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What if football didn’t exist and someone invented it tomorrow? Would you be drawn to it or repulsed by the concept?
We can ignore or justify it all we want, but CTE (chronic traumatic encephalopathy) and the number of football players it has affected and will continue to affect is chilling.
That was brought home to Iowa Tuesday in a New York Times story. Dr. Ann McKee, chief of neuropathology at the Boston University School of Medicine, told the Times the CTE in Tyler Sash’s brain was at an unusually high level for a 27-year-old.
Sash, the former University of Iowa All-Big Ten safety and a two-year member of the New York Giants, died last September because of an accidental overdose of pain medications.
He had suffered five known concussions, one that was documented while he was a Hawkeye. The last one was in the Giants’ final preseason game of 2013, three days before that team released him.
Sash then returned home to Oskaloosa. It appears he had a troubled remainder of his life there. In 2014 he was arrested for public intoxication after leading the police on a four-block chase while he drove a motor scooter.
That made Sash the source of ridicule here in the state, from some of the same people who’d cheered him when he was making big plays for the Hawkeyes.
Barney Sash, Tyler’s mother, showed great composure and courage when she spoke about her son and his disease Thursday on ESPN’s “Outside the Lines.”
“Honestly,” she said, “there were times that our family was irritated with him. We were frustrated with him, even angry at times, wondering why he was making the decisions that he did. He was always a rule-follower and a people-pleaser. So when he did things in public that he got in some trouble for, it surprised us and saddened us.
“Tyler wasn’t so bad. He wasn’t so far gone that he didn’t realize he’d done some of those things. He would apologize and say ‘I don’t know why I did that.’”
After her son’s death, Barney donated his brain to be tested for CTE. She had believed his problems were caused by pain medications.
But the cause was football. Sash played a violent game with violent efficiency. It got him a college scholarship, it helped Iowa win a lot of games, and people adored him for it. Until, that is, the games were over and he was left with a brain that didn’t work the way a person’s brain should work.
The lasting effects of football players’ head injuries are very much in the news, but can you imagine the firestorm were CTE widely found in employees of a less-beloved profession? OSHA would be all over it. Presidential candidates would hammer the failure of the president or Congress to control it.
Recently, a movie called “Concussion” was released. Seattle Seahawks star defensive back Richard Sherman, who suffered a concussion in his first NFL start, was asked last month if he had seen it.
“I have not,” Sherman said. “I see a concussion movie every Sunday for free. Don’t need to go to the theater.”
Had Sash been as famous and decorated a player as Sherman, this death of a 27-year-old with CTE would be a blockbuster of a national story. Instead, it’s just one episode in a story that keeps getting bigger and more disturbing.
In the NFC Championship win over San Francisco that got the Giants to the Super Bowl four years ago, Sash was in punt-return coverage when he was blindsided and blasted by the 49ers’ Demarcus Dobbs. Sash was sent airborne. It was ghastly. He was concussed.
“It doesn’t really scare me,” Sash told me in Indianapolis four days before that Super Bowl, after he’d been cleared to return to practice. “I’ve seen my brother get concussions playing football when I was younger. I’ve seen my teammates get concussions. Some of my best friends in high school got concussions.
“It’s just part of the game. I know they’re trying to do everything that they can with the rules to protect players, but at the end of the day it’s a bunch of grown men playing a game where it’s legal to go hit people.
“I feel I’ve dished out a lot more than I’ve received.”
Let’s hope he didn’t.
“I have a deep sadness thinking that my son suffered his last couple of years and we couldn’t put a finger on what was wrong,” Barney Sash said. “We thought it was the need of a surgery and the pain medication that was causing him to conduct himself in a way that was different than the Tyler we knew and loved.
“The sadness was he was kind of alone in this. He couldn’t explain it. He never complained. He said ‘I got this, Mom.’”
Frontline’s “Concussion Watch” on the PBS website said 199 concussions have been listed on NFL injury reports in the 2015 season.
Those are head injuries, 199 of them. That’s just the NFL. But we know it and accept it. Because we love football. And love is blind.
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