Frankie O: Moment of truth

Frankie O: Moment of truth

By Frankie O
CSNChicago.com

Death is always shocking, even if its expected and especially when it is not. The hope is that we all can live a long and fruitful existence and be able to look back over many decades as we reflect on the impact that our lives have had. Eight or nine would be nice. Im not too greedy. But, unfortunately, thats not how it always happens. Pick up a paper or watch the TV news any day of the week to realize that.

Upon turning on my TV on Wednesday, I learned of the apparent suicide of former NFL great Junior Seau. Sadly, another athletic hero is gone way too soon. The first question in this case is always the same: Why? For most of us, the thought of choosing not to live is against every instinct that drives us to be who we are. The thing that makes me especially sad is to wonder about what must be going on in a persons mind to get to the conclusion that death is the way out.

I say this as someone who has lost a loved one in a similar way. As I struggled to come to grips with the reality that I was forced to deal with, what I came to understand was that I did not understand. Depression and its effects are as devastating as any illness that we have to deal with. The problem is that unlike a broken bone or cancerous growth, its existence is not always as obvious. Sadly, many times before something can be done, a lethal chain of events has been set in motion.

I dont know anything about Seau personally, but I do remember last year when he accidentally drove of a 30-foot cliff after an argument with his girlfriend. His excuse for that was that he fell asleep. I always thought that as odd since arguments with girlfriends usually made me not be able to sleep. (Not that Ive had many!) I know Im probably jumping to a conclusion, but that is how this works. We always look backward to find clues to make sense of whats happened. This is hard to figure out even if youre close to someone. Although, in a lot of cases, those close know something is different, they just dont know how to react. This was a position I was in. Just because you know something is broke doesnt mean you know how to fix it.

For a sports fan now, we are becoming very aware of the consequences being paid by those whove entertained us for so long. The discussion has to be held about the price being paid by those who play and have played.

The issue of concussions in sports is growing out of control, or should I say, the repercussions from concussions is. Safety issues have been a major topic of discussion by those who run the NFL and NHL, the most physical of the sports we watch. So much so that even casual fans know about the problem, or at least, the sensationalized incidences that have prompted the attention.

Athletes seem to be taking their own lives at an alarming rate. Seaus death has rekindled the public debate that had died down a little since last summer when former Bear Dave Duerson shot himself in the chest and three current and former NHL tough guys left us within 4 months of each other.

That introduced us to Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy. (CTE) CTE is a progressive degenerative disease found in individuals who have been subject to multiple concussions and other forms of head injury. Individuals with CTE may show symptoms of dementia, such as memory loss, aggression, confusion and depression, which may appear within months of the trauma or decades later.

Reports of CTE have steadily increased in younger athletes, most likely due to the fact that athletes are getting bigger and stronger producing a greater magnitude of force in collisions.

In 2008 The Boston University School of Medicine along with the Sports Legacy Institute worked together to form the Center of the Study of Traumatic Encephalopathy. They have documented over 70 cases of CTE. Included in this are 15 out of 16 former NFL players and 4 out of 6 from the NHL. (This included the late Bob Probert.) That is a staggering percentage. But unfortunately, the disease can only be diagnosed at this time with a post mortem biopsy.

Which is another way of saying: too late.

I remember as a kid playing football that at an early age I was taught to tackle by spearing. Looking back, Im lucky to still be walking. As you got older, it was almost shameful to be hurt, especially with an injury that no one could see. I can only imagine the pressure put on a pro athlete to get back in there.

But as a young kid, we dont know any better, then, we spend a large part of our early adulthood feeling invincible. It takes a while for us to truly comprehend what it is we are doing. I guess that what being old is for: To yell, Stop! Youre going to hurt yourself! And since Im old, I guess thats what Im doing here.

The conflict is that I love my sports. But should it be a conflict at all? I have no problem with the fact that life happens. We are not going to be able to control everything. But the NFL and NHL have a problem and it needs to be dealt with soon.

In NASCAR, it took the death of Dale Earnhardt to realize that they could make their sport safer, that it wasnt worth dying for. Now they have better driver restraint systems( the Hans device), soft-walls and the Car-of-Tomorrow. Radical, costly steps. But they seem to be working, since there have been no fatalities on the top circuit since Earnhardts.

In the NFL, Roger Goodell has started to crack down on player safety, and crack down hard. Personally, Im not sure about his motivation, since there is a major class-action lawsuit started by former players last summer (and adding more players daily, over 1500 at this point) claiming that the NFL was negligent in telling the players about the dangers of concussions. I think this already has presented itself as a game change. Ask James Harrison or the New Orleans Saints what they think.

But NFL football is always going to have inherent risks and there are years of macho thought processes to deal with, I wont even get into the blood-lust of the fandom.
Remember also, we live in a time where Major League Baseball players wont wear a helmet that will better protect themselves against 100 mph fastballs whizzing by their ears because the helmets arent, ahem, cool. You can only do so much.

Where this is going to come down eventually is on the parents of young athletes. They are the ones that can fight to make to make things safer. But here also, is a problem, since we cant seem to get our act together with aluminum baseball bats in youth baseball and softball.

I still hold out hope.

It all starts with a discussion, which hopefully starts a movement. Or its going to take something to get our attention in an over-the top way like Earnhardts death did.

But again, in this case of dealing with concussions and there aftermath, we are dealing with something that is hard for people to quantify, especially when it sometimes takes years to manifest.

All I know is that when I heard the news I was sad. And I thought it had something to do with the 20 years of professional football collisions that he had endured. I thought of this because I remembered Dave Duerson. Maybe they are related, maybe not, but both left us way too soon and I still cant help feeling there was something that someone could have done to prevent it. And speaking as someone who knows, their families arent going to ever get over that any time soon.

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