Other Concussions and Player Safety Issues

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Re: NFL Concussions & Helmets

60 More Former Players Sue Over Concussions

On Friday, via two separate legal actions, another 60 former players joined the growing list of men who are suing the NFL for the chronic consequences of concussions suffered while playing the game.

In Philadelphia, 49 players were added to a pending federal action that reflects the consolidation of numerous other suits. The latest 49 plaintiffs, including former 49ers quarterback John Brodie, are represented by the Locks Law Firm, which now represents 305 former players.

According to a press release forwarded to PFT, the players seek “medical monitoring, compensation, and financial recovery for the short-term, long-term, and chronic injuries, financial and intangible losses,” and other damages. Locks Law Firm says that additional suits will be filed in the coming weeks.

Meanwhile, a new suit was filed in New Orleans on behalf of 11 players, including former quarterback John Fourcade. “Wanting their players on the field instead of training tables, and in an attempt to protect a multibillion dollar business, the NFL has purposefully attempted to obfuscate the issue and has repeatedly refuted the connection between concussions and brain injury to the disgust of Congress, which has blasted the NFL’s handling of the issue on multiple occasions,” the new lawsuit contends, according to the Associated Press.

While the NFL apparently went through a period of denial regarding the link between concussions and chronic cognitive impairments, the challenge for the plaintiffs will be to identify the moment at which the NFL knew or should have known about the connection and the moment at which the NFL acknowledged the link and acted accordingly.

As a result, there necessarily will be some players who played before the NFL knew or should have known about the danger, and some who played after the NFL woke up to the problem.
 

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In light of the recent death of Junior Seau what action should the NFL take to make the game safer, without making ridiculous rule changes?

I remember Mark Kelso had a modified helmet (and Steve Wallace) and Gregg Easterbrook (Tuesday Morning Quarterback) has been pushing heavily for improved helmets too. Kelso/Wallace and Easterbrooks thoughts on the matter are here
 

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Marshall Faulk made a good analogy just yesterday. In saying football shouldn't lose it's violent nature, that the rules shouldn't be changed to make it softer, he likened the past and present sort of similarly to cigarette smoking. In the past, yes there were no health warnings, manufacturers didn't really know of the dangers, and even that they did know, and the player's weren't properly educated about it all, that's in the past, the lawsuits were settled. But from then on, moving forward, the warnings were placed on the packets and marketing campaigns done globally to warn of the dangers. So, at that point, if someone chooses to take up smoking, it's their choosing, and the cigarettes aren't changing to be made safer due to the past lawsuits or the dangers. Kinda similarly, the NFL should not have to change the intrinsic nature of the game whatsoever, just amp up the warnings of the risks of football etc, and from then on whoever chooses to play the game under the traditional heavy contact rules, does so of their own choosing. No need for all the petty fines and rule changes.
 

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That's a pretty good argument put forward by Faulk.

I think the NFL has a duty of care to protect players which, as they are the sports 'leaders' to a degree, the NCAA and High Schools will inevitably follow.
As Faulk said simply changing rules and introducing fines is counteractive to the nature of the sport. The NFL should invest in research to equipment, playing surfaces and training to improve the safety of those playing the game.

A concussion can result from a deliberate hit, accidental hit, contact with the ground - yes the players make the decision to play, but the governing body has to make sure all it's participants are well protected.

After it was well established that Astroturf caused a larger proportion of knee injuries than other surfaces there was a push to change away from that to the new artificial grass surfaces - Which was better for the players, although was this of the NFLs doing, or was it driven by teams (were the Seahawks the first team to use this?) - The NFL should follow the same path for this new 'problem'
 

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Debate continues over Kevlar padding and concussions

Posted by Darin Gantt on July 10, 2012, 9:47 AM EDT
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Rob Vito sells Kevlar padding.

So it’s in Rob Vito’s best interest to promote the safety effects of Kevlar padding.

But in the race to better protect NFL players, there are still questions as to whether the protection is enough.

In a well-reported piece at Wired.com, Sean Conboy takes a look at the push-pull between equipment manufacturers and doctors, and whether they can agree on a preferred path.

Vito’s the CEO of Unequal Technologies, which makes protective gear out of Kevlar, the bullet-proof material. He says things like: “If Kevlar can stop a bullet, it can damn sure stop a blitz,” and he’s taking more and more orders for his product from the professional to youth levels.

Cowboys quarterback Tony Romo wore his padding while recovering from cracked ribs and a punctured lung, and James Harrison signed on as an endorser after breaking his orbital bone and having his helmet fitted with Kevlar padding.

The product in question is the “EXO Skeleton CRT,” which stands for “concussion reduction technology.” More than 20 NFL and NHL teams are using it, but doctors wonder if it’s as effective as promised.

“We need to look at this scientifically and come up with some process of examination on whether this works,” said Dr. Michael Collins, the director of the UPMC Sports Medicine program who has become the go-to concussion specialist for many NFL players. “At this point in time, to my knowledge, I don’t know of a fully controlled study that shows the effectiveness of [Kevlar] in mitigating the instance or severity of concussions.”

