Thomas U. Tuttle

Taking The Hits – Concussions, CTE, and the Game

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by Thomas U. Tuttle


In my previous writing, we discussed the punishment my old college friend Robby had taken playing Big Ten football. He feels that his memory has been noticably impacted, and Rob’s been having other physical and mental challenges in his life.

It was this past summer that the American Medical Association published its study of the donated brains of 202 deceased, advanced level football players. Among National Football League players studied, 110 out of 111 showed signs of CTE. That number was well beyond NFL expectations and must be considered beyond-striking in its unanimity.

If you play in the NFL, you are going to have brain damage. That is the message, pure and simple. And there is evidence of high rates of CTE in college football players, as well as some damage at the high school level.

Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy (CTE) can only be diagnosed after death, so it is hard to link the degenerative disease to living former ballplayers such as Robby. And while he didn’t play in the NFL (he did attend camp with Green Bay) his three years in the Big Ten may well have made their mark.

The movie “Concussion” came out in 2015 and Robby forced himself to watch it. “I didn’t really want to see it, given what message I thought would be delivered. But I did, and of course the news was not good. But knowledge is power and I’m working with what I think is going on.”

There are likely different levels of CTE damage, given the evidence and even the actions of some of those diagnosed with it.

“I think there’s going to be damage along a spectrum,” Rob says. “Not everyone is going to be along the lines of Aaron Hernandez.”

Let’s hope not. Hernandez’s case of CTE was unlike anything the doctor’s in Boston had ever seen in a man his age – 27. The deceased convicted murderer, Boston Patriots tight end and one-time NFL All-Pro had levels of degeneration never seen before in a human being younger than 46 years of age.

(It has been suggested by researchers at Boston University that such a case of “level 3” CTE could significantly have affected his decision making and judgement – information that may have impacted his criminal cases down the road.)

Men make a great deal of money playing football in the NFL and there is also the prestige. But is the cost of playing the violent game ultimately worth it? A lot of people today are struggling with the violence that expressed itself recently in the Monday night brawl between Cincinnati and Pittsburgh.

Of course, that ridiculousness was not the death sentence that a successful career in pro football seems to be. Out of the 110 NFL’ers who had CTE, well over a third died of brain-related causes, as well as suicide and other unnatural deaths.

As for Robby, he has steered his kids into other sports besides football. Of his three kids, one played college soccer and another focused on golf. Ironically, his soccer-playing son was concussed by a head-to-head contact during a collegiate practice.

“Sports most always carries a bit of risk,” said Robby. “But there’s nothing like the pounding you can take playing football at the high levels. I think my worst hit to the head came in the second half against Michigan. I was flat knocked cold for a few seconds. Can’t remember that second half, but not sure if I ever did.”

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