THE SPORT OF FOOTBALL is an inherently dangerous game for anyone who engages in it at full capacity. Right now, the National Football League (NFL) is being faced with a sad truth: football can kill. In recent years, professional football has been confronted with the reality of concussions and their complexity. Due to the nature of the game, there has been a factually supported link connecting football and severe head trauma, which often leads to CTE (chronic traumatic encephalopathy).
In the midst of all this newly discovered backlash and fight for awareness, someone from the culture needed to stand up and be a strong figure for those who cannot themselves. Ex-NFL running back Dorsey Levens, formerly of the Green Bay Packers, has been a pillar for this select community in dire need. I reached out to Dorsey, who was kind enough to schedule a phone conversation with me where we went to into great depths on the sensitive subject of coping with post-NFL life.
Aside from a successful football career, Levens is wrapping up a documentary entitled Bell-Rung: An Alarming Portrait of Professional Football. In the film, we hear from players like Jamal Lewis, Ellis Hobbs and Takeo Spikes about head trauma in the sport of football. Along with former NFL great Mike Ditka, Levens also heads up Gridiron Greats, an organization that exists to provide aid to players who cannot help themselves. What I took away from the conversation with him is that more than anything, Dorsey wants people to know that life is more important than any game — he genuinely wants to help people.
Levens himself is suffering from issues he claims were from his playing days (not strictly the NFL): “Sleeplessness has always been my biggest thing. Looking back in hindsight, I had no idea…I just thought I had a hard time sleeping.” Fortunately for Levens, the sleeplessness and other issues are stabilized, instead of gradually getting worse. However, he is in a position to support others who are suffering far worse than he has suffered.
Certain realities surrounding the sport need to be acknowledged. The most prominent is that, by its nature, football is as violent as most sports in the United States. Signing up to play comes with some inherent risks, but the NFL is in a position where it can and should take the initiative to become better informed on these issues. More importantly, the NFL has an implied responsibility to pass that information along to its employees. There is an obligation to take a closer look at the factual medical perils and not neglect credible medical reports when they are presented.
“The biggest thing to [family] is worry. Like I said, this is all new information, and then when you hear about guys committing suicide, they worry about you. To them, you’re more than just a football player; you’re more than that commodity as the NFL sees you.”
In defense of the NFL, this is relatively new information. I spoke with a friend who recently graduated medical school, and she informed me that CTE and its findings are new, and were not required course work in her curriculum as recently as 2010. But right now, at minimum, Dorsey and countless others prefer the NFL promote awareness and acknowledge the problem in front of them.
Unfortunately for Levens, during his football tenure, nobody knew about the concussion epidemic, even though it was very present. It was not addressed because teams did not know, players did not know and that is a big reason for the latest push for awareness. Dorsey informed me that roughly two or three times a game a player would get his “bell rung”, which was the equivalent of a concussion in football terminology.
“I’ve been out of the league for seven years. It wasn’t even an issue when I played, nobody talked about it,” Levens said with concern. He even went as far to say, “There wasn’t a lot of dialogue–I’ve never had a diagnosed concussion.” Given what a concussion is, it’s hard to believe a ten-year veteran running back could have gone his entire career without a concussion, especially given the nature of his position.
Levens and a colleague came to a number of approximately 300 concussions [dating back to his youth] according to how doctors now define a concussion. “Guys were out cold, that’s what we thought was a concussion; when guys were on the field snoring, completely sleeping. We didn’t know you could have a concussion and still be coherent. This information is new,” said Levens.
A sizable evil in all of this has been the culture of the game:
“Every time you’d get your bell rung, you’re taught from Pee Wee league to shake it off and get back in the game. We didn’t know that was a concussion and that too many of those could lead to guys having dementia, and for some guys, in their mid-20’s,” Levens stated.
What stood as sufficient concussion testing in the league is laughable until realizing how horrific it actually was. “Those questions are basically concussion questions. They ask you, ‘Where are you? What day is it? What’s your mom’s name? Where are you from?’ Just basic questions and hopefully you can answer them.” This is what Levens underwent during his career. In the 2011 NFL Playoffs, teams had doctors on the sidelines sitting in front of replay monitors and eying the body language of rattled players. This can be considered a step forward from what used to be acceptable.
What gets lost in translation in this barbaric sport is that these are normal human beings putting themselves on the line — mind, body and soul. These are men with families to support and loved ones that care deeply about them, well after their playing days are over. When the rest of the world stops caring about them, their family will remain.
Levens spoke about the impact on family:
“The biggest thing to them is worry. Like I said, this is all new information, and then when you hear about guys committing suicide, they worry about you. To them, you’re more than just a football player; you’re more than that commodity as the NFL sees you.”
For the current and future NFL players, an emphasis on value must be placed on life after football. Something Levens and I agreed upon is that it’s going to get worse before it gets better. More and more players are having difficulty coping with a post-NFL life; after the money, the fame and the women are all gone, and there’s nothing left but the physical consequences, it gets hard for these men.
Levens told me players have reached out to him, informing him of suicidal contemplations. He also added, “Some guys still have too much pride and they’ll never reach out for help.”