Vito claims his padding can reduce the G-forces generated at impact by 25 percent.

“I don’t want to claim we’re the cure-all,” he said. “But I think we are the beginning. Twenty years ago, seatbelts were optional, too.”

While the new gear can doubtless protect the wearers, the bigger question may be what happens to the players on the other side of the transaction.
Many have argued that modern protective gear creates a feeling of invincibility among players, and the head-long style of play that engenders can endanger them beyond what any material can protect them from.
 

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Super Bowl-winning quarterback Jim McMahon says he wishes he had played baseball

By Maggie Hendricks | Shutdown Corner



In my family, the members of the 1985 Super Bowl-winning Chicago Bears team ranked just slightly behind the Father, Son and the Holy Ghost. In fact, as a 6-year-old I was taught the "Super Bowl Shuffle" by a Franciscan nun, so that ranking could be muddled at times. Walter Payton was at the top of the list, but I couldn't help but be crazy about the rebellious, mouthy, "Punky QB known as McMahon."

The way he would play football made me misunderstand the quarterback's role as a child. Aren't all quarterbacks supposed to jump over the top of the pile? Don't they all take punishing hits then pop back up for more? Why would a quarterback slide for a first down when he could get an extra half-yard by taking the big hit?

During his career with the Bears, Philadelphia Eagles and other teams, McMahon never started a full season. His tough and sometimes reckless style of play meant he suffered many, many injuries. Now, 16 years after he retired, he is experiencing an injury that can't be fixed by a surgery or therapy.

At 53, McMahon is in the early stages of dementia. He is part of the group suing the NFL that says they hid the effects of concussions. Though his career resulted in a Super Bowl ring and a Pro Bowl appearance, he still says he would have played baseball if he knew what concussions would do to him.

"Being injured, if you don't play, you don't get paid. If I was able to walk out on that field, I was gonna play," he said in an interview with Chicago's WFLD-TV at his Arizona home. "Had I known about that stuff early on in my career, I probably would have chosen a different career. I always wanted to be a baseball player anyway."​
McMahon played football while at Brigham Young University, but said he would have stuck with baseball had he received a scholarship for that sport.

He is a group of more than 2,000 players who need help from the NFL after concussions have filled their retirement with dementia, memory loss, and in some cases, a bitter end. McMahon's teammate, Dave Duerson, committed suicide and asked for his brain to be studied. He was found to have chronic traumatic encephalopathy, the same disease found in other players who have died under tragic circumstances.

The NFL has made strides in improving how concussions and head injuries are treated. Though problems still exist, like Colt McCoy being sent back in the game last season when he was not healthy, the culture around head traumas is changing.

But the retired players who sacrificed their bodies to create the exciting game we all know and love today should not be forgotten. When one of them says he wishes he didn't even play the game that won him fame, it's a cry for help that should not go unheeded.
 

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Figured I'd post this here as it has the most relevance (not sure if anyone else has mentioned it). Most recent South Park episode was focused around the current NFL, mostly safety-influenced rules and the replacement refs.
Was an excellent episode:thumbsu:

Hilarious the whole way through, and a deadly accurate take on the state of the NFL at the moment.
 

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Admittedly never really embraced South Park but this is JUST THE TICKET for exactly how I feel about the NFL right now/ last few seasons. Really becoming disillusioned with the direction/ hotch potch decision making the F****wit Goodell has taken this once great league. I just wished someone would assassinate the useless S.O.B.
 

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Report: NFL retirement board paid disability for concussions




For years, the NFL’s stance was that there was no substantive link between concussions suffered playing football and long-term brain damage.

But documents uncovered by ESPN investigative reporters Steve Fainaru and Mark Fainaru-Wada in conjunction with PBS’s Frontline show that the league’s retirement board paid at least $2 million in disability benefits to players including former Steelers center Mike Webster upon the conclusion that football was the cause of their injuries.

The West Virginia lawyer who represented Webster called the decision “the proverbial smoking gun,” which could be used against the league by the nearly 4,000 players who have filed concussion lawsuits.

“It’s pretty devastating evidence,” said Bob Fitzsimmons, the co-director of the Brain Injury Research Institute. “If the NFL takes the position that they didn’t know or weren’t armed with evidence that concussions can cause total disability — permanent disability, permanent brain injury — in 1999, that evidence trumps anything they say.”

The league declined comment for the story, but league spokesman Greg Aiello made clear the retirement board is independent, and that its rulings “are not made by the NFL or by the NFL Players Association.”

A decade ago, the league’s stance was firm, as from 2003 to 2009, the league’s Mild Traumatic Brain Injury Committee wrote that “no NFL player” experienced chronic brain damage from concussions.

“Professional football players do not sustain frequent repetitive blows to the brain on a regular basis,” members of the league’s committee wrote in a December 2005 paper in the medical journal Neurosurgery.

