View Full Version : The Brain Vs. The Game

02-05-2010, 06:34 PM
NEWS9 Special Assignment: The Brain Vs. The Game
Posted: 2:37 pm EST February 5, 2010Updated: 3:26 pm EST February 5, 2010

There's no question the game of football is a dangerous sport. Many players have suffered career-ending injuries that landed them on the sidelines, but no one suits up thinking a few years down the line, they could become severely brain damaged -- long after their time on the field.

It happened to some of the strongest men in the game and doctors in our region are working to change that, even if it means changing the game.

They called him 'Iron Mike' -- the strong, steady center of the Pittsburgh Steelers dream team in the 70s. But no one could predict that Mike Webster, an NFL giant, would turn into a very troubled man, with very odd behavior years after his glory days.

"Some days I would have to be, I don't want to say the father, but I'd have to make sure he ate, check in and make sure he took his medications that he was supposed to. I had to get him to his appointments, doctors’ appointments, and stuff like that. And there would be other days where he was more of a normal dad and he would take care of me," said his son, Garrett Webster.

Garrett Webster said his dad knew he had a problem and knew he needed help. After seeing dozens of attorneys, he ended up knocking on the door of Bob Fitzsimmons' office in Wheeling.

"Mike Webster was like the person that every guy and every child that played football wanted to be like," said Fitzsimmons.

But the giant who stood before Fitzsimmons was different. He was troubled by his own mind and suffered from so many physical injuries.

"Mike would use a Taser that the police use, actually, to try to stop that pain. I mean, it gets to some bizarre behavior," said Fitzsimmons.

In 1997, Fitzsimmons filed Webster's claim with the NFL for full disability after four doctors concluded he was disabled. Fitzsimmons thought the case was a slam-dunk.

The NFL’s decision; Webster didn't qualify -- and he died before the end of the fight.

In September 2002, Webster ended up on the autopsy table of a young Nigerian doctor at the Allegheny County coroner's office.

Dr. Bennet Omalu opened Webster’s skull and said it looked completely normal to the naked eye.

"There was this moment I remember. I had the knife in my hand to cut the brain and something in me, I don't know what it was, I said, 'No Bennet, fix this brain, examine this brain," said Omalu.

Omalu said when he looked through the microscope; it was like being hit by a thunderbolt.

He found a buildup of proteins -- tau proteins. He'd seen them before in a case of severe head trauma followed by unexplainable behavior.

After months of research, and even taking Webster's brain home with him, he developed a name for the condition – CTE.

"Chronic, meaning long term. Traumatic, meaning induced by trauma. Encephalopathy, meaning brain damage," said Omalu.

He concluded it was a result of concussions and severe blows to the head. Omalu published his findings in a medical journal -- and what he describes as a mounting attack began.

"When I discovered it, the NFL came after me like a wild, roaring lion. The NFL doctors sent a letter almost accusing me of fraudulent behavior, requesting that my paper be retracted – that I was a fraud," said Omalu.

The NFL was a whole new world to Omalu. Born in Africa, he didn't understand the game of football. He thought the players looked like extra terrestrials running around the field and he had no idea how much power the NFL carried.

But Omalu had a colleague who did understand the league because he was part of it for many years -- Dr. Julian Bailes, head of neurosurgery at West Virginia University and former team doctor for the Pittsburgh Steelers.

Bailes took Omalu's research and presented it in front of the league at the NFL's first concussion conference in Chicago in 2007.

"It was not a popular message, but I think with time as they had others review this work, it was true," said Bailes.

After Webster’s case, there were more.

Terry Long, 45, was a former Steelers guard who died after drinking antifreeze. In autopsy, doctors found CTE.

Justin Strzelczyk, 36, was a Steelers offensive lineman who claimed to hear voices and drove to his death into a chemical truck. Omalu found CTE in his brain.

After each case Omalu continued to publish his findings, but said the NFL continued calling his work "flawed" and "misunderstood".

"The NFL didn't want that message to come out because they’re, I’m sure, very fearful that it would change the game," said Fitzsimmons.

Fitzsimmons, Omalu and Bailes felt they had seen too much and knew it couldn't be ignored. They founded the Brain Injury Research Institute. They continue their research at the Blanchette Rockefeller Neurosciences Institute at West Virginia University, which houses their “brain bank.”

They have donations of more than 20 brains from former NFL stars, boxers, military veterans, and professional wrestlers – like Chris Benoit, who ended up killing his family before taking his own life. He too, had CTE.

After years of studying damaged brains, the trio took their research to Congress -- where they testified about CTE and their findings.

This fall, congress whipped out the yellow flag and forced the NFL to make changes, take responsibility and recognize CTE.

"We had to twist their arm behind their back and make them yell uncle and pushed it a little bit further and made them yell it a second time. So yes, we do have their attention," said Fitzsimmons.

Mike Webster didn't live to see the victory, or to see Fitzsimmons become the only attorney to sue the NFL and win over his disability case for $1.5 million.

The fight isn't over though for the Websters. Mike's son Garrett picked up the torch. He tells his father's story to other NFL families, encouraging them to donate players’ brains to their research.

"Even though our family, for lack of a better term, fell apart and had our issues and troubles -- it meant something," said Garrett Webster.

"The message is, we're trying to make the game safer for people so that people like Garrett Webster and his brother, sisters, and his mom and mike don't have to go through a life like that," said Fitzsimmons.

"My father's downfall is now leading to other people having better lives. I think he would be very thankful for that," said Garrett Webster.

The Brain Injury Research Institute has the attention of the players in the NFL. The players union asked Omalu and Bailes to join their task force to further research CTE and head injuries. Their first meeting was at the Pro Bowl last week.

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