By Barry Janoff
July 2, 2012: NFL quarterback Drew Brees was named MVP of Super Bowl XLIV with the New Orleans Saints, Carl Banks won two Super Bowls with the New York Giants, Mike Richter was the goaltender when the New York Rangers won the Stanley Cup and Briana Scurry was the goalie for both the U.S. National soccer team's Olympic goal medal and FIFA World Cup championships.
But the four athletes also have something more health-related in common: Concussions.
Both Richter and Scurry suffered career-ending head traumas. Banks had a concussion during his rookie season that he said impacted his entire playing career and Brees suffered a concussion in 2005 and also has seen first-hand the negative results that concussions have had on teammates and other players in the NFL.
All four agreed that suffering a concussion often is more serious than most athletes want to admit, and that the mindset of the vast majority of pro athletes is that they do not want to be taken out of a game even after suffering a head injury.
"I have played with guys who have had serious concussions," said Brees. "I asked one of them, a teammate who suffered several concussions, 'Would you rather lose ten years of your playing career or ten years at the end of your life?' His response: 'Ten years at the end of my life.'"
According to Brees, who has been named to six Pro Bowls and was selected MVP of the National Football Conference twice since joining the NFL in 2001, "Your time as a pro athlete goes by so fast and players don't want it to end. But you have to think [after suffering a concussion or multiple concussions], 'When I stop playing, what will the rest of my life be like?'"
"The NHL takes this issue very seriously," said Richter, who played from 1989-2003, was in net for the Rangers 1993-94 Stanley Cup championship season and was elected to the Hockey Hall of Fame in 2008. "When they see what happened to Sidney Crosby [all-star player with the Pittsburgh Penguins who suffered a concussion in January 2011 that forced him to miss the rest of the season and all but 22 games in 2011-12], they are scared. The league is doing a lot, but there is more they can and should do."
All four were on a panel last week sponsored by Dick's Sporting Goods to raise public awareness regarding concussions. The panel was anchored by Dr. Mark Lovell, neuropsychologist and CEO of ImPACT Applications, Inc., a computerized concussion evaluation system that tests athletes and others. ImPACT has partnered with Dick's, both headquartered in Pittsburgh, for PACE — Protecting Athletes through Concussion Education — a program now in its second year that provides more than 3,500 schools and youth organizations with free baseline concussion testing.
Dr. Lovell cited statistics regarding concussions from several well-respected sources, including research that indicates 3.8 million recreation and sports-related concussions occur in pro, college and youth sports annually and that some 85% of them go undetected, according to the American College of Sports Medicine.
"There are risks with every sport, but [statistics] show that there are more risks involved with contact sports such as football and hockey," said Brees during the discussion at the New York Institute of Technology Auditorium. "There are moves being taken to reduce the risks, but you can never eliminate them."
Both Richter and Scurry said they suffered what ultimately became career-ending concussions by being hit in the head by an opposing player's knee. Banks said the one time he was told he has suffered a concussion was during his rookie campaign in 1984. He played linebacker until 1995, earning championship rings with the Giants at Super Bowls XXI and XXV. "I played as violent as anyone, and I'm not crazy enough to believe that I had only one concussion during my career," he said.
According to Banks, players rarely feel that getting hit in the head should be enough to take them out of a game. "There's no blood. Nothing is broken that you can immediately see. In the game where I had a concussion, it happened in the first quarter. I don't remember anything about the game until the fourth quarter when I said to my coaches, 'What am I doing on the sideline. Put me back in the game!'"
The Dick's Sporting Good's PACE panelists concurred that awareness, prevention and aftercare treatment of concussions and related injuries is advancing, but that much more needs to be done at all levels. Baseline testing is becoming more prevalent, and more youth coaches and parents of young players are becoming better educated as to the prevention and aftercare of head injuries.
Although the situation of current lawsuits by former NFL players regarding concussions was not discussed due to legal issues, Dr. Lowell offered that medical impact in the category is still in its relative infancy.
"I've been doing this for about 25 years, but up until about ten years ago we really didn't know that much about concussions," said Dr. Lowell. "Now, awareness, prevention and treatment is expanding rapidly."
"I asked him, 'Would you rather lose 10 years of your playing career or 10 years at the end of your life?' His response: 'Ten years at the end of my life.'" — Drew Brees
"We have to do a better job of teaching better techniques," said Banks, who revealed that his 15-year-old son recently suffered a concussion while playing basketball, and that he immediately called the New York Giants' medical staff for advice on how to proceed. "In an era of [ESPN] SportsCenter highlights, kids want to make a big hit. But kids and coaches at every level have to be retaught [about hits to the head] and educated about the immediate and long-term effects of concussions."
Concluded Brees, "The most important thing is knowing how to recognize them, identify them and then treat them. Programs like ImPACT and PACE being supported by Dick's Sporting Goods are raising awareness. We can help educate kids, parents and coaches on some simple, but impactful ways to identify and manage concussions – including getting a baseline test – so young athletes can be smarter and safer on the field, on the court and on the ice."