But the documents uncovered by Fainaru and Fainaru-Wada showed that in 1999, the retirement board ruled that repeated shots to the head left Webster “totally and permanently” disabled, showing signs of dementia then.

“The Retirement Board determined that Mr. Webster’s disability arose while he was an Active Player,” wrote Sarah E. Gaunt, director of the NFL’s retirement plan, in a May 8, 2000 letter to Fitzsimmons. The medical reports, she wrote, “indicate that his disability is the result of head injuries he suffered as a football player with the Pittsburgh Steelers and Kansas City Chiefs.”

Two other players, whose names were redacted from the record, were also paid benefits based on “repetitive trauma to the head or brain from League football activities.”

This report will certainly be seized by the concussion plaintiffs, and more will likely line up behind them.
 

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Ten takeaways from Goodell’s Harvard speech



On Thursday, NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell delivered a speech at the Harvard School of Public Health regarding the league’s role in making the game of football safer. If you’re inclined to read the full text, you can.

Or you can review the shorthand version. The one with numbers and short sentences and maybe a typo or too.

So without further adieu, here’s the list of 10 things that caught our (or at least my) attention while reviewing the transcript.

1. Goodell said that the biggest challenge the NFL faces is “[c]hanging the culture in a way that reduces the injury risk to the maximum extent possible — especially the risk of head injury.” Contained within that challenge is the difficult balance between safety and enjoyment, both for fans and players. At some point, the game can be made no safer without changing it in a way that makes people less interested in watching or participating. The NFL needs to constantly find that balance, and stay on the right side of it.

2. Goodell emphasized that the league’s responsibility extends to both former and future players, and it encompasses “the quality of playing fields, the equipment players wear, rules to protect them from unnecessary risk, programs to support their lives off the field, and post-career benefits.” As to the quality of playing field, the NFL is failing, in several specific locations.

3. In a respectful and tactful way, Goodell pointed out that concussions aren’t unique to football. Soccer, rugby, equestrian competitions, Australian Rules Football, and other sports present risks of concussions and other serious injuries. (Beyond sports, there are plenty of risks people take without being paid to take them. From jumping out of planes to climbing rock walls to riding motorcycles without helmets, people are wired to assume risks in order to do things they enjoy doing.)

4. For those who are suggesting that removing helmets will make the game safer by making players less reckless, keep in mind this fact that Goodell shared in his speech: In 1904, 18 college football players died, primarily from skull fractures. While no helmet can prevent a concussion, helmets prevent fractured skulls.

5. Goodell’s assertion that “[m]edical decisions override everything else” is not yet accurate at the NFL level. The NFL doesn’t insist on the removal from action of any player who may have sustained a concussion, presumably due to the competitive disadvantage that comes from, for example, taking a player off the field for 10 minutes to be screened for a concussion he doesn’t have. A hair-trigger approach that would compel a concussion exam for any player whose head hits the ground or who takes a blow to the head would also expand the bounty-style motivation inherent to the game, giving defensive players extra incentive to find ways to hit key offensive players in the head. Even if it doesn’t force them out of the rest of the game, it could keep them on the sidelines long enough to make a difference.

6. Goodell suggested that, at some point, there may be different helmets for different positions, based on the type of helmet that can best protect a player based on what he does on the field.

7. Goodell hinted at further possible changes to the kickoff, from eliminating it from the game to placing a weight limit on players who participate in kickoff coverage and kick returns.

8. Goodell pointed out that the Player Safety Panel has recommended that the Competition Committee “carefully review the rules on all blocks below the waist.” This acknowledges the concern from players that the NFL cares more about brains than ACLs. Concussions subside; careers can end with a serious knee injury.

9. Goodell said the NFL is testing sensors in helmets and shoulder pads that will reveal the impact of a hit. That data could be used to create an objective test for determining which players need to be checked for concussions.

10. The biggest challenge remains changing the sport’s “play-through-it” culture. Goodell shared a story regarding a 15-year-old field hockey player who said she had hit her head on the turf, blacked out, and didn’t tell anyone because she didn’t want to exit the game. The next day, she was diagnosed with a concussion. “It’s the warrior mentality,” Goodell said, “in a 15-year-old girl. This is unfortunate, but we are working with players, team doctors and coaches to change that culture. It is changing, but it will take more time, resolve, patience, and determination.”

It also requires common sense. At the NFL level, players know that, if they can’t play, they eventually won’t have jobs. Unless the NFL is willing to create salary-cap and roster exemptions for players with concussions, players will be inclined to choose short-term employment over long-term health consequences. And so they’ll continue to hide concussions.

In the end, that’s the toughest balance the NFL has to strike. How do you protect a football player from himself? At a certain point, the football player (especially once he becomes an adult) should be permitted to consciously assume all risks associated with playing football.
 

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Report: League will consider abolishing all blocks below the waist in 2013




In the wake of the ACL-shredding hit by Jets guard Matt Slauson on Texans linebacker Brian Cushing, we reported that the Competition Committee will be taking a closer look in the offseason at blocks below the waist.

