Special report on CTE: ‘Worst may be yet to come’ for NFL, ex-Miami Dolphins

The Dolphins’ undefeated team of 1972 was honored at halftime of a 2007 game. Among those pictured are Larry Little (66), coach Don Shula (center) and Nick Buoniconti (85). (Allen Eyestone / The Palm Beach Post)

 

The video of Nick Buoniconti struggling to put on a T-shirt was jarring. Hearing him say he would not play football if he could do it over again — that was jarring, too. Next came revelations that Jim Kiick also is suffering from serious cognitive problems.

Together, the picture they paint of the 1972 Miami Dolphins is one of anything but perfection.

Brace yourself for more bad news.

“The worst may be yet to come,” said Chris Nowinski, a leader in research into chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE), the brain disease detected in scores of deceased football players including former Dolphins Junior Seau and Earl Morrall.

As troubling as it is to see Miami’s legends from the 1970s unable to enjoy their golden years, several factors appear to have conspired to expose players from the next two or three decades to even greater risks because of the length of time and way in which they played.

“Very concerned,” said Jon Giesler, the 1979 first-round pick who played his entire 10-year career with the Dolphins and was the left tackle in Dan Marino’s first six seasons. “I’ve already been diagnosed with some cognitive issues.”

Nick Buoniconti, posing next to his bust during festivities for the 2001 Pro Football Hall of Fame inductions, now says if he could do it over again, he would not play football. (Tom Pidgeon/Allsport)

Giesler didn’t wish to elaborate. On the question of whether he’d do it over again, he wavered.

“I can answer that as a 60-year-old,” Giesler said. “It’s a tough question, a tough question. I think I would, I do. I love the game. That’s what it was all about.” He paused. “I said yes kind of hesitantly.”

For good reason.

“I know what I’m going to have to face and unfortunately, there’s nothing I can do about it now,” said Giesler, who suffered six concussions in the NFL. “It’s too late.”

Perhaps nothing illustrates the plight of retired NFL players from these eras like the shift in the life-redo question. For years, no one answered in the negative. Few if any even hesitated. That includes players whose bodies and minds were failing them. Would I play again? Why do you even ask?

In the wake of the Buoniconti report in Sports Illustrated, Marv Fleming, a tight end on the 1972 Dolphins, said if given another chance, he’d go into real estate. A similar response came from 1982 first-round pick Roy Foster, a guard who for most of his nine seasons with the Dolphins also protected Marino.

“I would not” play again, Foster said. “And I had a very rewarding career: 12 years, couple of Pro Bowls, traveled abroad, met tons of important people, fantastic time. But nothing is more important than health. No ring, nothing.”

Chris Nowinski, cofounder of the Concussion Legacy Foundation, testifies before the Senate Special Committee on Aging June 25, 2014, in Washington. (Photo by Win McNamee/Getty Images)

When a player such as Buoniconti says getting his bust in the Pro Football Hall of Fame wasn’t worth it, people notice.

“If you asked him five years ago, he probably would have said he would have played again,” said Nowinski, CEO and co-founder of the Boston-based nonprofit Concussion Legacy Foundation (CLF). “I think it points to just how hard it is to live with CTE and how much effect it has on you and your loved ones.”

Perhaps today’s NFL players will be better off because of rules restricting blows to the head, including in practice. But that won’t help players from the 1980s until this century.

That’s when NFL players got bigger, stronger and faster.

That’s when they left the league’s safety rules in the dust.

For years, the hits kept on coming. Nowinski argues that as violent as those collisions were, what troubles him most is that those players were subjected to those hits their entire football lives, long before they reached the NFL.

“With CTE, we’re seeing a trend that the more years that you play, the worse off you are, and we’re very aware that football players started playing younger, really, starting in the 1960s,” Nowinski said. “Prior to that, Pop Warner was not a national organization promoting youth tackle football.

“If the years of exposure hold as a driving factor of CTE risk, then those who played more years because they started younger, we would expect, to be worse off.”

That’s why Nowinski firmly believes athletes should not play tackle football until reaching high school. Before then, their brains are developing and more susceptible to traumatic injury.

“I think if we’re willing to accept that very sort of obvious truth that children should not be hit in the head for any reason, sport or otherwise, on purpose, and football players can learn to play football through flag or other means, then I think football has a dramatically brighter future,” said Nowinski, who played football at Harvard before his career as a WWE wrestler was cut short by concussions.

