Birk donates brain, spinal cord tissue

9/16/2009 - NFL Matt Birk Baltimore Ravens + more

OWINGS MILLS, Md. -- Harvard graduate Matt Birk has pledged to donate his brain and spinal cord tissues after death to a Boston University medical school program that studies sports brain injuries.

The Baltimore Ravens center, in his 12th NFL season, has sustained three concussions and been jarred senseless on several occasions.

"What will they find? Not much," Birk joked Wednesday. "Maybe because it's the brain and spinal cord it's a little bit morbid, but I just kind of look at it as being an organ donor. It's not that big a deal, and obviously when I'm dead I won't need it.

"So they can have at it and do what they want," he said.

The goal of the Center for the Study of Traumatic Encephalopathy, a collaborative venture between BU Medical School and Sports Legacy Institute, is to better understand the long-term effects of repeated concussions.

Birk, Seattle Seahawks linebacker Lofa Tatupu and Arizona Cardinals receiver Sean Morey are the first active players to donate their brains after death. Asked why he was contacted, Birk replied, "The guy that heads up the group [Chris Nowinski], I played college football with him. So that's my connection. And I'm so good-looking."

If researchers can understand the damage playing football has on the human brain, then perhaps years from now they can better protect it.

"The decision to do this brain donation, if it can help make the game safer for future generations, than why not?" Birk said.

"I think Birk is on top of this," said Spencer Folau, an NFL offensive lineman from 1999 to 2004. "You're going to have a 14-year, 15-year veteran to study. Sure they've improved the helmets every year, but I'm not sure if that's enough."

Folau says he's beginning to feel the result of those all those blows he took to the head during his career with the Ravens, Miami Dolphins and New Orleans Saints.

"I'll forget names, stuff like that. I know I was a lot sharper when I was playing. Now I have to pause to think about stuff that usually comes a lot quicker," he said. "There are a few times you get up dizzy and you don't know what it is. I hope they find something, but what can they do? Make you stop hitting?"

If scientists can document the damage all those hits to the helmet have caused, then perhaps they can come up with a viable solution.

"I do know they've looked at a number of former NFL players that have died, guys who suffered dementia or short-term memory loss and other symptoms," Birk said. "They're pretty much batting 1.000 as far as finding things with these guys' brains that obviously occurred during their careers and manifested themselves later on as symptoms. There's something there. They just need to get their hands on more and more brains ... so it has scientific proof or legitimacy."

An NFL lineman knows the short-term and long-term risks of playing the position. He can only hope that long after retirement, he still isn't paying for all that punishment.

"I know what I signed up for," Ravens tackle Jared Gaither said. "I'm walking with my god and he's keeping me safe, and I believe that. What Matt Birk is doing, I don't know that I'd do it, but it's good that he's doing it for the research of football."