Peter King of SI.com and NBC’s Football Night in America reports that the Competition Committee currently plans to consider eliminating all blocks below the waist. King believes the league office is “solidly behind” a comprehensive ban, but that resistance from coaches likely will prevent a full prohibition.

Instead, King believes that the chop block, which is legal in some situations, will be eliminated, and that downfield cut blocks (like the one that tore Chiefs safety Eric Berry’s ACL last year) will be banned.

As we explained last month, the cut block is as old as the game of football. It’s all physics. Small players can’t block larger players without taking out the legs of the bigger players. If the ban is passed, there will be no way to stop the biggest, strongest defensive players without double-teaming them, which will impact offensive output and, for one of the only times in the last 40 years, push the pendulum back to the defense.

Some comments...

One step closer to the National Flag Football League

goodell won’t stop until the NFL is completely unwatchable

This assault on traditional football is destroying the game.

Wait a minute. That means the rib cage will be vulnerable and the NFL will move to eliminate rib injuries. By the time Goodell is finished there will be a 4 square inch spot in the middle of the chest that can be blocked. Goodell is ruining the NFL.

Football is about leverage. Who ever gets low wins. This would change the game in a very bad way.

This is how the do gooders work in this world. They cry and complain about something until it gets changed. Then when what they initially cried about changes they move on to the next thing to cry about even if there really isn’t a problem. They just always need something to cry about and try to fix because they are trying to “protect people from themselves.”

If the NFL keeps this up, it’s only a matter of time before a competing league, playing REAL football sticks.

Don’t hit them in the head, don’t lead with the helmet, don’t pull them from behind, don’t hit them below the knees, got it! Is stomach still okay or are some of these guys expecting.
 

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New imaging technique spots evidence of potential brain damage in living football players



The concussion crisis may have just opened a new door.

Researchers for the first time have detected changes in the brains of football players who are still alive. Specifically, new brain imaging techniques have detected abnormal tau proteins in five retired NFL players.

Though the proteins don’t necessarily prove the existence of or predict the development of Chronic Traumatic Encephelopathy, it’s the first time that abnormal tau proteins that can lead to CTE have been detected via a method other than an autopsy.

The findings were published today by the American Journal of Geriatric Psychiatry, the official journal of the American Association for Geriatric Psychiatry. And the study indicates that the development could “facilitate early recognition and intervention of trauma-related neurodegeneration through premorbid detection,” calling the technique a “critical first step to developing interventions to prevent symptoms onset and progression.”

(It’s a good thing they use plain English in these studies.)

The study bears the names of 11 authors: Gary W. Small, M.D.; Vladimir Kepe, Ph. D.; Prabha Siddarth, Ph.D.; Linda M. Ercoli, Ph. D.; David A. Merrill, M.D., Ph. D.; Natacha Donoghue, B.A.; Susan Y. Bookheimer, Ph.D.; Jacqueline Martinez, M.S.; Bennet Omalu, M.D.; Julian Bailes, M.D.; and Jorge R. Barrio, Ph.D.

The broader question is whether any player who is determined to have abnormal tau proteins will stop playing football. We’ve got a feeling that few will.
 

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Doctors say link between repeated impacts and CTE is unproven



Doctors who have studied the brains of several deceased NFL players have diagnosed them with chronic traumatic encephalopathy, or CTE. But a new study says that a link between CTE and repeated impacts in football and other contact sports has not been proven.

A panel of experts who studied all of the available evidence recently released a statement that “the speculation that repeated concussion or subconcussive impacts cause CTE remains unproven.”

The suicides of former NFL players Junior Seau, Dave Duerson and Ray Easterling, and the subsequent findings of CTE when researchers examined their brains, have led to widespread concerns that collisions on the football field are leading to depression and other health consequences later in life. But a statement published in the British Journal of Sports Medicine said a “cause and effect relationship has not as yet been demonstrated between CTE and concussions or exposure to contact sports.”

That conclusion has been criticized by Dr. Robert Cantu, a Boston University researcher who has been one of the leading voices in the study of the effects of concussions. Cantu told the Newark Star-Ledger the new study provides important insight but gets the conclusions wrong.

“The whole breadth of the document is large, and 99 percent of it it I strongly support. But that part of it, I don’t support at all. Frankly, it stunned me,” Cantu said.

In other words, we’re a long way off from any kind of medical consensus about the extent to which contact on the football field leads to brain damage later in life.
 

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One point to remember is that the ex-players got screwed even worse than the players did after the lockout.

The concussion lawsuit is how they get paid.
 

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What is Dr Cantu's broader opinion on action to reduce head trauma GG? It would be utterly disingenuous to suggest that he's suggesting that action should not be taken to mitigate the risks of concussions, or that there are not serious potential health risks for concussion sufferers would it not?
 

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Emmit Smith and Matt Forte should take some time to listen to the great Jim Brown re the new top of the helmet rule..