At the very least, the sheer force of collisions in the Marino era couldn’t have helped matters. Larry Little was a Hall of Fame guard from the ’72 Dolphins who played at 265 pounds. The next generation of linemen ballooned by 40-50 pounds. Players got bigger, players got faster. Speed and mass equaled open season.

It wasn’t until 1990 that spearing or head-butting an opponent got you kicked out of a game. It wasn’t until 1995 that “defenseless players” received broad protection.

“I just think the physicality of the game is the biggest factor,” Foster said. “Our practices with Shula used to be like game speed.”

Tragically, we’re beginning to see the price. Seau, a Dolphins linebacker from 2003-05, committed suicide in 2012 at age 43. Tom McHale, a guard on the 1995 Dolphins, died of a drug overdose in 2008 at age 45. Both had CTE.

Because the disease cannot be diagnosed in the living, scores of athletes, including former Dolphins linebacker Zach Thomas, have agreed to donate their brains to Nowinski’s foundation when they die. It’s morbid, but it’s reality.

“It’s a difficult subject because the stories of former football players struggling keep rolling in,” Nowinski said. “And I’ve been doing this long enough that I’ve known people from when they were healthy to when they began to develop dementia to when they passed away. And it’s hard to watch people you respect die from a degenerative brain disease. It’s an ugly death.”

Many times, death is preceded by years in darkness, devoid of the vibrance that allowed them to reach the NFL level. Some exhibit bizarre behavior.

Davone Bess had 321 catches for 3,447 yards and 12 touchdowns in five seasons with the Dolphins. (Photo by Marc Serota/Getty Images)

This past spring, former Dolphins receiver Davone Bess was sentenced to a year’s probation in Arizona after pleading no contest to an endangerment charge. Best was arrested last summer after a standoff at his home with police in which he pointed his finger like a gun at officers, pretending to fire it.

Both the prosecutor and defense attorneys blamed it on Bess’ mental health and brain injuries, The Arizona Republic reported. He was diagnosed as bipolar and with a cognitive disorder “due to a series of concussions and sub-concussive blows,” according to court records.

Bess also was arrested at Fort Lauderdale-Hollywood International Airport in 2014 after another bizarre incident in which he was singing and dancing while his pants kept falling down. He spilled coffee on an officer who later reported that Bess appeared to be under the influence of a narcotic and seemingly looking through him as they spoke.

Bess posted photos of himself on social media in the nude and with what appeared to be marijuana. He was hospitalized in Florida against his will because of his behavior.

It’s a sad postscript to a classic underdog story. Bess was undrafted out of Hawaii but made the Dolphins in 2008, lasting five seasons, making 321 catches for 3,447 yards and 12 touchdowns. In 2010, he had 79 receptions for 820 yards and five touchdowns.

While it’s impossible to say if Bess has CTE, his lawyer, Michael Alarid III, said, “We certainly suspect CTE and we presented that to the court.” Alarid added, “Davone is doing very well. He is seeking treatment for his health issues, is stable and doing much better. He’s taken this very seriously.”

Bess’ former teammates are concerned for a man who’s still only 31.

In this handout photo provided by the Broward Sheriffs Office, Cleveland Browns receiver Davone Bess is seen in a police booking photo after his arrest for assaulting a law enforcement officer after an incident at the Fort Lauderdale-Hollywood International Airport on Jan. 17, 2014. (Photo by Broward Sheriffs Office via Getty Images)

“A lot of times as a professional football player, you’re deemed as being tough — that’s everybody’s outlook on how you should be,” said 2005 Dolphins first-round pick Ronnie Brown, an ex-teammate of Bess’ who spoke to him following the airport incident. “Unfortunately we come into situations where we don’t want any help or we’re afraid to ask for help. And I think this is one of those situations.”

Brown, who participated in Bess’ charity endeavors in California in the past, continues to worry about Bess’ future. He wonders about the root of the issues.

“I hope that everything works out,” Brown said. “He was nothing but a great person when I was around him. I’ve never seen anything that would skew my opinion of that.”

There are slivers of positive news: Nowinski is optimistic that within a decade, doctors will confidently detect CTE in the living. While football will never be a safe sport, rules changes make it safer than a couple of decades ago. Although Nowinski cringes at youth football, awareness on the part of coaches, players and parents has increased.

Nowinski: “What gives us hope is that with this increased awareness, CTE is now on the radar screens of the research community and there are people working to better understand it, including our great teams at Boston University and the VA, with the hope that we can develop treatments that can slow or stop the progression of the disease or prevent it from ever occurring.”

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