When first I arrived in this country from South Africa on a track scholarship to Mississippi State, like most of my countrymen I believed rugby, with no helmets and padding, was a much tougher game, therefore much more exciting than American football.
It took only one game to change my mind. After watching MSU's first home game against Houston, I saw just how exciting football really is.
The night after that game I was fortunate enough to have dinner with our team's All American Center, Tom Goode, in the Athletic Dorm cafeteria. He asked several questions, mainly about hunting in Africa before we began talking about rugby. It had been a very hot fall day so I asked him how he'd have felt playing without “a heavy helmet.”
“Impossible,” he replied. “You could never play football without helmets. Impossible.”
Years later I met Tom again when he was MVP with the fledgling Miami Dolphins. Then he went on to win a Super Bowl ring with the Baltimore Colts.
Because Tom became famous, our September 1960 helmet exchange stayed in my memory bank over the years and resurfaced when news broke about the number of concussions in the NFL. In more than a dozen cases concussions have been blamed in suicides. Lawsuits were filed against the NFL.
A federal judge has granted preliminary approval to a landmark deal that would compensate thousands of former players for concussion-related claims and has removed a $675 million cap on damages. Superstars like Dan Marino have joined the suit. But will it stop concussions?
The head of the nation's largest brain bank, Dr. Ann McKee of Boston University, has found that concussions increase a player's risk of chronic traumatic encephalopathy, CTE, which in turn can lead to memory loss, depression, and dementia.
Doctors can test for CTE only after a person is dead, so several suicide victims have taken care to shoot themselves in the chest rather than the head to preserve their brains for examination. One such player was former Chicago Bears safety Dave Duerson.
“It's meaningful that Mr. Duerson recognized the symptoms of his brain disorder,” McKee said.
'We found indisputable evidence of CTE in the tissue samples with no evidence of any other disorder.” Duerson had frequently complained of headaches, blurred vision, and a deteriorating memory.
His final handwritten note to his family is a heartbreaker: “Please see that my brain is given to the NFL's brain bank.”
The NFL doesn't own the brain bank but in 2014, after acknowledging the long-term effects of trauma to the brain, the NFL donated $1 million toward research.
Other NFL stars found to have suffered from CTE include the Chargers' Junior Seau, Pittsburgh Hall of Fame center “Iron Mike” Webster and Kansas City linebacker Jovan Belcher.
After a 20-plus year career in the NFL, Seau retired a wealthy man. Tragically, he soon gambled away his $50 million fortune and wound up with a broken marriage and homeless before shooting himself in the chest.
Webster, who snapped the ball for Terry Bradshaw, won four Super Bowl rings, played more games for the Steelers than any other player but in 1999, according to his obituary, “he was diagnosed with brain damage from what doctors said were too many hits to the head playing football.”
In December 2012 Belcher shot and killed his girlfriend before driving to the Chief's practice facility and committing suicide in front of team officials. Researchers found tangles of tau protein in his brain, which Dr. McKee said is an indicator of chronic traumatic encephalopathy.
Obviously this cannot go on. So what is the solution?
Surely, it has to involve the helmet.
Researchers agree on one vital fact: The majority of concussions occur because heads collide during a tackle, even though helmet to helmet hits are banned in the NFL and the NCAA. Accidents continue to happen. Football fans love the sound of a good hit — helmets colliding.
In rugby the large forwards, the equivalent of NFL linemen, wear scrumcaps made of a soft material, to protect their head and ears. If American football players were to wear similar protection and spent more time practicing safer tackling techniques, the game would be just as exciting and much safer.
Don't think for a minute that there aren't violent tackles in rugby. There are. But tackling above the shoulders is strictly forbidden — the head and neck are out of bounds. Tackle above the shoulders and you're thrown off the field. A similar rule could be introduced to the NFL.
Recently, Tom Brady Sr. questioned whether he would have allowed Tom Jr. to start playing football today. He stressed that the more players are protected by helmets and padding the more indestructible they feel. Now, if his son were to come out with a similar statement . . .
It's time to throw out those helmets.
Malcolm Balfour worked as a producer for the CBS affiliate in Miami, was bureau chief of Reuters in Miami, and then became an article editor at the National Enquirer in the 1970s. He was a New York Post Florida correspondent for 27 years and worked as a freelance for numerous popular publications and television shows, from "Entertainment Tonight" and "Inside Edition" to "Hard Copy"and "Good Morning America." For more of his reports, Go Here Now.
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