"I didn't use my head,'' said Brown, who led the NFL in rushing in eight of his nine seasons with the Cleveland Browns. "I used my forearm. The palm of my hand. And my shoulder. And my shoulder pads. I wasn't putting my head into too much of anything. I don't think that's a good idea. At least it doesn't sound like a good idea to me if I'm not guaranteed that my head is going to be strong enough to hurt somebody else and not hurt myself.

"Nobody I ever broke bread with, and I see players all the time, talked about using their head running the football. I've seen Barry Sanders and Eric Dickerson and Marcus Allen and Franco Harris and we've all been together -- we were all together at the Super Bowl -- and one talked about using their head.''

But players such as Forte, Smith and Dickerson have said not being allowed to drop your head leaves a running back running straight up and unprotected. They are, however, misunderstanding the intent and scope of the rule. It's only trying to discourage the crown of the helmet blow being delivered in the open field, and not banishing all contact that ensues from a back who lowers his head as he braces for contact.

"We want to make a serious attempt to bring the shoulder back into football,'' said St. Louis Rams head coach Jeff Fisher, a longtime member of the league's rules-making competition committee.

"We know that if you're a runner, if you run tall, you don't last long in this league. We are not saying the ballcarrier can not get small. We are not saying the ballcarrier can not protect the football, because if he is going to go down to cover the football, if the shoulder goes down, we know the head goes down. We understand that.
"Protecting the football is OK, providing you do not strike with the crown of your helmet, and that is what we are trying to differentiate.''
 

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Football's Worst Nightmare

Eight years ago Al Lucas was killed from an on-field hit during an arena football game. How would a similar tragedy today affect the NFL?

By Robert Weintraub on April 12, 2013

Roger Goodell and I have the same nightmare. In it, an NFL player is killed during a game.

Unlike the Commish, who was revealed to have this fear (the NFL and Goodell both disputed the assertion) in a recent profile in ESPN The Magazine, there is nothing figurative about my bad dream. It attacks my sleep periodically, usually in the summer rather than during football season, as if my subconscious is reminding me just how much the NFL means to me.

The doomed player in my nightmare isn't one of my beloved Cincinnati Bengals. He wears a generic dark jersey that could be any team's uniform. He is catching a pass, so he's probably a wide receiver, though because I can never make out his number I suppose he could be a tight end or a running back. He jumps for a high throw, and as he comes down he is blasted on either side. One defender hits him high, one defender hits him low.

And then he's literally ripped in half by the force of the hits. Right after this point, I always wake with a start, bile rising in my esophagus.

I relate this gruesome glimpse into my subconscious because I know precisely when the dreams began. It was eight years ago, when a professional player — a former NFL defensive lineman — suffered a fatal spine injury on the field.

His name was Al Lucas and he played defensive tackle for the Arena Football League's Los Angeles Avengers. He died on the hard carpet of the Staples Center eight years ago this week, on April 10, 2005. He was 26 years old. No, he wasn't torn asunder by opponents. Instead, a relatively unremarkable collision took his life. Nothing about it was unique to arena football and its roller derby–esque format. It was the kind of routine collision that happens thousands upon thousands of times at every level of the game across the country, from spring practice to summer hell week to autumn glory.

And that scared me most of all.

Footage of Lucas's death does not exist on the Internet. NBC Sports, which held the AFL television rights, had its cameras elsewhere that Sunday afternoon, leaving the visual record of the game in the hands of a couple Fox Sports West cameramen shooting from the end zone. A friend of mine who works for HLN found additional video in the Turner digital vault, a contemporary report on the incident filed from the Fox affiliate in Lucas's hometown of Macon, Georgia. When he showed me the tape, I steeled myself for an image as graphic as my nightmare.

But it happens too quickly, lost in a sea of bodies, for me to realize that I am watching a man die.

The Avengers were hosting the New York Dragons that Sunday afternoon. Lucas played special teams in addition to defensive line, so there he was after a first-quarter L.A. touchdown, hauling his 300 pounds downfield on kickoff coverage. Less than five minutes had run off the clock, and many fans were still finding their seats as the play unfolded.

In the video, Dragons kick returner Corey Johnson heads up the left side, with teammate Mike Horacek directly in front of him, running interference. Lucas, wearing no. 76, ducks low to get past a blocker and collides with both Horacek and Johnson at about the 15-yard line, well clear of the Arena Football League's sponsored dasher boards.

Johnson's knee and upper thigh smash into Lucas's head at precisely the wrong angle. It certainly appears to be a harmless encounter. "I didn't see or hear anything that was different than what I've seen a million times," Avengers coach Ed Hodgkiss said at a press conference the next day.

