Imagine reaching the top of your profession as a 27-year-old.
Teammates cry tears of joy. Confetti falls from above. A trophy is held high like a new baby. And your hometown holds a parade through the streets to honor you and your team.
Then 10 years later, you can barely walk down the steps of your home. Your wife has to remind you of recent conversations.
That’s the life of Antwaan Randle-El. He retired four years ago after a nine-year career in the National Football League (NFL) as a wide receiver for the Pittsburgh Steelers and Washington Redskins.
Randle-El was known for being a great athlete. At the University of Indiana, he was a quarterback. Then he transitioned to wide receiver in the NFL. He threw an important touchdown pass in Pittsburgh’s 2006 Super Bowl victory.
Randle-El was 32 when he retired.
Now, in a recent story published by the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, Randle-El says he wishes he had never played football.
As a former football player showing the effects of physical and head trauma that came from head collisions during the game, Randle-El is not alone.
But he is one of few ex-players who say they would not play football if they had a chance to start their lives over again.
Randle-El’s story seems like one of the characters in “Concussion,” a movie starring actor Will Smith.
A concussion is an injury that happens when the brain slams against the inside of the skull. It can happen when two football players collide or when a soccer player uses his or her head to propel a soccer ball. It can happen to anyone who hits their head on a hard surface or object.
The film follows Dr. Bennet Omalu as he researches the brain disease that came to be called chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE). Omalu, from Nigeria, worked as a medical examiner in Pittsburgh. His job was to examine bodies to determine the cause of death. That is what we call an autopsy in English.
Omalu became interested in brain trauma and disease while studying in the United States. He discovered CTE while performing an autopsy on Mike Webster. Webster also played with the Pittsburgh Steelers in the 1970s and 1980s.
Omalu says he did not know Webster was a famous football player when he examined him.
“I did not know what football was. I did not know what the NFL was. In fact, I did not even know what a quarterback was. I wondered why it was called football because they did not kick. They used their hands. It should have been called handball.”
In one scene in the film, Omalu shows what happens to the brain during a collision. He shakes a raw egg inside a glass jar. That is how most people make scrambled eggs. It is also a good demonstration of how a healthy brain gets damaged. Even with helmets on, football players suffer multiple “scrambling” collisions per game.
Over the course of a career, these hits (and scrambles) add up.
Webster died of a heart attack in 2002. He suffered from depression and dementia before his death.
While most of the story detailed in “Concussion” has been told before, the film’s wide distribution and star power offers insight into the dangers of a football career.
Webster’s story was told in a GQ article in 2009, and Omalu was a key figure in the PBS documentary League of Denial in 2013.
In a story about the film in Sports Illustrated, Emily Kaplan writes “Will Smith’s familiar charm helps makes a complicated and uncomfortable topic accessible, with head trauma being explained on the order of a ninth-grade biology book.”
The film tries to make football fans pay attention to science.
Omalu says he is not a football fan. Omalu’s story shows that an outsider can make a difference in a new society.
Researchers and doctors have had experience with football players and other athletes in contact sports who had lingering brain problems. But Omalu was able to look at Webster’s brain trauma with fresh eyes.
Omalu gave an interview to Frontline, a respected investigative news program. Omalu said the brains looked similar to those of boxers like Muhammad Ali, who suffered repeated blows to the head.
They were also similar to those of people who suffered from Alzheimer’s disease – except for one factor. They were still young and healthy.
The contradiction helped Omalu realize he had discovered something new.
He had no loyalty to the NFL when he wrote a paper explaining his discovery in the journal Neurosurgery. But the film shows how the league argued that Omalu had made up his research.
Omalu says some people told him he was “attacking the American way of life.”
Omalu eventually became known as the doctor who could definitively diagnose CTE in football players. And the cases kept coming. He saw samples from the brains of Terry Long, Andre Waters and Justin Strzelczyk – all former players who died young. And they all had CTE.
The study turned out not to be wrong. Webster was not unique.
And eventually, the NFL, college football and high school football teams had to re-think the way they handled concussions.
As the concussion story gained notice, the NFL started to take head injuries more seriously. For example, a doctor who is not paid by the team or league must be on each sideline. The doctor is responsible for stopping the game if a player shows signs of a head injury.
There are helmets with devices that can measure the force of a collision.
Even with the changes, football is still risky. News came out in late January that Tyler Sash had an advanced case of CTE. Sash was a member of the New York Giants team that won the Super Bowl in 2012. He died of a drug overdose in September 2015 at the age of 27.
Many athletes are willing to sacrifice their bodies and their futures for a chance to play in the NFL or the Super Bowl.
In 2014, ESPN surveyed more than 300 active NFL players and found out that 85 percent would play in the Super Bowl with a concussion.
But after the work of Omalu, the perception is changing. There are more stories coming from athletes like Randle-El.
In 2015, after a strong first season, Chris Borland retired from the NFL at the age of 24. He had to return about $400,000 to his team, the San Francisco 49ers, when he quit.
When he announced his retirement, Borland told ESPN “if there were no possibility of brain damage, I'd still be playing."
Omalu’s work, and the work of doctors like him, resulted in a small compromise by the NFL.
In 2015 a lawsuit was settled after years of negotiations. Almost $1 billion will be made available for more than 4,500 former players who are suffering from brain injuries related to playing football. Individual players could receive up to $5 million.
I’m Dan Friedell.
And I’m Anna Mateo.
Words in This Story
autopsy – n. an examination of a dead body to find out the cause of death
concession – n. the act of giving up something or doing something in order to reach agreement
chronic – adj. continuing or occurring again and again for a long time
concussion – n. an injury to the brain that is caused by something hitting the head very hard
scramble - v. to move or act quickly to do, find, or get something often before someone else does
contradiction – n. a difference or disagreement between two things which means that both cannot be true
encephalopathy – n. disease or damage to the brain
linger – v. to continue to exist as time passes
pathologist – n. a doctor who examines bodies to find out the cause of death
confetti – n. small pieces of colored paper or plastic that are used as a decoration
trauma – n. a serious injury to a person's body
distribution – n. the act of giving or delivering something to people