- The Washington Times - Friday, November 20, 2009

We love the brutality of football - the sight of a head-hunting free safety taking out a vulnerable wide receiver who is cutting across the middle of the field and has his eyes on the football.

That is a John Madden-speak moment.

Ka-pow. Boom.

That rawness comes with the awful long-term price of scrambled brains.

Concussions are a way of football life, starting in high school.

Although football’s headgear is constantly being improved, the players are faster, larger and stronger, their collisions ever more violent.

An Associated Press investigation on the concussion plague in the NFL - 160 players were surveyed - concluded that nearly one-third of the players either have played through a concussion without notifying the team’s medical staff or minimized its effects.

These findings come after NFL commissioner Roger Goodell, union head DeMaurice Smith, ex-players and doctors appeared on Capitol Hill last month to discuss the game’s risks and what, if anything, can be done to reduce those risks.

The essence of football is to put fear in an opponent, whether it is to encourage a receiver “to hear steps” or a running back to seek a soft landing spot before being wrapped up.

A big hit is a badge of honor, no matter its potentially debilitating effects on the brain.

That is the conundrum before the NFL.

It wants to reduce in theory that which it encourages in practice.

There are no genuine solutions, only modest hopes and contrite expressions, if the game is to remain the game that captivates a nation.

NFL nation knows the sadder cases of the brain-damaged: Mike Webster, who was homeless when he died of a heart attack at 50; Terry Long, who committed suicide by drinking antifreeze at 45; and Andre Waters, who killed himself with a gunshot to the head at 44.

The thread of football-related brain trauma connected these once robust and fearless men.

Merril Hoge, an ex-running back, told members of Congress that he suffered a concussion soon after joining the Bears in 1994.

“Two things went wrong,” he said. “First, I never saw a neurological doctor. Second, I was cleared five days later.”

Cleared to crack heads anew.

Several weeks later, Hoge sustained another blow to the head, this one resulting in his heart briefly stopping in the training room and a stay in an intensive-care unit. He was unable to recognize his family at first, unable to walk.

Fifteen years later, the ESPN analyst still suffers minor effects; bright lights are apt to give him a headache.

Early-onset dementia and Alzheimer’s disease have become the bane of so many retired NFL players. They gave their all and played through pain and sometimes worse because that is the culture of the game.

Real men do not go boo-hoo.

They play in a hit-induced fog, if necessary, because they know there is always somebody ready to replace them.

Players through education are becoming more aware of the long-term risks of playing too soon after a concussion.

Redskins running back Clinton Portis did not return to the game after suffering a concussion against the Falcons on Nov. 8.

Tiki Barber, the former Giants running back, once played through two concussions in a game. His motivation was neither money nor the fear of being replaced.

“For me, it was a sense of pride because I loved doing my job,” he said.

That is the culture of the game, played by fierce competitors not apt to be understood by those who call in sick at the first hint of a sniffle.

On some level, no fault of anyone, really, the game is impervious to everyone’s best intentions.

Further technological advances in equipment and the huffing and puffing of Congress cannot undo the primal nature of a terrifyingly beautiful game.

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