But Horacek knew something was wrong. On the video he lands heavily facing upfield, then whips his head around as though he heard Lucas cry out, or worse. Johnson was too stunned to notice Lucas, the swirl of the hit and the crowd creating a white noise that blotted his senses. "The impact was just … unbelievable," Johnson says today, letting out a big sigh. "I was upended, I felt this heavy direct blow, and I was pretty shook up, and gimpy."1

The previous week, Lucas had gone down and stayed down in a similar position — on his back, arms up high on his chest — and the only thing he hurt was his pinkie finger. So there wasn't much worry when Lucas was slow to get up. Some even joshed him a bit for going down so easily again. "I told him to suck it up and let's go," lamented teammate Greg Hopkins the next day. "But it wasn't the same scenario."

The Staples Center fell silent. L.A. team doctors ran out to attend to Lucas, not realizing he was taking his final breaths.

The first clue this was worse than a regular injury was when team doctors removed Lucas's facemask from his helmet. Neck and head injury protocol required the medical team to immobilize him, and that made the process easier. The macabre tableau probably looked familiar to many fans. Lucas was backboarded and hoisted onto a stretcher. Other players formed a prayer circle. A motorized cart came out to wheel Lucas to a waiting ambulance, which rushed him to nearby California Hospital Medical Center.

The crowd gave Lucas an ovation as he was taken from the field. But there was no thumbs-up in response.

The coroner's office would later determine the cause of death as blunt force trauma to the spinal cord. It's a disquieting diagnosis, since the entire sport essentially boils down to blunt force trauma — to the spine or the head or the knee or any other vulnerable body part. In this case, the cervical vertebrae that protected the parts of Lucas's spinal cord adjacent to the skull were demolished, and the cord's connection to the brain was fatally compromised. Technically, Lucas was still alive while sprawled on the field, but once Johnson's leg struck Lucas's head and neck, it was only a matter of time before he would die.

It has become a cliché in these tragic accounts to proclaim the fallen athlete some sort of saint. Well, this story isn't going to buck that trend, because everyone agrees that Al Lucas was a hell of a guy.

They are running out of things to dedicate to him back in Macon. There is a scholarship fund in his name,2 and his old Little League field is now named after him. A few weeks ago, on a blustery March afternoon, the field house at Northeast High School, Lucas's alma mater, was renamed in his memory. "It's something we always talked about, being honored in this way," says his brother, Lenny Lucas. Surely he didn't mean posthumously.

They called him Big Luke, a no-brainer nickname for a kid who wore size 15 shoes at age 13. He got to his adult height and weight, 6-foot-1 and 300 pounds, while he was still in high school, but it was a softer three bills, not yet hardened by a collegiate weight lifting regimen.

Big Luke was a dominant defensive force at Troy State when the Trojans were still in Division 1-AA, just before they moved to the big leagues and began recruiting stars like DeMarcus Ware and Leodis McKelvin. Lucas was good enough to win the Buck Buchanan Award,3 given annually to the best 1-AA defensive player, as a senior in 1999. But when he went to the NFL combine, the Cincinnati Bengals team doctor found that Lucas's left leg was incrementally shorter than the right, causing his legs to bow ever so slightly, and this convinced teams not to draft him.

The Steelers brought Lucas in as a free agent. His father, David, told me that Al outplayed Pittsburgh third-round pick Kendrick Clancy throughout the preseason. "We drove out to see him play in Dallas," David says, "and he was bustin' those motherf***ers." But Pittsburgh had invested money and organizational ego in Clancy, and that gave him an advantage that Al Lucas's solid play couldn't overcome.


Craig Jones/Getty Images

Carolina picked up Lucas when the Steelers cut him loose. He was a rotation tackle for two seasons with the Panthers, recording more than 30 tackles, including a sack. He had his moments in the league, most of them violent. "I saw him bend Orlando Pace backward and mess up his knee," says Al's older half-brother, David Jr. "Al hit Ricky Williams so hard he drove him back five yards and gave him a concussion." But after the 2001 season, he was cut again and went home to Macon.

It was a tough time for Lucas — for the first time in his life someone had told him he wasn't good enough at sports. His father convinced him to take up karate to increase his flexibility, and Lucas helped coach back at Northeast High. But there was a void. "He was sitting around the house moping," David remembers.

Then the Arena Football League called. The Tampa Bay Storm needed a lineman, and David pushed and prodded his son to accept their offer of $3,000 a game. "I think they gave him some more money under the table, to be honest with you," David says with a certain pride. Whatever the inducements, Al joined the team with the season under way and transformed the Storm defense. In a league devoted to tumult, he brought order. Tampa Bay won the 2003 Arena Bowl and Al became a hot commodity. Los Angeles offered him a three-year deal to move west, which he did in 2004.

"He absolutely loved the Arena League because of the close contact with fans," says Al's widow, De'Shonda Lucas. She started dating him after they took middle school Spanish together. She fell in love with his sense of humor — Al wore a lime-green suit to their junior prom. They were married in July 2004, just after Arena Bowl XVIII. By then, the couple already had a daughter, Mariah. She was just more than a year old when Al ran downfield to cover that kick at the Staples Center.

After Al Lucas was removed from the field, the game continued. Everyone present realized Lucas had been severely hurt, but official word of his death wasn't given to the players or coaches during halftime.

