Life after football — coping with the after effects of concussions
By Jesse Lee
Photo by Dan Johnson
Super Bowl Sunday — for most people it’s a time to get together with friends, cheer on your favorite team and celebrate the end of another football season.
But, for the athletes who play football, the threat of injury, head trauma and concussion is a harsh reality that could end their careers and affect the rest of their lives.
Former Green Bay Packers linebacker George Koonce understands this well. After spending nine NFL seasons sharing his talents on the football field, he shared some of his most important work with a packed ballroom of fans, coaches and trainers at Marquette’s Alumni Memorial Union.
Koonce, who earned a doctorate from Marquette University in interdisciplinary studies, joined a panel of six experts to discuss the societal impacts of sports-related concussions and brain injuries. Led by College of Health Sciences Dean William Cullinan as part of the college’s Marquette Presents series, the panelists addressed this timely topic.
Koonce’s personal post-football struggles, including suicidal depression, mirrored those of fellow football player Junior Seau, a former NFL linebacker who ultimately took his own life. Koonce points to repeated head trauma and chronic traumatic encephalopathy or CTE — a progressive degenerative disease similar to Alzheimer’s Disease – as a cause for those struggles.
“Like myself, Junior Seau didn’t have any documented concussions,” said Koonce. “But while we may not have had concussions, it’s more about that constant head trauma.”
Dr. Michael McCrea agrees. The professor of neurosurgery and neurology at the Medical College of Wisconsin, wrote the book on concussions, co-authoring the Standardized Assessment of Concussion protocol, a precursor to the sideline concussion tests currently administered by the NFL.
“This is not a new problem,” McCrea said. “When I started my study in 1995, the NFL wouldn’t talk to me. Now I’m on their head, neck and spine committee.
“The burning issue is CTE. The disease doesn’t manifest itself for 20 to 50 years, but it’s like a slow-moving train.”
McCrea noted that, while the study of CTE is finally coming to the forefront, a lot of progress still needs to be made.
“This is not far from where we were with Alzheimer’s 30 years ago,” McCrea said. “The next generation of science is about determining what is the long-term risk.”
A cultural change that needs to happen, according to Koonce, is a shift to focusing on player health rather than worrying about the appearance of being “soft.”
“Sport is part of the fabric of our society, but we have to do it safely,” Koonce said. “They want to play, to compete, but health has to be the most important issue. We have to protect players from themselves.”