Concussions bring a chilling counterpoint to football fun

This is a huge weekend for TV. If you scan the recent blogs here, you'll see stories on Tony Bennett (Friday), a "Hallmark Hall of Fame" movie (Sunday) and Jennifer Granholm's new talk show (Monday).

There's one more story, however: Dr. Sanjay Gupta has a terrific report (Sunday, then rerunning the following Saturday) on football concussions. I'll put the story here in a moment, but first two recollections from my childhood in Clintonville, Wis.:

1) Freshman football: Mike Harris, the New London fullback, has the ball; I'm the middle linebacker, ready to tackle him. Mike, alas, was short and stocky; I was neither, making it difficult to get his waist. As we each ran full-speed, we collided head-on. The lights went out for a moment; I heard Gib Johnson, a math teacher, on the sidelines, saying "Do it again, Mike."

1a) I didn't do it again. They promptly ran the same play; I jumped on Mike's back and gradually wrestled him down.

1b) Gib Johnson, a former military man, later became Clintonville's mayor and tried, unsuccessfully, to bring the state's "superprison" to our town. I'm quite sure there were other times when I didn't follow his instructions.

2) In 4th grade, we were playing run-through. I collided head-on with my friend Mickey Nelson. Then the bell rang and we all ran inside. After a while, the teacher inquired: "Where's Mickey?" He was just out there playing with us a minute ago, we said. She went out to look and found him still lying on the ground.

In both cases, everyone survived and went on to productive lives. (Well, semi-productive; I write about television.) What we didn't realize was that either of those hits could have led to permanent damage, even death. It's only been in recent years that people havetake concussions seriously. Here's the story I sent to papers:


Dr. Sanjay Gupta grew up in a football
world of “The Big House,” the big games, the big hits.

People found elegance in young men
colliding head-on. “You'd hear phrases like 'getting his bell
rung,'” Gupta said. “Now people talk about concussions or what
they are – brain injuries.”

That's emphasized in his CNN special,
“Big Hits, Broken Dreams.”

Certainly, people have realized
concussions can be fierce. There have been more specifics lately,
however, partly because of a research “brain bank” with the
remains of pro football players and others.

“I look at a lot of brains in my
work, but I had never seen anything like this,” said Gupta, a
neuro-surgeon who visited the bank. “You would see a 17-year-old
with damage we associate with old age.”

So he focused on early concussions, in
high school football. That brought him to Greenville, N.C., which
Sports Illustrated once dubbed “Sports Town, USA.”

That's a setting Gupta can understand.
He's a first-generation American native who's from an academic family
– both parents were engineers for Ford – but he's always been
near football fervor.

He grew up in cities – Dearborn,
Livonia and Novi – within a half-hour of the University of
Michigan, where the stadium (nicknamed “The Big House”) has had
football attendance topping 114,000. He went to college and medical
school at U-M and has flown back for games.

“I'm still a big football fan,”
Gupta said. “I still love it.”

That's similar to the mood in
Greenville, where players' instincts are to shake it off and resume
action. “These kids want to play …. They want to get back in.”

In the past, they weren't aware of
secondary concussions: The brain works at healing itself from a blow;
a second blow, during that time, can have a harsher effect.

Jaquan Waller, a star running back,
took a head-on hit during practice in 2008. He was taken off the
field, but was back the next day, seeming upbeat.

“Everybody just thought he just got
his bell rung,” Zach Rogers, a friend and teammate, says in the
special. “Nothing out of normal. That's just how you play; you play

Two days after that blow, he was in a
game. After what seemed like an ordinary hit, he was carried off the
field. He was essentially dead by the time he got to the hospital,
officially dead the next morning.

Another North Carolina teen died from a
football injury that year and Gupta met Greenville players who have
had persistent headaches. He also found the flip side: Since Waller's
death, Greenville has intensely fought against concussions; steps
include talks to players, plus:

– Having an athletic trainer at
practices and a doctor on sidelines for games. The majority of
schools still don't have trainers at practice, Gupta said, but 35
states now have some sort of requirement,

– Testing players before the season.
To return after a concussion, they have to match that result.

– Paying attention to the cumulative
effects. A pro player, Gupta said, might absorb 650,000 blows before
retirement. Some of that can be changed by reducing full-contact

– “Big Hits, Broken Dreams,” on
CNN under the “Dr. Sanjay Gupta Reports” banner

– 8 p.m. Sunday (Jan. 29), repeating
at 11 p.m. and 2 a.m.

– Repeats at the same times the next
Saturday, Feb. 4