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Dave Duerson’s death shows seriousness of football-related concussions

Former Bears safety Dave Duers(with former Cowboys fullback Daryl Johnston) was more familiar than most with ravages CTE. | Susan

Former Bears safety Dave Duerson (with former Cowboys fullback Daryl Johnston) was more familiar than most with the ravages of CTE. | Susan Walsh~AP

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Updated: August 28, 2011 12:21AM

We know late Bears safety Dave Duerson’s brain was damaged and deteriorating from head blows he received while playing football.

What we don’t know is whether he was hurt more than other NFL players of his era, whether he had a predisposition to lasting brain damage, whether he unknowingly reached a certain cumulative ‘‘tipping point’’ that put his brain over the edge or when the effects of the blows to his head kicked in and made him unstable and demented.

Oh, and depressed. Certainly, no one who is not depressed shoots himself in the heart with a handgun.

Duerson’s death and subsequent brain analysis are almost the stuff of fiction. No one but Duerson has committed suicide in a fashion that would preserve his most intricate and sacred organ for study while acknowledging that it was his brain that was malfunctioning.

Indeed, Duerson was closely involved with the NFL’s disability board and knew more about the ravages of chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE) than most.

And the other thing we don’t know is what the certainty of Duerson’s cognitive impairment means to the millions of boys and young men who play football at levels far below the NFL.

But it sure means something.

And athletes, parents and coaches had better realize that fast.

Rethink machismo

A recent editorial in USA Today ripped the more than 40 states that aren’t passing effective concussion bills or are passing limp measures that ‘‘might make lawmakers feel good’’ but do almost nothing to protect athletes.

‘‘Such indifference borders on negligence,’’ the editorial said. ‘‘An average of 64,000 high school football players suffered concussions each school year from 2005 through 2008. .  .  . More than 35 percent returned to play too soon, under well-accepted medical guidelines, and 16 percent who lost consciousness were allowed back on the field the same day. Presumably somebody noticed that those boys were knocked cold.’’

Duerson shrugged off multiple concussions, but what tough
guys of yore didn’t?

They had better not do that now. They had better think — in advance — about what they are doing to their being, to their ‘‘personhood.’’ They need to know this is not about bones or ligaments, breaks or bruises; this is about who you are — and who you will become.

Football players’ parents or guardians had better demand the right to make ‘‘informed consent,’’ and coaches had better be more informed than anybody.

The days of the wild-eyed, sadistic coaches — the ones who like to hear ‘‘hats hittin’ ’’ and ‘‘bells ringin’ ’’ — should be gone forever. Litigation, sadly, will take over where common sense leaves off.

Football is a wonderful, dangerous game that teaches valuable things and excites those who play it. We need football. But it was sad when the old NFL brain-injury committee, which was disbanded just last year, told the world that head-banging was basically OK.

It is not.

And, by the way, hockey players — the ones who say, as Hawks defenseman Brent Seabrook did after nearly being decapitated by a terrible hit from the Vancouver Canucks’ Raffi Torres, ‘‘It’s a hockey play, it’s a hockey hit, and that’s it’’ — you guys better rethink your machismo.

‘Higher level of vigilance’

Dean Karahalios, a neurosurgeon with the NorthShore University Neurological Institute in Chicago, is the ‘‘second opinion’’ neurologist assigned by the NFL Players Association to be there for concussed players who aren’t happy with their diagnoses or simply want more information before deciding whether they are fit to return to play.

Karahalios, a former high school middle linebacker who once was knocked cold in a tackling drill and woke up to see ‘‘guys looking down at me,’’ knows how difficult, treacherous, occasionally inspiring and, yes, dispiriting this road to discovery can be.

Indeed, when his group tried to offer free baseline brain testing to athletes at area high schools, the help often was rejected.

‘‘Not two years ago,’’ Karahalios says. ‘‘We were going to pay for it. It was free. We’d send a nurse to do the testing. But you’d be amazed at how many high schools didn’t want us to. They either saw it as marketing or they didn’t want to know. We were flabbergasted.’’

Now Illinois state legislation is going to produce more stringent laws aimed at brain-trauma prevention in high schools. And that’s good.

But there is so much we don’t know. And who wants to find out down the road that what you did back in the day is now taboo?

That, in a sense, is what Duerson — just 50 — found out. To his horror.

Could it be we are creating a populace of men who have been dumbed down by past football trauma?

‘‘That’s the huge implication,’’ Karahalios says. ‘‘We don’t know. Right now, all we have are our eyes to diagnose.’’

People shouldn’t run screaming from our community gridirons, Karahalios wants to make clear. Risk is what life is about — informed, examined risk. His own three daughters play lacrosse, a sport dotted with concussion worries, but he and his girls aren’t afraid.

‘‘A reasonable risk,’’ he says. ‘‘I think the brain trauma in football is a huge health issue now. What needs to happen is a higher level of vigilance.’’

By everybody, folks.

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