Processing the aftereffects
Waddle, other former Bears contemplate what NFL careers did to their brain function
With a wife, four young daughters, an impending move, a daily radio show on ESPN Radio 1000 in Chicago and enough side gigs to occupy all the "spare time," Tom Waddle doesn't possess the energy to worry about things he can't control.
And yet he can't help it. He does.
"Absolutely, I do," he said. Waddle said it's too hard to determine how many concussions he may have sustained during his six-year career as a fearless, over-the-middle receiver for the Bears in the early '90s.[+] EnlargeAP Photo/Mark EliasTom Waddle, who played six seasons for the Bears, was known as a fearless receiver who was willing to go over the middle to catch a pass despite knowing the punishment he would absorb.
"It was nothing where I woke up the next morning throwing up," he said.
But given the recent attention and ongoing research on the lasting damage that playing football can have on the brain, Waddle's bouts of periodic fogginess are scary, he admits. "Not to be overly dramatic, but there are days when what I'm thinking I want to say just doesn't come out of my mouth," he said. "I can't seem to make the connection of what I want to say and saying it. There are times when I can't process everything, where I feel like I'm thinking things through, but I can't verbalize it for some reason.
"Being in the media for so long, it's your job, so you learn to do it on a decent level. But some days are much harder than others, and I can't process it all."
A week short of 43 years old and the picture of health, Waddle often has joked on-air about being "concussed." He recalls the time he was hospitalized after a 1991 playoff game in Dallas but then woke up with nothing more than a headache and was told after an electroencephalogram that it probably wasn't a concussion.
But Waddle also remembers times when he blacked out briefly, which is generally defined as a concussion, the most common type of traumatic brain injury.
"I don't say this casually, but I can't remember getting hit a ton of times when I stayed out [of the game]," Waddle said. "But there were times when for a split second, everything went dark. It's not like you're unconscious, but you get hit so hard, it goes black a little bit."
Another hard-hitting former Bear, Gary Fencik, is 55 and can remember having "maybe a partial [concussion]" when he hit Earl Campbell and crawled off the field.
And then there was the time fellow safety and ferocious hitter Doug Plank told Fencik he pushed him off the field after a particularly hard hit.
Not to be overly dramatic, but there are days when what I'm thinking I want to say just doesn't come out of my mouth." -- Former Bears receiver Tom Waddle
"He said he asked me what the score was and how much time was left, and I didn't know," Fencik said. "But when it does finally come back, you're looking around, and there's almost the feeling like you overslept."
He never missed a game, Fencik points out, as many players do, in theorizing that they did not suffer actual concussions. "But I felt bad after games when my head hurt, and I suspect a lot of guys had them, and they were misdiagnosed or overlooked," he said.
Current Bears linebacker Hunter Hillenmeyer recently made news along with a small group of NFL players by pledging to donate brain and spinal cord tissue upon their deaths in the interest of furthering research on the link between concussions -- and even repetitive blows to the head -- and brain damage.
"Anything we can do to help out, to get more information out there is something that a lot of guys will probably be willing to do," said Hillenmeyer, a member of the NFL Players Association's committee on traumatic brain injury.
"This is something that 10 years ago, if somebody tried to miss time because of a concussion, they would have been scoffed at by their teammates," Hillenmeyer told ESPN's "Outside the Lines" on Sunday. "The culture is starting to change, and that's a huge thing to try to do, but the culture is starting to move in a direction where you've got better understanding of both what a concussion is, how you have to treat it and then just getting over that general attitude in football where you're supposed to play hurt, you're supposed to play injured.
"To the degree that we can minimize those, at least as it relates to concussions, then everybody is going to be better off."
The NFL now grudgingly acknowledges that concussions can lead to long-term problems such as chronic traumatic encephalopathy, previously known as punch-drunk syndrome in boxers, depression and even Alzheimer's. Players who have sustained concussions are less likely to slip between the cracks and re-enter games.
Why some players seem to be more or less prone to concussions than others, and some former players more or less prone to long-term problems, is not known.
Hall of Fame defensive lineman Dan Hampton talks about former Bears such as Mike Ditka, 70, and Ed O'Bradovich, 69, calling them "as lucid as anyone on the planet." He said he has discussed the topic with former teammate and defensive tackle Steve McMichael, and neither remembers ever being diagnosed with a concussion.
"I played with a lot of guys, and no one even mentions it," said Hampton, 52. "But here's the other part about it. The older guys played with leather helmets, then they got better helmets in the '50s and '60s, and the helmets in the '70s and '80s had to be vastly improved. Unfortunately, those poor [guys] who played in the '40s and '50s were part of the guinea pig era. I don't know, but [concussions] seem to be the injury du jour."
Hampton is hardly dismissing the reality of football as a dangerous sport. He said he knew the risks going in, and he has paid with more than a dozen surgeries to both knees and chronic, painful conditions in his fingers, wrists, elbows and shoulders.
But to hear him explain it is to better understand why head trauma to NFL players could have been overlooked.
"No pun intended, but you're going into a gray area [with head injuries]," he said. "Where our deal was 'OK, you have to drain your knee, it's going to hurt, can you deal with it?' You can't drain a head. You can treat it with Tylenol, so it's almost like it wasn't considered legitimate."
To a man, they say they had no problem allowing their sons to play football or would not have a problem if they had sons. When Fencik's son attended a prep school without a football team, former teammates joked with Fencik that "You just saved your son three knee surgeries."
Waddle said if he had sons, he would have had no problem with them playing.
"Rule No. 1 is that the human body is not meant to play football," he said with a laugh. "And Rule No. 2 is you can't change rule No. 1. Rule No. 3 is God invented football and he has a great sense of humor."
Waddle said it makes him feel better that he does not experience regular headaches or frequent episodes of cloudiness.
"It's something I'm very aware of when it occurs, but it doesn't happen enough that I'm really willing to think it might be something horrible," he said. "Maybe it's just me being ignorant or not being aware or so conditioned that unless your leg is dangling off, you don't pay attention to it.
"It's nothing guys have a conversation about. It's kind of implied that a lot of people are dealing with the same things. I wouldn't say it's prevalent in a majority of guys, but everyone has concussed moments as they're called, moments of confusion. You just become accustomed to having to deal with it."
Melissa Isaacson is a columnist for ESPNChicago.com.
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