While channel-surfing the night before Super Bowl 52 early in February, I happened upon the movie “Concussion,” a biopic about Dr. Bennet Omalu. He’s the neuropathologist who discovered Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy (CTE) while performing a post-mortem on the brain of a 50-year-old Pro Football Hall of Famer in 2002. For some reason, the movie made me remember Charlie Tolar.
In the hot summer of 1963, a few times a week I’d drive to Colorado College in Colorado Springs, to study football. The quiet campus might seem an unlikely place to do that being it was a tiny, academically oriented liberal arts school with a football program still running the antiquated Single-wing. However, that July it was the site of the American Football League’s Houston Oilers pre-season training camp.
The highlight of my education was to witness Charlie Tolar, the 5’6″, 210 lb. fullback, run the notorious Oklahoma Drill, the basic test of football cajones. A ball runner, behind a blocker, faces a defensive player waiting a few yards away. On a coach’s signal, the blocker tries to open a hole for the runner, while the defender tries to shed the block and tackle the runner. The players are confined in a narrow space between dummies so hard contact is guaranteed.
In those days, security and crowds weren’t issues as they are today, enabling me to get close to the action. At the time I was a 5’7”, 150 lb. high school football player. Tolar was one of my heroes. With teen naivety, I dreamed by doing enough calisthenics and drinking four egg milkshakes, I’d develop Tolar’s battle tank physique (it didn’t work).
Tolar was nick-named the Human Bowling Ball because of a strange quirk for an offensive back—often he didn’t try to elude tacklers. Instead, he would put his head down and run right at them. He used his head as a weapon.
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Because Tolar ran so low to the ground in the Oklahoma Drill, when the taller tacklers got low to stop him, their plastic Ridell helmets would crack so loudly you would blink, then he’d sprint away. Other would-be tacklers tried to straighten him up with a forearm shiver to his face, only to find his helmet attacking their ribs, groin, or solar plexus. Again unstopped, Tolar would trot back with blood dripping from his nose onto his powder blue practice jersey.
Back then, the only face protection worn by running backs was two bars to prevent their teeth from getting knocked out. Noses were expendable, as were most other body parts.
Tolar epitomized his generation of pro players (including my brother, another of my football heroes). Their game was more physical, untamed, and merciless.
Between then and now, the NFL game morphed from sport to spectacle, and the league into a wealthy corporate brand starring very elite athletes who compete in a game that is, as one sportswriter described, “regimented and stylized violence.”
Today’s NFL players are bigger, faster, and stronger due to year around training guided by state-of-the-art exercise and nutrition science. They enjoy more protection: faces shielded by cages or plexiglass; knees fortified with braces; ribs, kidneys, necks, hands, and elbows padded with the same advanced materials used by soldiers in combat.
These players are too expensive to risk unnecessary injury. The average NFLer ’s career is already down to 3.3 years. The league has banned the most punishing old-school techniques like clotheslining, forearm shivers, low cut blocks, leg whips, blindsides, and crack backs that fractured ankles, knees, and sometimes necks in the good old days. And, no surprise, the Oklahoma Drill is near extinct at NFL most practices.
However, despite all these safeguards, as Dr. Omalu revealed, football remains 100-percent risky for anyone who plays it due to a thorny physics problem—there is no way to protect a player’s brain. Helmets only protect the skull. The brain is three pounds of tissue which is mainly water and has the consistency of jello. The incredible forces generated by NFL’s superb athletes in those breathtaking collisions ends up working against them. Although all their other highly conditioned body parts may be able to abruptly decelerate and safely absorb the shocks, the brain’s momentum is not slowed until it bounces against the inside of the skull. (To fully grasp what happens then, see this presentation by Eric Blackman of the University of Rochester.)
When Dr. Omalu, a Nigerian immigrant, presented his troubling findings to the NFL, the league first tried to demonize him as an ignorant, foreign non-fan and have him ousted from the medical profession. However, as more neurologists, including some NFL team doctors, studied his evidence, they concurred.
So did the NFL Players Association. Players suspected something was going wrong before CTE had a name. Too many veterans, even young ones, were experiencing medical symptoms like headaches, dizziness, memory loss, anxiety, depression or, worse, exhibiting bizarre behaviors—spousal abuse, random outbursts of aggression, and suicide. (Worth noting: Dr. Omalu suspects OJ Simpson’s criminal behavior might be due to CTE.)
Reacting to the backlash from players (including a lawsuit), fans, and TV sponsors, the NFL has taken steps to reduce brain injuries. The NFL’s official website reports:
The NFL has made 47 rule changes since 2002 to protect players, improve practice methods, better educate players and personnel on concussions and strengthen the league’s medical protocols. The NFL deploys 29 medical professionals on the sidelines for each game. Working with the NFL Players Association, the league enforces a concussion protocol for players that has been instrumental in immediately identifying and diagnosing concussions and other head-related injuries.
A concussion protocol is better than nothing, but not much. Other than rest, there is no definitive medical treatment for a concussion.
Unfortunately, Dr. Omalu suspects repeated hits to the head, whether or not they result in a concussion, cause brain damage. There is no way to determine whether a player or veteran has CTE without microscopic examination of the brain post-mortem. It is to difficult to diagnosis in a living subject because CTE shares symptoms common to a host of other brain diseases. What is most insidious about CTE is that it seems to be a chronic, progressive disease. It can take years, even decades, to manifest itself.
For the NFL, CTE remains a brand-threatening morale and PR problem that just won’t go away. More and more parents, including NFL players, don’t want their kids to play football. Fans’ ardor for the game might cool knowing their entertainment might cause their heroes lose their minds.
Last year, University of Boston researchers examined 111 brains of deceased NFL players which had been donated by their families. A shocking 110 indicated CTE. That, of course, was a biased sample. Probably not every former NFL player has it, or if they do, will ever exhibit symptoms. As yet, there is no empirically quantified risk profile of whom, and how many, will develop it. But clearly playing football is a roll of the dice in high stakes game of brain roulette. Some players are lucky, others are not.
On Super Bowl Sunday, I sat before the TV to root for the underdog Eagles, concerned they had a big challenge to overcome. Superstar Patriot tight end Rob Gronkowski, who had suffered a concussion just a couple weeks before in the playoffs, had miraculously recovered. In compliance with the NFL’s concussion protocol, “independent neurological consultants” cleared him to play.
Early in the second quarter, Patriots receiver Brandon Cooks took a vicious hit to his head, leaving him sprawled motionless on the astroturf. As medical staff gathered around him, the TV network cut away for ads. Waiting for the game to resume, I Googled Charlie Tolar on my iPad to find out what became of him.
Turns out Charlie Tolar died of cancer in 2003 at age 65. When he wasn’t playing pro football, he worked for Red Adair, the famous Texan who traveled around the world with a crack team to extinguish and cap dangerous out of control oil well fires. Among the many remembrances of Tolar was this from a fan who fondly recalled seeing him:
“…hit helmet to helmet with a defender in a college game. Both busted their helmets, both went down hard. Charlie was up and back in the huddle as if nothing happened. They carried the other guy off the field.”
Among those who knew him personally, nobody hinted he had any post-football cognitive problems. I hope he was one of the lucky ones.
- Here’s how the NFL diagnoses concussions.
- WebMD: Football’s growing medical crisis.
- The Concussion Dairies: A high school football player’s secret struggle with CTE.
- New York Daily News: As concerns about CTE grow and football players suffer from a deadly disease, future of football looks bleak. First of a four-part series about the fate of football.
- What would the end of football look like? An economic perspective on CTE and the concussion crisis.