The private report on Doug Buffone’s brain came back Wednesday from researchers at Boston University, and the results were . . . uncertain.
Buffone, a longtime Bears linebacker and Bears postgame radio host for The Score (670-AM), died in April 2015. He was 70, but he seemed physically OK.
Yet his wife, Dana, had noticed that he had been slipping mentally toward the end, forgetting things, getting lost, having difficulty sleeping, becoming less and less social. The latter part was troubling because ‘‘Dougie,’’ as pals called him, was a very personable and outgoing man. Holing up in his basement wasn’t his style.
So months after Buffone died, Dana — only recently aware of the possible brain damage football players could suffer from concussions — had his brain exhumed and sent to the people in Boston to be analyzed.
It took a long time — more than a year — to find out that Buffone’s brain was too deteriorated to get a proper analysis for the presence (or absence) of the wasting disease known as chronic traumatic encephalopathy or CTE.
This wasn’t a victory or a loss; it was a rainout. Or maybe a tie, with the game called on account of darkness.
‘‘I don’t really know how I feel,’’ Dana said after the teleconference with Boston doctors. ‘‘They said the test was inconclusive.’’
Like many wives of deceased NFL players, Dana has filed a lawsuit against the league with the aid of Chicago personal-injury firm Corboy
& Demetrio. She would like damages for the brain injuries and dementia that playing the game, with all its inherent head-banging, might have caused her husband.
Ironically, the best news for her would be that Buffone wasn’t mentally intact, that he was brain-damaged from his 14-year career. At least then she’d have closure. She’d know why he had changed. She’d have ammo against the NFL. She’d be able to channel her anger and sadness somewhere, at some wealthy entity.
‘‘There may have been signs of early-onset Alzheimer’s,’’ she said. ‘‘Right now, we just don’t know.’’
The CTE Center is keeping Buffone’s brain so that when more versatile tests are developed, his tissue still might yield an answer. The Boston people told Dana that Buffone was a near-perfect candidate for CTE, exhibiting many of the symptoms of the disease that occurs when the brain repeatedly is slammed against the edges of the skull during physical contact.
Dr. Ann McKee, one of the neurologists who began early investigations of CTE, has noted that she has found CTE in athletes in contact sports, soldiers, head-bangers, battered wives and circus performers ‘‘shot from cannons.’’
Moreover, recent studies suggest that concussions aren’t the only — or even the main — culprit. Simple head knocks, sustained over time, are also bad news.
‘‘In order to reduce CTE risk, there must be a reduction in the number of head impacts,’’ McKee, the director of the CTE Center, said recently. ‘‘The continued focus on concussion and symptomatic recovery does not address the fundamental danger these activities pose to human health.’’
Where does it end? Who is safe? Who is not? Why aren’t others who played football, hockey, even soccer and baseball, afflicted by CTE?
Why does Bears legend Dick Butkus, who hunkered next to Buffone and was one of the roughest NFL players in history, seem to be OK? Clearly, genetics, timing, age and other factors must be involved.
But the afflicted keep coming. On Wednesday, lawyers representing former NFL players estimated payouts from the NFL’s concussion settlement will be more than $1.4 billion, a $400 million jump from early estimates because thousands more players than counted on are filing claims.
Is that the ultimate reward for playing big-time football? Reward money for having one’s brain diminished?
So much is still unknown. The brain is a machine that does things so complex and mysterious that scientists basically stand back and say, ‘‘Wow.’’
Bill Gibbs, the Corboy & Demetrio attorney who is assisting Dana in her efforts against the NFL, said he would like to take time to analyze the report on Buffone’s brain findings before making a statement. This makes sense.
Chicago already has its share of athletes who have fallen victim to CTE. Dave Duerson, Bob Probert, Steve Montador and others took blows to the head and paid dearly for it. Nobody new wants to join the list. But not knowing is a different kind of torment.
For now, Buffone is in CTE limbo.