NEW YORK (CBSNewYork) – Tests now show that former NFL star Junior Seau had a degenerative brain condition known as CTE when he committed suicide last year.
With more attention being paid these days to the cumulative effects of concussions, WCBS 880 afternoon drive anchor Steve Scott spoke with former New York Giants running back Tiki Barber, who talked about his concerns for his own future health.
Scott asked if Barber found it surprising that Seau had the condition.
“Honestly, it doesn’t and the reason I say that is because we’ve seen some of our professional former football players who have died unnaturally and had their brains posthumously scanned that have this protein. It’s called tau. The condition is chronic traumatic encephalopathy, which is deterioration of parts of the brain and some of the lobes and what it really has created is this impulse control that’s not there for them,” Barber said.
“So, when bouts of depression or unreasonable stress comes into their lives, they can’t control what they do. At least that’s what we think is happening, and that’s really the issue is that we don’t know what’s going to happen with some of these NFL players and really how to address it or how to fix it,” he said. “The game is so violent. We know that these type of collisions and head traumas are going to continue to occur, but at some point, we have to start looking at the very nature of the game and see if it’s worth it. If at some point we have to start saying that X percent of former NFL players are going to pass away unnaturally, then we have a problem with our sport and I think it’s something the NFL has finally started to look at very seriously.”
He said he is sure we will be hearing about more and more cases like this.
“Unfortunately, it’s not something that I think we’re going to see the end of for quite some time,” he said. “We wouldn’t have known about this if it hadn’t been for some Congressional investigations about six years ago. For a long time, the NFL and the NFLPA denied the effects of repeated head trauma on the life expectancies and the life quality, really, of former NFL players and now we have to look at, we’re forced to, and every time one of these tragic situations happens, it forces the issue again and so, I’m glad that the research is getting into it, but I’m also troubled because we don’t know, I don’t know, if, ten years from now, I go through a bout of depression and all of the sudden I don’t the impulse control, or my brother or friends that I’ve played with, and it starts to get to you a little bit.”
Barber was a running back and he got hit hard every time he carried the football. Scott asked him if he thinks about his own mortality.
“Of course I do,” said Barber. “Because I feel it’s something that you almost can’t control, when you look at some of the troubling instances that have happpened over the last five or six, maybe ten years, with Andre Waters, the great hard-hitting Philadelphia safety who had documented concussion after concussion. Junior Seau now maybe didn’t have a lot of documented concussions, but playing the position that he did with the intensity that he did, you knew that he was getting these little sub-concussions and every little subconcussion makes you more vulnerable for that big one.”
“Probably the one that bothers me the most is Dave Duerson, the famous Chicago Bears defensive back who intentionally shot himself in the heart because he wanted his brain to be studied,” he said. “So, he was conscious of the fact that he was losing control over himself and his psyche and went to extreme steps to end his life because he couldn’t handle it.”
Barber said remembers seeing stars and not knowing where he was going after getting knocked down but stil getting put back in the game.
Barber, now 37, was relatively young when he left the NFL in 2006.
“This wasn’t one of the reasons. It was health on a different level – more my knees are starting to go and physically it was getting harder and harder for me to recover from Sunday afternoon til Thursday or Friday, I started to actually feel good again,” he said. “So, it was a different physical reason that I retired. But, you know, in retrospect, it probably was smart that I walked away when I did cause as you start slowing down, as a running back in particular – someone who played my position, if you start slowing down, you start taking more hits. It’s just a natural progression of the game and I didn’t want to keep getting hit.”
“These helmets today are supposed to protect players, but they’re used as weapons,” Scott observed, and Barber agreed.
“I hear it all the time and I hear the argument ‘Oh the technology of helmets is getting so much better. It’s going to prevent it,'” Barber said. “Well, let’s not forget. NFL helmets used to be leather. The reason they started making out these hard synthetic materials was to prevent simply skull fractures, which is fantastic. However, the more technology that you put into equipment, the more protected an athlete feels. So it’s not necessarily the hit that causes a concussion. It’s your brain inside of your head hitting your skull that causes your concussion. So, if you feel more protected and the rhetoric is that this helmet is safer and whatnot, you’re going to hit harder because you feel like you’re safer when, in actuality, you’re actually less safe because the force is now so much more aplified than it would have been if you had had, say, a leater helmet on.”
Scott asked Barber if he thought the league should go back to leather helmets.
“The NFL has a little bit of an existential problem. There is a chance that the game goes away if people are dying at a certain clip unnaturally because of this head trauma, the game has to change,” Barber said. “I don’t know what that looks like. I don’t have the answer. But it is generational. It’s not going to happen next year or even five or ten years. It has to happen with kids who are 5 and 6 and 7 and 8 and 10-years-old that are learning the game. They have to learn how to tackle correctly. They have to learn how to not lead with their heads and not aim for these knockout blows that get glorified on our sports shows and ESPN… We have to get out of that mentality. Otherwise, our sport, just like some of these former players, is going to die and pass away.”
Scott brought the conversation back to Baber’s own concerns about his condition.
“How do you feel? Do you ever get a headache and say ‘Oh my?'” asked Scott.
“You know, sometimes I do. I chalk it up to my pillows. I just have a bad pillow,” Barber said. “I work hard. I’m up in the morning doing a radio show. So, I sleep a little bit less. So, maybe sometimes I’m dehydrated from working out too much. So, I don’t see the association. I think what it really comes down to on an individual level is finding ways to keep these former players who may have this trait, this chronic traumatic encephalopathy, keeping them in them in the right frame of mind, keeping their stress levels low, keeping them engaged so that they feel a worth in themselves.”
“The other intangible in this equation is that all of a sudden, you’re a retired player. You know, three or four or five, maybe ten years out, you kind of start feeling worthless and if you’re not actively engaged in something else, you start questioning who you are, and if that happens, depression falls in, impulse, which obviously may be deteriorated, comes into play and you start doing things that are unrational and unhealthy not only for yourself but for your families,” he said.
Barber is now a radio personality on the CBS Sports Network. Scott can be followed on Twitter @SteveScottWCBS