A Jarring Truth

Has youth football seen the end of its glory days? As high-profile concussion research gains the attention of parents, football players and Hollywood, the lasting effects of even minor hits to the head point to potential problems for the sport's youngest players. In Rockbridge County, football remains a pillar of the community, where nearly 200 local kids join more than 1 million Americans aged 8 to 12 in tackle football each year. The community also boasts a decades-old high school rivalry and three college teams. But as parents are made more aware of the prevalence of concussions in football, will America's favorite pastime change?

Concussions in the Spotlight

Every August, 1.3 million American boys aged 6 to 12 step onto freshly painted grass, pads on, ready to start what they hope is the best football season yet.

It's an American tradition entrenched in families and communities. The peewee league even has its own reality TV show, "Friday Night Tykes," joining a long list of shows, movies and documentaries portraying the glory of the country's favorite sport.

But with brain injuries like concussions grabbing the nation's attention, researchers, parents and even coaches are scrutinizing the head-on collisions that characterize the game from the youth to the professional level.

The issue first surfaced in the National Football League. Stories of retired players with sometimes fatal brain damage put pressure on the league to search for the causes of seemingly mysterious deaths.

It started with Mike Webster, a center for the Pittsburgh Steelers in the 1960s and 70s, who later had depression and dementia. He committed suicide in 2002 at age 50. He was diagnosed after death with Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy, or CTE, which Boston University's CTE Center defines as a "progressive degenerative disease of the brain found in athletes (and others) with a history of repetitive brain trauma."

"Webster was a good ol' farm boy, and he blew out that head," said Terry Hanratty, who played quarterback behind Webster for two years in Pittsburgh. Hanratty lives in New Canaan, Conn., and worked in the financial sector after leaving the NFL in 1976.

Webster's story was made famous by the movie "Concussion," released last fall. Will Smith plays Dr. Bennet Omalu, who published the first study of CTE in 2005.

Terry Hanratty won two superbowls with the Pittsburgh Steelers; he played quarterback behind Mike Webster.

Since then, almost 100 former NFL players have been diagnosed with the disease post-mortem. Junior Seau and Dave Duerson, pro bowl players from the San Diego Chargers and Chicago Bears, had confirmed cases of CTE, discovered after they shot themselves in the chest and requested their brains be studied.

More than 70 retired NFL players filed a lawsuit against the league in 2011, alleging they unknowingly suffered brain damage while playing. Hundreds of former players did the same, either joining the class-action suit or filing their own.

According to the settlement, the NFL will pay up to $4 million per player diagnosed with CTE.

Currently, CTE can be diagnosed only after death. At Boston University alone, 94 brains of deceased NFL players have been donated to the CTE research center. Ninety were found to have CTE.

Families or representatives of players who die and were then diagnosed with CTE would receive just 1 percent of the $4 million, according to the settlement.

Now, more than 4,000 former NFL players are part of the suit, but Hanratty said it's not necessarily for the money.

"A lot of people thinks it's money grab," he said. "Hopefully I don't get a dime. It means I don't need it."

Still, Hanratty said the league might be paying too much, because players could have suffered brain damage before making it to the NFL.

Professional teams have the best trainers, coaches and equipment available - but what about the peewee leagues, where the sport's youngest players are coached by adults who typically have minimal experience and games rarely include trained medical professionals?

Published May 27, 2016