TELANDER: Wealth, fame, success — and CTE
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We see it every spring: The NFL draft comes, the names are called and the tears of joy flow — from the mothers, the siblings, the girlfriends, sometimes even the players themselves.
Fame, wealth, success, ecstasy. It’s all there because the college players are the best there are, and they’re being rewarded.
If we only could flash forward 40 or 50 years in an instant. Maybe only 20 or 30 years. What would those tears be for then?
Perhaps they would be tears of sadness for the chronic traumatic encephalopathy that has riddled the players’ brains like clouds of tar, slowing the brain’s work until the delicate organ functions like a machine with teeth busted from its gears.
Yes, a player might have made a lot of money in his career. But with CTE comes memory loss, mood swings, sleeplessness, anger, depression, irrational behavior and, sometimes, suicide or early death from the disease itself.
There you have the secret gift from our beloved game of pro football. And I say pro football because the longer a person plays tackle football, the more likely he is to get CTE.
Much is still unknown about CTE and why it affects certain players more than others. And football players aren’t the only ones who develop CTE. It afflicts soldiers who have been near explosions, boxers, women who have been battered and so on.
But one thing is certain: It comes from head-banging. And head-banging, no matter how peewee, high school, college and NFL folks want to shape it, is at the root of football.
On Tuesday, a study published by the Journal of the American Medical Association updated earlier work done on NFL players and CTE. Stunningly, the study found that 110 of the 111 donated brains of deceased former NFL players showed signs of the disease. That is 99.1 percent, a number writ in neon.
This wasn’t a random sample. Most of the brains were donated by families who already were concerned about the behavior or sudden death of a loved one. But as Dr. Ann McKee — the director of the CTE Center at the Boston University School of Medicine and the senior author of the study — said, the overwhelming prevalence of CTE even in this skewed group means ‘‘the disease is much more common than we previously realized.’’
It appears, as it did in previous studies, that the earlier in life a player suffers a concussion and that the less time is allowed for the brain injury to heal, the greater the possibility of CTE down the road.
Again, much is unknown, including environmental and genetic factors that might cause the telltale tau protein to tangle and goop in the brain like landfill sludge.
Is there a football player now who shouldn’t at least be thinking about his brain health daily, even hourly? I think not. What is a man, if not his brain?
A month ago, the Concussion Legacy Institute held a fundraising dinner at the University Club of Chicago to honor my old college pal Mike Adamle for his courage and willingness to be, in his words, ‘‘the poster person for the first guy they’ve found diagnosed with CTE and lived to tell about it.’’
Adamle, a longtime Chicago sports commentator, was an All-American running back at Northwestern and played six seasons in the NFL. He recently found his short-term memory and certain motor skills diminishing.
‘‘It’s my executive function that’s slipping,’’ he told me.
He quit driving. He stopped working.
Last spring, while pausing during a bike ride on the lakefront, we called Concussion Legacy Institute director Chris Nowinski and offered to donate our brains for Dr. McKee’s study when we die. At the dinner, I filled out a form and made it official.
I feel good. I feel sharp. But I played high school, college and about 30 seconds of NFL football. Is there something ticking deep inside me?
According to the JAMA study, the donated brains of three of 14 high school players, 48 of 53 college players, nine of 14 semipro players and, of course, 110 of 111 NFL players showed signs of CTE.
Do my brief seasons with the semipro Lake County Rifles and Miami Suns count? Do I check three of the four ugly boxes?
I really don’t think so. I was not a headhunter, not a concussion machine, and that must count for something.
But those All-Americans, those All-Pros, those deliriously happy first-round NFL picks, how do they feel?
They’ve been warned, you know.
Follow me on Twitter @ricktelander.