TELANDER: As CTE rocks football, I’m donating my brain to science

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Sun-Times columnist Rick Telander played four years of college football at Northwestern and went to training camp with the Kansas City Chiefs.

When I die, I don’t much care what happens to my body.

I long have been an organ donor, and it’s written on my driver’s license. The idea of medical people with scalpels harvesting whatever’s of value in my corpse for the benefit of others somewhere seems like a nice final gesture. Remember, I’m dead.

So, as a former college football player at Northwestern, it wasn’t a great leap to pledge even that ultimate thing that makes me human — my brain — to researchers at the Concussion Legacy Foundation in Boston.

That is the organization that took the earliest data — some from independent pathologist Bennet Omalu, who examined deceased Hall of Fame center Mike Webster’s brain and found it terribly riddled with the disease now known as chronic traumatic encephalopathy — and has led the way in football-concussion research.

Last Tuesday, the group released a report that said 99.1 percent of the NFL players’ brains it has dissected have shown signs of CTE. Even though the brains examined were not random — they came mainly from players who had displayed signs of dementia and other tragic disorders after football — the scariness of the statistics did not go unnoticed by the healthy.

Two days later, 26-year-old Ravens offensive lineman John Urschel, who plans to get a doctorate in mathematics from MIT, retired from the NFL, apparently because of the news.

Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger said: ‘‘You can’t have a brain transplant. If you want to mess with your brain, go ahead. I’m not going to.’’

The thing is, Roethlisberger already has. His 13 seasons in the NFL and a serious motorcycle crash mean he’s right there in the CTE danger zone. He’ll find out someday if his brain has been shaken and blasted enough to cause him future suffering.

Seven years ago, I watched as Dr. Ann McKee, the lead author of the recent CTE report, dissected a brain in her lab in Bedford, Massachusetts. The brain had just come in, and it was from a former NFL player.

As I observed McKee in her scrubs, holding a glimmering 18-inch knife to begin the slicing, I felt conflicted, uncertain, nearly vertiginous from the dual realities I was witnessing: the conflict of sanctity merged with everyday banality. On the table was a once-sacred human essence, yet it looked for all the world like so much ground hamburger ready for industrial examination.

Dr. McKee showed me the parts riddled with CTE, the rotten edges where the tangled tau protein had destroyed healthy tissue.

‘‘Normal people don’t get CTE,’’ McKee said. ‘‘It is ugly. It is ridiculous.’’

Of the men she had examined, including NFL players Wally Hilgenberg and Tom McHale and their CTE-riddled brains, she said of their former lives, ‘‘It’s amazing to me that they are functioning at all!’’

So my buddy Mike Adamle and I, teammates for four years on the Northwestern football team, were riding our bikes last spring in Evanston when we stopped at a friend’s house not far from Ryan Field.

Adamle, a star running back who played six seasons in the NFL, is showing the early signs of dementia from head trauma, and he has been very open about his struggle with memory, enunciation, sleeplessness and the emotional changes CTE brings.

On the spot, we decided to pledge our brains to the concussion group. We called foundation director Chris Nowinski in Boston and said we were in.

Nowinski himself has suffered many concussions as a college football player, then as a pro wrestler. I later would ask him if he, too, had pledged his brain.

‘‘Oh, yeah,’’ he said.

Just 38, Nowinski has post-concussion symptoms from his sports career.

‘‘I don’t sleep well, and I have too many headaches,’’ he said.

Did he even want my brain, given that I had played only high school, college, a little semipro and about a minute of NFL ball?

Yes, he said.

‘‘You’re in the high-risk category,’’ he said. ‘‘We don’t need controls. We’re accepting people who were exposed [to brain trauma], athletes and veterans.’’

The foundation shares its collected brain tissue with 50 research groups worldwide, all trying to figure out how the brain works and how to fix it when it’s broken.

‘‘A year after you die, you’ll be all over the world,’’ Nowinski said with a chuckle.

This old cornerback likes that idea. At the very, very end, I’d like what’s left of me to be cremated and shot from a cannon over Lake Superior, as my dad was.

Adamle still has his devious sense of humor, the thing that bonded us through those old gridiron days.

‘‘They can send the brains out to schools, like Silly Putty,’’ he said. ‘‘ ‘Here ya go, kids, 100 percent NFL brain cells! Have fun!’ ’’

We went on and on, and we laughed and laughed.

What else can we do? Our brains are pledged.

Follow me on Twitter @ricktelander.



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