Levens emphasized a situation that is a lot worse than it appears; that the frequency of these physical repercussions goes beyond what the general public is aware of. “You know, a week before Junior Seau committed suicide, Ray Easterling committed suicide. An old football player for the Falcons; a little older than Junior but not as popular as Junior…Junior wasn’t the first guy to commit suicide and he won’t be the last guy.”
As the conversation drew deeper, it was apparent this was an emotional and personal issue for the former NFL star. As the co-head of Gridiron Greats, and a pioneering safe haven for ailing ex-players, Levens shared some sensitive material that shed light on a very dark reality.
“You know, a week before Junior Seau committed suicide,” said Levens, “Ray Easterling committed suicide. An old football player for the Falcons; a little older than Junior but not as popular as Junior…Junior wasn’t the first guy to commit suicide and he won’t be the last guy.”
“Talk to the families, talk to some of these wives. I interviewed Shane Dronett’s wife, another guy who committed suicide that you probably never heard of. Here in Atlanta [he] committed suicide three years ago. Interviewed his wife,” Levens said, clearly bothered by the occurrence. “Talk to the kids whose dad committed suicide in their own kitchen. Talk to these kids.”
“I had a guy tell me that the only reason he hasn’t committed suicide is because he’s a Christian. That’s the only reason, because he wants to go to heaven. So if he believed something else, he wouldn’t be with us right now. That’s the only thing saving his life, he told me. I had another guy call me up and say if he doesn’t get help soon, he’s going to do something drastic… and we know what that means. ‘I can’t live my life like this. If I can’t get help I’m going to do something drastic, I’ll take care of it myself.’ These are the guys that I talk to, so those guys who say it’s worth it — eh, maybe. But maybe not though. Talk to these guys.”
This is what’s taking place out there, whether the NFL chooses to recognize it or not. It’s a traceable formula that concussions and severe head trauma cause CTE, which is what has been found in numerous ex-athletes who have made a career in a contact sport.
The definition of CTE (chronic traumatic encephalopathy), according to SportsMD:
Chronic traumatic encephalopathy is a degenerative brain disease that results in behaviors similar to Alzheimer’s disease (AD). However, according to researchers, CTE has a clear environmental cause (repeated brain trauma) rather than a genetic cause. In other words, CTE is the only preventable form of dementia.
Originally termed ‘dementia pugilistica’ otherwise known as ‘punch drunk’, this disorder was first described in 1928 in boxers because boxers suffered from slowed movement, confusion, speech problems, and tremors (Sports Legacy Institute, 2010).
Although only recently termed chronic traumatic encephalopathy (first documented in the medical literature in 1996), CTE is now the preferred medical term for this disease.
The disease is characterized by a number of neurological and physiological changes in the brain including the buildup of an abnormal protein called tau. This protein builds up in places in the brain where it is not supposed to be and congregates in clumps in and around the brain disrupting its function.
The symptoms of CTE are undeniable as well: memory lapses, disorientation, confusion, dizziness, headaches, poor judgment, impeded speech, tremors, vertigo and other neurologically-based irregularities. I encourage anyone to Google an ex-NFL or ex-NHL player that has suffered a similar fate as Junior Seau and match what they were suffering from before their deaths to the very definition of CTE.
Levens reiterated the connection: “There is a guy who, I talked to him one day, he tells me, ‘Chances are I’m not going to remember this conversation. I’ll try to write it down but I just can’t remember stuff. I don’t remember stuff anymore.’ He’s depressed. He’s an alcoholic because he’s depressed. His body–he’s had like four surgeries, so he’s popping pain pills… the guys are out there.”
There seems to be no shortage of painful tales of what has become of these once great figures. These men were once on top of the world, as part of the nation’s one percent of football players who made it to the NFL. In the blink of an eye, they go from living the dream to enduring a nightmare. And for the majority of the generation suffering from it now, they had no way of knowing the extremes playing football would inevitably cause them.
“Some guys are doing okay, it’s not everybody. But the guys who are not doing well, they’re doing really bad. Like eye-opening really bad. Like, ‘Oh my god, I can’t believe that happened to this guy or I can’t believe he’s acting like this. I used to play against this guy; he never talked like this before.'”
There is no real conclusion to this piece, because as far as football and CTE goes, there is no conclusion in sight — football will forever be dangerous and it cannot be changed without compromising the integrity of the sport. But a very real issue is at hand. Even with the inherent dangerous nature of the game, there could be a never-ending source of athletes willing to risk it for the financial cascade during their playing tenure. However, current and future players need to take a close look at how bad it can really get.
It is only until we are confronted with the ugly truth that we choose to recognize that it must be dealt with in some way. For many it’s too late, but fortunately, men like Levens, Ditka,and many others have banded together to help combat this epidemic. It’s something that’s going to take time, but Levens believes that making people aware is the first step.
“That’s my goal: be aware, know what you’re getting into and play the game a little safer,” said Levens. “You’re a living, breathing human being. That’s a thing a lot of people lose sight of, is that we’re human beings just like everybody else. We’re superior athletes, but we’re still human beings.”
For more information on CTE, check out this article on SportsMD.
This article was originally published on NinersNation.com.