AFL commissioner David Baker hadn't planned on arriving at Staples Center until late in the third quarter that day. He was watching his son, then-USC star tackle (and current Atlanta Falcon) Sam Baker, practice at the L.A. Coliseum that afternoon. But Lucas's severe injury forced him to leave early. He arrived at the game just before halftime, and with no official information at hand, Baker let the teams play the second half.

Johnson remembers being told in the Dragons locker room that Lucas would be OK. "It was horrible," he says today. "It was really disrespectful. We were lied to, and we should never have played on."

But Baker told the media the day after Lucas's death that the Avengers, from owner Casey Wasserman4 to Coach Hodgkiss to the players, said they had wanted to continue, and he was merely honoring that.

With about five minutes left in the third quarter, Avengers team doctor Luga Podesta called with the news: Al had been pronounced dead at 1:28 p.m., Pacific Standard Time.

Baker now had to decide if the teams should play the fourth quarter. He allowed the game to finish. The Avengers won, 66-35. Staples Center was full of kids, as it often was for AFL games, and Baker didn't want them to discover over a public-address announcement that a player had died. "The decision was entirely mine," he told the press.5

The teams learned of Lucas's fate in the locker room. The fans were left to discover what had happened on their own. Many suspected something was amiss when the postgame autograph session, a league staple, was canceled for the first time anyone could recall.

"I went home and hugged my son," Baker said at the time.

David Lucas, who had just lost his son, was tracked down by a local TV crew in Macon. When asked for his reaction, Lucas broke down and wept uncontrollably.

It was a blessing, perhaps, that none of the Lucas family saw Al lose his life. His father, then a member of Georgia's House of Representatives, was politicking on the golf course, while back home, his mother, Elaine (a Macon city councilwoman), and Lenny couldn't find the proper coordinates to pull the game in on satellite.

Lenny had talked with his younger brother the night before. He had also played with the Avengers in 2004 — he was a linebacker, lining up just behind Al, as he had in high school and at Troy State — and they had lived together in California. "He was the dollar man, I was the low man on the totem pole," Lenny explains. But after the team released him he drifted out of football and back to Macon. He was working as a bouncer in a local club on that last Saturday of Al's life when his cell rang. It was his brother, checking in.

"I was too busy to really talk to him," Lenny says. "That's my biggest regret — that I had to rush off the phone that night."

Out in Dallas, David Jr. had run out for a soda and missed the last play of Al's life. Nine years Al's senior, David Jr., who won a Super Bowl ring with the Cowboys despite never cracking the active roster, was an inspiration more than a direct mentor. "I was 150 pounds," he says, "and everyone said I was too small to make the league. I always told Al never to quit, and I had showed him I meant it.

"We finally had gotten the chance to have an adult relationship, so it was tough, real tough," he adds, going quiet for a moment. "It took me a long time before I could go to another game and sit and watch."

De'Shonda was driving home when the call came from L.A. "I kept saying, 'He'll be OK, I'm coming out to be with him,'" she recalls. "They had to repeat four or five times that he was gone." The awful truth didn't sink in until she got home and put the car in park. Then the tears and the shaking commenced.

"For me he's just not dead," De'Shonda says today. "I don't continuously mourn like some people do because I see him all around me, and in my dreams." She feels the occasional confirmation Al is still in her life. "Once, on the day of our anniversary, I escaped to a bar for a quiet glass of wine and to be alone. From out of nowhere a man appeared with a paper rose and gave it to me. 'You just look like you could use this,' he said, and walked away. I know that was Al."

Estimates vary on how many folks turned up to pay their last respects. Anywhere from 600 to 1,900 attended Lucas's funeral, held in the high school field house that would, eight years later, be named after him. Teammates from every level of ball were there, along with various politicians, religious figures, and Reverend Jesse Jackson, who is friends with David Lucas.

One person who wasn't there was Corey Johnson, whose leg was the blunt force that traumatized Al's spinal cord. Johnson teaches and coaches football these days back home, which is also in Georgia, and anytime one of his players ducks his head to make a tackle, he cringes. "I get real fearful," he says.

Moving past a moment where he caused the death of a fellow player, no matter how accidental, hasn't been easy for Johnson. No amount of Arena Football League–supplied counseling or locker room prayer could erase that moment from his mind.

"I remember talking about it with Mike (Horacek)," he says. "What could we have done differently? How could we have avoided him?"

About a month after the collision, De'Shonda heard whispers that Johnson was struggling with his guilt. She picked up the phone and told him to forgive himself. "I told him I loved him and that he was gonna be fine," she remembers. "I wanted to let him know that he couldn't have done it, to know that he couldn't have killed Al — only God is powerful enough to do that."

The words helped Johnson, but after his playing days ended he moved just 30 miles from Macon, 30 miles from the Lucas family's pain, 30 miles from endlessly reliving that moment when he caused the local memorials to Big Luke.

