- The Washington Times - Thursday, October 15, 2009

Florida quarterback Tim Tebow, the reigning Heisman Trophy winner, played against LSU last weekend just 14 days after sustaining what team doctors called his first concussion in a game against Kentucky.

Here’s how Tebow got hurt: He was crushed by a Kentucky defender, flew backward into a teammate’s knee and was slammed to the ground. Ouch!

Yet after missing one game, Tebow returned to the lineup Saturday and led the Gators to a 13-3 victory over tough LSU in Baton Rouge by completing 11 of 16 passes for 134 yards and a touchdown and carrying the ball 17 times for 38 yards.

From a football standpoint, his fortitude was admirable.

From a medical standpoint, it might have been asinine - especially in light of a recent study commissioned by the NFL showing that Alzheimer’s disease and other memory-related afflictions are 19 times more prevalent among former players than normal for men aged 30 to 49.

Let’s say it again: 19 times more prevalent. This is scary. Heck, it’s terrifying considering how many of us hail football players as warriors who can take a licking and come back ticking. We’ve all seen guys absorb or administer terrific hits and get up like nothing happened. You’ve got to be tough on that field because, after all, football is a man’s game.

But what about 10, 20 or 30 years further along the road of life? A lot of men who played the game at any level can barely walk when they stagger into middle age. Some can barely even talk, and that’s where the study gives us pause.

The survey, which involved 1,063 former players, was conducted by the University of Michigan’s Institute for Social Research. After the results were distributed to NFL officials, spokesman Greg Aiello promptly went into spin mode. According to the New York Times, Aiello said in an e-mail that it did not formally diagnose dementia and was subject to shortcomings of telephone surveys, whatever that means.

“There are thousands of retired players who do not have memory problems,” he added. “Memory disorders affect many people who never played football or other sports. We are trying to understand [the survey] as it relates to our retired players.”

Yet Dr. Julian Bailes, a former team doctor for the Pittsburgh Steelers, called the study “a game changer.” And Arizona Cardinals receiver Sean Morey told the New York Times: “This is more than about us. It’s about the high school kid in 2011 who might not die on the field because he ignored the risk of concussions.”

Like we say, scary.

Of course, such studies can be interpreted various ways. The NFL reportedly is conducting its own study of 120 ex-players with results expected “within a few years,” according to league sources.

“What I take from this report is that there’s a need for further studies,” Dr. Ira Casson, co-chairman of the NFL’s concussions committee, told the newspaper. “I can see that the respondents believe they have been diagnosed. But the next step is to determine whether that is so.”

Certainly more research is needed. But if nothing else, the Michigan study should warn coaches and players that the next violent hit could have eventually devastating repercussions. Greater caution should be exercised, particularly in the prep and college ranks. Contrary to what may seem the short-term rationale, no victory or championship is worth more than a player’s lifelong well-being. Let’s remember that football is only a game, no matter how much we like to pretend otherwise.

Getting back to Tebow, who routinely takes more PUNISHMENT than even a 22-year-old man weighing 240 should have to, there is no suggestion intended here that he or Florida coach Urban Meyer acted irresponsibly. In fact, Meyer said before the LSU game that he would err on the side of caution in determining whether Tebow should play.

Good for him. Such a verdict should be rendered only by doctors who are not fans of the player or team in question.

Among the messages sent to Tebow after his injury was a warning from former NFL quarterback Steve Young, who retired after the 1999 season because of a severe concussion.

“He was encouraging me not to push it,” Tebow said. “He was saying just let yourself rest and you’ll be back soon enough. I really tried to do that. … [The injury] was humbling in a way. it’s your brain - you don’t want to have long-term effects. It doesn’t matter how tough you are.”

That’s known as common sense. Let’s hope Tebow’s words influence other football people as much as his talent.

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