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How brain trauma from football destroyed Mike Webster's life

The NFL has become embroiled in litigation related to brain injury in pro football, as most fans of the Washington Redskins are aware. As the number of retired players who say they were harmed by the league’s concussion policies add up, and the dollar figures rise into the hundreds of millions, it may be difficult to comprehend just how serious the problem is for the men living with chronic brain injury symptoms.

The story of one individual player may bring perspective. Mike Webster is widely considered to be one of the greatest centers ever to play the game. He was a leader on the great Pittsburgh Steelers teams of the 1970s that won four Super Bowls.

A Hall of Famer, Webster was nicknamed “Iron Mike” for his toughness. He played professionally from 1974 through the 1990 season, appearing in 245 regular-season games, plus postseason.

Soon after his retirement, his family says, he began showing signs that all those years of violent collisions had a serious effect on his brain. According to ESPN, he eventually needed a cocktail of drugs to combat anxiety, depression, seizures, and symptoms of Parkinson’s disease.

His mental condition deteriorated. He became homeless, sleeping in a pickup truck or spending the night at the Amtrak station. He would get lost and call friends and relatives for help, but would be unable to describe his surroundings.

Webster died of heart failure in 2002 at age 50, a shell of his former self. His brain was autopsied, and doctors discovered that Webster suffered from chronic traumatic encephalopathy, or CTE. The condition is caused by proteins that form on the brain after head trauma. If a person sustains too many blows to the head, the proteins overwhelm the brain, causing symptoms similar to Alzheimer’s disease in many cases.

CTE is one of the most common conditions that have affected living and deceased players after they retire. There is no cure.

Plaintiffs suing the NFL say that the league knew of the risk of brain trauma from playing football, but did not reveal this information to them. In addition, the ex-players say, coaches, trainers and team doctors routinely allowed injured players back into games before they had recovered.

We will continue to discuss brain injury in the NFL in this blog, including in our next two posts.

Source: Behind The Steel Curtain, “Mike Webster autopsy ‘one of the most significant moments in the history of sports’,” Tyler Drenon, Oct. 8, 2013

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