Former Pro Athletes Warn of TBI Risks to Teens

A former NFL player and a former pro wrestler traveled to Capitol Hill this week to warn fellow athletes about the dangers of traumatic brain injuries – but unlike many recent TBI-focused events in Washington in recent months the emphasis of this news conference was teens, not fellow retired pros.

According to a report published by CBS News both “Chris Nowinski, a Harvard graduate and former professional wrestler… and Ben Utecht, a former NFL player for the Cincinnati Bengals and Indianapolis Colts, still suffer years later as a result of these all-too-common injuries.” Testifying before the Senate Special Committee on Ageing, both men focused not on the dangers to professionals like themselves, but on the damage and long-term consequences too many young people risk.

Nowinski told the senators that he suffered a head injury during a wrestling match at age 24, but ignored the symptoms for five weeks. “I lied about my symptoms for five weeks, thinking I was doing the right thing… My ignorance cost me my career, cost me at least five years of my health… and I don’t know what it’s going to cost me in the future,” he said. His biggest fear is CTE – a “progressive neurodegenerative disease (that) can emerge from repeated blows to the head.” He also spoke about the growing body of evidence hinting at a link between traumatic brain injuries sustained in youth and the onset of Alzheimer’s and similar diseases later in life.

Citing CDC figures, CBS reports that “as many as 3.8 million traumatic brain injuries occur each year from sports and recreational activities, and many people are still unaware of the acute symptoms associated with this injury.” Utecht, the former NFL player, told the audience that he did not really appreciate the seriousness of his situation until he found himself being put into an ambulance at age 29 following his fifth documented concussion.

As a Portland TBI injury attorney I found it especially interesting that both of these men emphasized the damage they believe their brains suffered long they made it to the top of their sports. Part of their message to the Senate was that their professional careers were cut short not by damage done in their 20s but by an accumulation of trouble beginning at a much younger age. That, in turn, should focus our attention on the obligation that schools and coaches and other youth sports authorities have to put safety first. Competition cannot come ahead of our kids’ long-term health and the people who run youth sports programs need to be trained in proper concussion protocols. In turn, their supervisors – and all of us as parents – need to insist that those protocols are strictly followed.

As someone who has followed, and written about, this issue on numerous occasions I applaud Nowinski and Utecht for the courage it took to tell their stories in the name of warning others. As both men emphasized, it is especially important for players, coaches and parents to appreciate the potential seriousness of head injuries and to be pro-active about getting young players looked-at as soon as something happens. Waiting and letting one injury pile up after another is just about the worst thing a young athlete can do.

CBS News: Athletes testify on traumatic brain injury