you mentioned, and they clearly will raise a finger when they -- when they have symptoms of concussion or when one of their teammates does.

GUPTA: When I interviewed players, Dr. Batjer, Hunt, in the past, you know, they said to me, look, this game has changed. You were referring to past history. But they said players have become bigger, they become faster, stronger. And is it possible to make football a safe game?

BATJER: Well, that's a fabulous and difficult question as you know. The problem is it's the size and speed and power of the professional athletes at this time, which is enormous.

It's also a physiologic problem. We've got great armor and these helmets are unbelievable quality. The problem is when helmets collide at high rates of speed and stop, the skull stops almost immediately --

GUPTA: Right.

BATJER: -- but unfortunately the brain doesn't. And that moving back and forth, that reverberation is the villain here.

GUPTA: And you mentioned all of these various, you know, propositions including, you know, the sideline exam. You know, as advisers to the NFL, how do you enforce that? I mean, because there's this culture as you mentioned of playing through it, it's a competitive sport.

Is there -- are there going to be penalties if teams don't abide by this? How do you make sure that it actually happens?

ELLENBOGEN: I think the players certainly with the tragedy, the terrible tragedy this week, they're pretty attune to the fact that, you know, something has to change. No one wants a long-term problem after they've suffered multiple concussions.

So, I think you're going to see a culture change actually enforce among the players and the fans. They're going to insist on it. I think there are going to be rule changes, and that's certainly up to levels above Hunt and I with NFL competition committee and the commissioner. But they're pretty clear what they're telling us, and that is safety first.

BATJER: And clearly, the tolerance for missing concussions for not handling them properly, for not getting players off the field is really zero. And that comes from the commissioner. It's enforced by competition committee, the safety and injury committee. It is universal. And I'm very impressed and pleased with that development.

GUPTA: Well, and I know the commissioner has spoken about this quite candidly and a lot of people are as well. And I know Richard you were referring to David Duerson. Our thoughts are with his family. Obviously, just a tragic circumstance.

The co-chairs of the advisory committee of head, neck, and spine injuries, Richard Ellenbogen and Hunt Batjer, both neurosurgeon, thanks so much for joining us.

And coming up, we're staying on theme. The coach who said enough when his fifth grader started getting hurt. Creative solution -- we've got it just ahead.

Stay with SGMD.



UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Several time-tested methods for diverting the defense from the ball carrier. Throw your body in front of them with a certain amount of force.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: You mean blocking?

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Sounds kind of rough. That could hurt, though.



GUPTA: That, of course, is George Clooney in the movie "Leatherheads." And we are back with SGMD.

Well, this is what protective head gear looked like in the old days. Here's what it looks like now. I mean, the changes are obvious. You've got a lot of padding inside, a much tougher shell, as well. Some, in fact, had these sensors that are built inside to measure impact.

In fact, take a look over here. If someone takes a hit on the football field, some of these helmets, they transmit a signal wirelessly to the sideline that gives you information like this, tells you the severity of the blow, the impact of the blow -- such important information.

But, you know, some people say these helmets really aren't the answer. In fact, they may be giving people a false sense of comfort. In fact, we've heard from a lot of people that if a helmet like this were still used, it could, in fact, limit the aggressive blows that we see in football today. I think the answer is clear. I mean, helmets alone aren't going to solve this problem. But some of the best solutions may not involve any high tech gear at all.

Take a look at this.


GUPTA (voice-over): Most of these players see themselves as mini-versions of these guys.

NOWINSKI: Youth football is trying to be the professional game -- sometimes for good, but sometimes for bad.

GUPTA: The good? Competition. Camaraderie.

The bad? Concussions and the ugly, a tendency trickling from the pros to hide head injuries.

NOWINSKI: When you are 13, you have the same drives to play through pain, play through injury. You don't want to look weak in front of your friends or weak in front of your enemies. Guys went great lengths to hide injuries, or not talk about them.

GUPTA: It turns out hiding has consequences -- first seen at the NFL level. Retired players consumed with depression, rage, memory problems. Their symptoms associated with the mysterious brain disease called chronic traumatic encephalopathy. It looks like dementia, but it strikes players in their 30s, 40s, and 50s, sometimes younger.

NOWINSKI: The reality is, you know, we do have cases of teenagers having the disease, were primary football players -- some played multi-sports, but they all had brain trauma.

CARMEN RODA, PRES., WESTPORT POLICE ATHLETIC LEAGUE: Well, it's brain damage. I mean, that's what comes out of it. How can you want that for any child?

Does your head go up or down?


RODA: Head go up or down?


RODA: Let's go!

GUPTA: Carmen Roda coaches the Wreckers. It's a team of fifth graders in Westport, Connecticut. Last year, he had a typical playbook.

RODA: We would do drills like bull in a ring, you know, one kid in the middle and you walk around and tap a kid, and then you just go at it, head-to-head, hammer to hammer.

GUPTA: And during games?

RODA: The kid came out and he got a hard hit, what we used to call a stinger or ding, you know, we should sit and say, hey, are you OK? And then send him back in if he answered yes.

GUPTA: When his team clocked 20 concussions in one season, Coach Roda said enough. His new playbook starts with a concussion course for coaches, parents, and players -- a trainer at games and practice.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: You're feeling nausea or dizziness?


GUPTA: And far less hitting in practice, and emphasis on technique, not through force.

RODA: This is what we don't want to see. OK? The spine is lined up. The head is down.

There's been sometimes that I've had the kids take off their helmets and work on technique. Because the brain is smart, right? As soon as they see it's going to get hurt, and the head snaps back automatically.

GUPTA: The impact? The Wreckers cut the number of concussions in half and still made the playoffs.

NOWINSKI: It did not hurt the kid's ability to play the game. It just dramatically lowered their injury rate and their head trauma rate. And so when you look at how simple those things were made in one season, in one program, you wonder why isn't everybody else doing this?


GUPTA: It's great to hear. I mean, something that's working. On the other hand, keep in mind, still 10 head injuries for the kids in just that one league this year alone. It shows that we have a lot more work to do to make football safe for everyone everywhere. And that's why we're sticking with the story right here on SGMD.

Thanks for watching. I'm Dr. Sanjay Gupta.

More news on CNN starts right now.