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McGRATH: Illinois Eye Institute project aims to identify CTE in the living

Dr. Leonard Messner (from right) Dr. ChristinMorettIllinois Eye Institute with patient Jim Kuhn. | Illinois Eye Institute

Dr. Leonard Messner (from right) and Dr. Christina Morettin of the Illinois Eye Institute with patient Jim Kuhn. | Illinois Eye Institute

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Updated: June 14, 2014 4:39PM

David Diaz knows he probably should have told someone about the double vision he experienced near the end of his world-class boxing career, but the disclosure would have cost him the thing that defined him and enabled him to provide for his family.

Fighters fight, and Diaz — a U.S. Olympian at 20 in 1996 and a crowd-pleasing world lightweight champion 10 years later — was a fighter’s fighter.

‘‘It was worst when I looked at somebody straight-on,’’ he recalled. ‘‘In the ring, you’re always moving your head, so I could adapt.’’

Diaz spent two years and four fights trying to regain the title he lost to Manny Pacquiao in a brutal ninth-round stoppage that showed ‘‘PacMan’’ at the peak of his relentless powers and left Diaz looking as though he had been in a knife fight. He decided he’d had enough and retired in 2011, after a sneaky right hand from Philadelphia prospect Hank Lundy sliced open his right eyebrow and drew a river of blood from the worst cut of his 41-bout pro career.

‘‘I didn’t see it coming,’’ Diaz said.

A boxer who can’t see punches coming had best seek a new line of work. Diaz also wanted to be a husband to his wife, Tonya, and a father to their boys, David, Elias and Silas.

A consultation with Dr. Robert Steinmetz led to corrective treatment for Diaz’s double vision. Steinmetz, a Chicago optometrist and former college baseball player whose wife, Nicole, was a Golden Gloves boxing champion, also persuaded Diaz to participate in a research project the Illinois Eye Institute is conducting to examine whether irregularities in the vision, movements and retina/optic nerve structure in the eyes of contact-sport participants might be a marker for the tau protein that causes chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE) in concussed athletes.

CTE, brought on by multiple concussions, accelerates deterioration of the brain and has been cited as a factor in the deaths of several high-profile former football players, including Pittsburgh Steelers great Mike Webster and former Bears safety Dave Duerson.

‘‘One thing that’s known about CTE is it’s related to the number of times you get hit in the head,’’ said Dr. Leonard Messner, who is directing the project as executive director of the institute. ‘‘A concussion is a metabolic change within the brain, more of a biomechanical injury than structural. Eighty to 85 percent of them go unreported.’’

With that in mind, Messner is working with the Chicago Concussion Coalition to standardize screening procedures so concussed athletes are identified more readily and removed from harm’s way. They’re part of a National Hit Count Initiative designed to track how often athletes are exposed to potentially damaging collisions. And they have persuaded the Illinois High School Association to ban full-contact football drills during the offseason.

‘‘The biggest risk factor in sustaining a concussion is having had one previously,’’ Messner said, ‘‘and ‘return to play’ guidelines are purely speculative.’’

The Illinois project is affiliated with the Sports Legacy Institute, the Boston University-based group that has pioneered CTE research through the work of neurosurgeons Ann McKee and Robert Cantu and the tireless awareness-raising of Head Games author Chris Nowinski, a college football star/professional wrestler/concussion victim.

On Wednesday at the Union League Club, the Sports Legacy Institute will honor former Bears quarterback Jim McMahon for his courage in coming forward as a possible CTE case. McMahon has acknowledged experiencing memory loss, severe headaches, blurred vision and other symptoms of post-concussion syndrome.

To date, the only method of identifying CTE is through post-mortem examination of the brains of suspected victims. Researchers are working to detect its presence in the living, before the deterioration of the brain begins.

Dr. Messner’s group has tested more than 30 former football players, boxers and hockey players.

‘‘It’s a macho thing with boxers to say they’ve never been knocked out, so they’ll tell us they’ve never had a concussion,’’ Dr. Steinmetz said. ‘‘But you don’t have to be knocked out to have a concussion.’’

Diaz knows.

‘‘I’ve had multiple,’’ he said.

And though his eye-test results were in the ‘‘normal’’ range, he limits his boxing activity to working with a youth group in Cicero.

‘‘I hold the mitts for them, teach them footwork,’’ he said. ‘‘They all want to spar, but I won’t get in the ring with them. If I did, I might be tempted, start thinking, ‘I can still do this.’ But I won’t. Not many of us walk away clean. I want to be there for my kids.’’

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