Gridiron Head Games

What head trauma on the field means to retired players decades later.

By Mary Harris
|  Friday, Feb 3, 2012  |  Updated 11:30 PM PDT
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The NFL is currently involved in mulitple lawsuits from retired players claiming the league new about the damage of repeated head trauma, but never warned players. Colleen Williams looks at the latest information about concussions and asks a local legend if it was all worth it.

Mary Harris, Colleen Williams and Sergio LeLevier

The NFL is currently involved in mulitple lawsuits from retired players claiming the league new about the damage of repeated head trauma, but never warned players. Colleen Williams looks at the latest information about concussions and asks a local legend if it was all worth it.

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Anthony Davis Regrets Football Career

The NFL is currently battling multiple lawsuits regarding concussions. Local football legend Anthony Davis reveals to Colleen Williams that his own brain trauma caused him to rethink his career choice.

Dr. Amen on Concussions

Dr. Amen has examined the brains of over 100 retired football players. He sits down with Colleen Williams to talk about rehabbing the brain.
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There are currently more than twenty different lawsuits by retired players against the National Football League. The suits claim that the NFL knew about the dangers of head trauma but never warned the players.

Head injuries and concussions are common in football. According to team medical staffs, the league saw 190 concussions in regular season games this year, down from 218 concussions last year.

So it is not unusual after a powerful tackle to see a player dazed and foggy, collapsed in a heap, stumbling, or even just knocked out on the gridiron. In the most extreme cases, players have to leave the field on a stretcher.

“Playing football is a brain damaging sport,” Dr. Daniel Amen says emphatically. Dr. Amen is a psychiatrist and brain imaging specialist. He has scanned the brains of over 100 retired football players, looking at blood flow and brain activity. Out of 115 players, 113 had brain damage.

Click here to learn more about brain scans.

Dr. Amen says the results of his study were worse than he expected: "The level of brain damage was just awful."

Amen used the term "football dementia" to describe the pattern of injuries he sees to player’s brains. The battered areas tend to be the front al lobes and the temporal lobes, parts of the brain that are responsible for memory, mood and impulse control.

Click here to learn more about concussions.

Dr. Amen is not involved in any of the lawsuits with the NFL, but many of his football patients are, including Ed White. White played professionally 1969-1985.

He has the unusual distinction of having played in in four super bowls, all with the Minnesota Vikings. After leaving the Vikings he finished out his career with the San Diego Chargers.

White was an offensive line man who played 241 games. He got hit hard and he got hit a lot. He remembers one game in particular saying, I am in the huddle and the stadium is circling.” Even with that, he never came out of the game.

White says that the word concussion wasn’t used in when he was playing. He explains “when you got hit in the head it was called a ding.”

White thinks the league is making progress on player safety and he says that NFL Commissioner Roger Godell "wants to make things right." Still he believes the league needs to do more to help the retired players who are suffering.

White says the owners simply need to do the right thing, "in an industry where billions of dollars are being made…it’s shameful."

White says many of the players who helped build the league into the massively profitable institution it is today don’t have the money they need for their medical care.

At a time when we hear of massive professional paychecks and signing bonuses, White says it was not always that way. When White was first drafted into the NFL in 1969, he made $19,000 a year but he says he played with guys making $10,000.

"We were good and athletic but we all had to work in the off season and get other jobs to support our families and that is not the case now," White says.

University of Southern California football legend Anthony Davis is not a plaintiff in any of the currently lawsuits, but he feels strongly about what the NFL needs to do.

Davis says "if you’re going to play this game, you should have your brain scanned after every season."

During his time at USC, Davis scored 52 touchdowns and earned the nickname “the Notre Dame Killer” for a particularly hard-fought victory over the Fighting Irish. After college, Davis went on to play for the Tampa Bay Buccaneers and the LA Rams.

He estimated he was tackled tens of thousands of times.

"I was a beast. I mean, we’re all beasts. We’re not scared of anything. 'Oh, you’re going to hit me? Bring it on.' That’s the mentality," he says.

Aggression is part of the game and he says there is a limit to how protected a player will ever be, saying, "you could put a tank around your head, when that brain shakes, that’s damage."

Davis first visited the Amen Clinic when he was 54 years old. Dr. Amen says the former star running back had the brain of an 85 year old.

Dr. Amen began to work with Davis to rehabilitate his brain. Through mental and physical exercise, as well as supplements rich in fish oil, Dr. Amen says 80 percent of the players he is treating are showing improvement. Davis agrees.

"My memory bank is even better. My comprehension is better. I read better. I focus in better now," he says.

Looking back, Davis thinks says he never played football if he knew the extent of brain damage it would cause because, "if your head is not right, nothing is right."

What sport would AD have played instead? Click here to find out. 

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