Sunday, November 15, 2009


In the summer of 1997 I drove from Chicago to Madison, Wis., to visit with Al Toon. In his home office whose windows overlooked Lake Mendota we spoke about his eight-season career with the National Football League’s New York Jets, during which he’d achieved All-Pro status several times.

We also talked about the last play of that career—on Nov. 8, 1992—when he caught a pass and turned upfield, only to be crunched between two Denver Broncos’ defenders. He had no memory of that collision.

“I saw the films and it wasn’t that big a hit,” he recalled. “I think most of the damage came when my head hit the ground.”

Toon said the resulting concussion was the seventh, eighth or ninth of his football life, “depending on how you counted them.” Some of the others, dating from high school, sidelined him for a game or two, some for just a couple of plays. But the symptoms of last one got worse instead of better, and he spent much of the next three years in darkened rooms enduring headaches, dizziness, acute sensitivity to light and lapses of memory and concentration.

He thought he was pretty much back to normal at the time of our meeting. Indeed, he’d invested his football earnings wisely and was well into a business career that included ownership of commercial real estate in the city where he’d gone to college, a directorship and vice presidency of a local bank and a partnership in a company that owned 18 Burger King franchises.

He had no illusions about a trouble-free future, however. “I’m told that with head injuries, you never can tell,” he said quietly.

I’ve been thinking about Toon as the impact of football concussions has gained news-media attention of late. Having written a page-one story on head injuries for the Wall Street Journal, I’m something of a journalistic expert—and early whistle-blower-- on the subject. That piece was titled “The Silent Epidemic,” because head-injury victims often didn’t appear to be hurt and treatments for their widely varying complaints were elusive. Despite some advances, that’s apparently still the case.

It’s especially surprising that many people still aren’t fully aware of the risk of head injury that football poses at all of its levels. The violence in the NFL, which tops the sport’s pyramid, is truly frightening, and becoming more so as the game evolves. Not only are the players ever bigger, stronger and faster, but the surfaces on which they’re playing produce far-better footing than the old grass fields, increasing the force of the collisions thereon. To fully appreciate this you have to witness the game from ground level, but it’s obvious even on television.

It’s well known that the effects of head blows are cumulative, but the extent to which they occur in football remains underappreciated. This came through clearly in a story in the Oct. 19 issue of the New Yorker magazine that, in part, described a University of North Carolina study that monitored with helmet-placed sensors the school’s football team members in games and practices. It said that if you drove your car into a wall at 25 mph and weren’t wearing a seat belt, the force of your head hitting the windshield would register 100 on the applicable scale. In one Tarheel practice—and not a “full-contact” one —eight “hits” registering between 82 and 53 were recorded. “Mini-car crashes” were taking place all over the field, with consequences one can only guess, the author wrote.

Another recent study hinted at those consequences over the long haul. A University of Michigan phone survey of about 1,000 retired NFL players showed that 6.1% of those aged 50 and older reported they’d been diagnosed with dementia, Alzheimer’s disease or other memory-related conditions, a rate five times higher than that of the general population, and the rate for ex-players in the 30-to-49-year-old range was 19 times above the national average. If that’s not bad enough, the kind of self-reporting the survey relied on typically understates a problem’s severity.

To the inevitable question of “What’s to be done?”, good answers are few. Better helmets might help but, given size limitations, there’d be a limit to how much. The league should be tougher on the kind of helmet-on-helmet hits that thrill the TV commentators; expulsion from the game seems more appropriate than the present yardage penalty and (sometimes) fine. A quicker recognition of concussions, and slowing the rush of the injured to return to action, would be a plus, albeit not a cure.

But we who watch, and those who play, like the game too well to press for the only sure cure, abolition. So let’s hope the boys are careful out there.

A bright note: Al Toon’s current Wikipedia biography says he competed in a triathlon a few years ago, and is now a Green Bay Packers’ director, so it seems his recovery has continued apace.

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