"It was an ongoing thing, and it was real tough," Johnson says. "I thought about De'Shonda and their daughter. … It was a constant reminder … " And here his voice trails off over the phone.

Our conversation turns from what football did to Al Lucas to what it did to Corey Johnson, and I'm reminded that usually the sport kills slowly, not instantly.

"I really question what football did to me," he says. "I had plenty of concussions. We were taught to be tough. If you got your bell rung, you popped an Advil or two and went about your business." These days, Johnson finds himself struggling to find simple words he knows he knows, or to remember elements of the lesson plan he has taught over and over.

"It's getting worse," Johnson admits. "I find myself slipping into kind of a fog, and then I have to make myself snap out of it. It scares me." Now when he hears NFL players complain about the game becoming a "sissy sport," he shakes his head. "I realize that what we were doing was just ramming our heads into each other, over and over again. That's not smart."

As politicians, David and Elaine Lucas could have used their public platforms to raise a stink about player safety. You might have heard more about Al if they had. Yet turning their lost son into a cause never entered their minds. When I ask David about the new rule against running backs lowering their heads before collisions, he spits back, "What kind of sh*t is that?"

His wife is the more polished politician in this matter. She would like to see equipment keep pace with the evolutionary size and strength of the players, and she favors greater punishment for dirty hits. "We still watch plenty of football," she says. "Whenever someone is slow to get up, we hold our breaths, and think 'Please, get up!' or 'Hurry up with that neck brace!' Certainly, we pray it's nothing horrible, so that no one else has to go through what we went through." But when people ask her whether they should allow their sons to play football, she says, "Why not? Why would you keep them from being well-rounded?"

In some ways, 2005 feels like eons ago. ESPN's Monday Night Countdown crew was still merrily screaming "He got … JACKED UP!!" while counting down the weekend's biggest shots to the head. Alan Schwarz was still writing for Baseball America, his first concussion stories for the New York Times still two years away.

Junior Seau was a year away from retiring — for the first time.

And Roger Goodell was a year away from taking over as NFL commissioner.

Had Al Lucas been killed just a few years later, his name would be synonymous with the dangers of football, Arena Football League or not. His name would be used as an impetus for added safety measures. His memory would serve as a cudgel against those who rail against football's "sissification."

Instead, Lucas is largely forgotten, and our collective nightmare remains in the shadows.

Since Lucas was killed, 29 players at all levels, mostly high school, have died playing football, according to research by the National Center for Catastrophic Sport Injury. All 26 were killed by direct football-related activity, such as tackling or blocking. Considerably more athletes have died from indirect causes, mainly heat stroke or heart attack.

Al Lucas could have just as easily been killed on an NFL field. Inevitably, I believe it will happen to an NFL athlete. In all likelihood it will be a relatively unknown player — an undrafted free agent trying to impress on special teams in the preseason, perhaps. Regardless of the details, if it happens, the league won't ever be the same. Indeed, the AFL was forced to cancel its 2009 season, although that likely was more due to the recession than to backlash over Lucas's death. The AFL returned to action on a more limited scale in 2010.

How would the NFL respond to such a tragedy? Further sops to safety, like eliminating kickoffs and preseason games? Or a combination of lawsuits and public outcry that fundamentally changes the NFL, its imperial status, and our devotion to it?

Players who have been permanently injured while playing have granted us all absolution by cheerfully having their number retired (Dennis Byrd) or accepting an honorary roster spot (Eric LeGrand). But if and when the next Al Lucas perishes on an NFL gridiron, he won't be around to offer us forgiveness.

And I fear my nightmares will only worsen.

Robert Weintraub (@robwein; www.robwein.com) is the author of the just-released The Victory Season: The End of World War II and the Birth of Baseball's Golden Age and The House That Ruth Built. He has written for the New York Times, ESPN.com, Slate, CJR, the Guardian, and many others.
 

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Lawyer says Riddell is “in very serious trouble” after lawsuit




Rhett Ridolfi, a 22-year-old man who suffered brain damage and partial paralysis while playing high school football in 2008, has been awarded millions of dollars in damages in a lawsuit against the helmet maker Riddell.

And Ridolfi’s attorney, Frank Azar, who is also suing Riddell on behalf of several former NFL players, says this is just the beginning.

I think this jury has said they’re in very serious trouble,” Azar told the Associated Press.

In the case of Ridolfi, a jury in Colorado said he is entitled to $11.5 million in damages for his injuries, and that Riddell is 27 percent responsible, so Riddell will have to pay $3.1 million of the damages. The rest of the damages are largely symbolic, as those damages were awarded against Ridolfi’s coaches, who have immunity as government employees and will not have to pay the damages.

The jury in Ridolfi’s lawsuit did not find that Riddell’s helmets are defective but did find that Riddell didn’t properly warn the players who wear its helmets of the risks associated with brain injuries in football.

“While disappointed in the jury’s decision not to fully exonerate Riddell, we are pleased the jury determined that Riddell’s helmet was not defective in any way,” the company said in a statement.
 

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