Wiedmer: Football a tough game to leave despite risks

Wiedmer: Football a tough game to leave despite risks

May 27th, 2013 by Mark Wiedmer in Sports - Columns

Eight concussions. A shoulder replacement. A broken leg. A fused neck.

Former Atlanta Falcons defensive back Bobby Butler can still clearly recall the medical history he wrote during 12 NFL seasons. In a sport where memory loss is rampant among older retirees, that makes him one of the lucky ones.

"Yeah, I know a lot of guys who are struggling," said Butler, who will turn 54 on Tuesday. "We all do. We try to laugh about it. I just try to live life as it goes."

Butler will be one of a number of former NFL players running the "Heads Up" clinic at McCallie School on Saturday regarding the right way for young players to tackle and the proper procedure for handling concussions.

The free clinic runs from noon to 3 p.m. and youth league, middle school and high school players and coaches are all urged to attend.

"We want to teach young kids the right way to play," said Butler, "so they don't have to encounter some of the health problems we have."

Butler admits that many players from his 12 years on NFL fields between 1981 and 1992 didn't always play the game the right way.

"I could hit helmet-to-helmet on purpose and not get a penalty or a fine," he said. "I got knocked unconscious by an offensive lineman after the play was over one time and there wasn't a penalty or a fine. I think the game was much more violent then than now."

But medical science is discovering troubling statistics about the negative health effects of football much more now than then. One study has shown that NFL players are four times more likely to develop Alzheimer's or ALS than the general population, that statistic due to the overwhelming number of hits to the head most players endure.

"When I was playing you might be out of the game for 15 minutes due to a concussion," said Butler. "Now it could be two to four weeks. The game is definitely safer than it was."

Former Falcons linebacker and Butler teammate Buddy Curry will join Butler at both McCallie this weekend and at a week-long camp at Finley Stadium on July 14-18 put together by the Kids & Pros group he runs under the NFL umbrella.

"The NFL is beginning to change the culture of the game," Curry said. "I know [regarding tackling technique] there's a reluctance on the part of coaches to change. But over time, it will change and the game will be better for it."

Though at least one extensive study by the National Institute of Occupational Safety and Health has challenged studies that place the life expectancy of NFL players playing four or more years at roughly 55 years of age -- stating the age is far closer to the current age of 76 for American males -- no one much disputes the concern over memory loss in general and Alzheimer's in particular for former NFL vets.

"The majority of guys I've played with have had at least some memory loss problems," said Curry, who'll turn 55 next week. "My personal way of dealing with it is not to worry about things I can't control."

But for more than 4,000 former players and spouses the issue has become a class-action lawsuit against the NFL, the suit claiming that the league has long withheld internal data regarding the game's safety risks.

Recent suicides by former players Junior Seau, former Falcons player Ray Easterling and Dave Duerson -- each of whom was later determined to have suffered brain traumas likely due to football -- have only added to the national concern over the game's danger.

Nor are these injuries only confined to the NFL. A 2010 study by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention found that U.S emergency rooms yearly treat 173,000 temporary brain injuries -- including concussions -- related to sports or recreation among people less than 19 years old.

Though not all of those were football related, it's clear that more needs to be done to protect all our athletes from head trauma, but especially on the football field.

Said Butler when asked what he'd like to say to those players on all levels who continue to use their helmets as a weapon: "Your day is coming when you're not playing anymore and those hits will come back to haunt you."

Yet one of Butler's four sons has followed him into the NFL. Brice is a rookie wide receiver hoping to catch on with the Oakland Raiders this season.

So even with football's greatest danger now clear and present for all to see, it's worth noting that the sons of both Butler and Curry have played football through at least the major college level.

"And I'd sign up again," Butler said. "Even knowing what I know now."

Contact Mark Wiedmer at mwiedmer@timesfreepress.com.