Dangers of a concussion


After nine years in the NFL, Merrill Hoge was forced to retire from the league in 1994 after a series of concussions.

The Associated Press
Published: Thursday, October 1, 2009 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Friday, October 2, 2009 at 12:00 a.m.

When Merrill Hoge works at the studio as an ESPN NFL analyst, the constant reminders of the dangers of his former career remain.

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UAA statement on Tim Tebow

“Tim continues to rest and recover. He also undergoes daily testing and we continue to monitor the resolution of his symptoms.”

The bright lights of the studio sometimes cause Hoge to get headaches.

“I say that I’m over it, but occasionally, it can still trigger things,” Hoge said.

Hoge is a cautionary tale of the dangers of concussions and trying to come back from a brain injury too soon. After nine years in the NFL as a fullback with the Pittsburgh Steelers and Chicago Bears, Hoge was forced to retire from the league in 1994 after a series of concussions.

It’s what the Florida medical staff will need to weigh this week to determine whether quarterback Tim Tebow should be allowed to play eight days from now against LSU. Tebow is being evaluated daily and has yet to be cleared to resume physical activity.

Hoge suffered his first concussion with the Bears during the 1994 season in a Monday night game in Kansas City, Mo.

“I was back to playing five days later,” Hoge said. “The doctors cleared me over the phone. It was ridiculous.”

When Hoge suffered his second concussion with the Bears six weeks later, he landed in the intensive care unit for two days. On the field, Hoge stopped breathing. Because Hoge was cleared to play while still suffering post-concussion symptoms, he won a $1.55 million lawsuit from the Bears.

The hit not only ended Hoge’s career. Hoge had to re-learn how to read and would sometimes get lost coming home from restaurants he frequented for years before the injury.

“I always considered myself a tough player, never missed a game, never missed a practice,” Hoge said. “But when I tell players about what happened to me after my career, they are dumbfounded. I don’t know if they realize that, for example, the helmet protects the skull, not the brain. I think players are more educated now then they were then about the dangers involved.”

Hoge is far from the only NFL player to have his career end due to repeated concussions. Two prominent former NFL quarterbacks, Troy Aikman of the Dallas Cowboys and Steve Young of the San Francisco 49ers, retired due to repeated blows to the head. Aikman and Young both declined interview requests for this story.

An NFL study released Thursday said that memory-related diseases such as Alzheimer’s were diagnosed in former league players at a rate 19 times the rate for all men aged 30 through 49.

Chris Nowinski, a former Harvard football player and professional wrestling star, is the co-director Boston University Center for the Study of Encephalopathy (brain-released diseases). Nowinski said that while doctors have shed some light on the issue of concussions, more breakthroughs need to me made to provide a more accurate diagnosis for recovery time.

“In terms of true science, what it means to strap on a helmet and run into someone at 20 mph, we’re still in the dark ages,” Nowinski said. “It wouldn’t surprise me in five years to prove that brains don’t adequately recover for 4-6 weeks... The real problem is we don’t have tests sensitive enough to determine when the brain is ready, so the standard instead becomes, ‘What’s an acceptable level of risk?’”

It’s why Hoge, who has been down a rocky post-NFL career road due to his repeated concussions, has strong opinions about how Tebow should be handled in the coming days.

“This is not a decision that should be made by the University of Florida, Urban Meyer or even Tim Tebow himself,” Hoge said. “This is a medical decision that should be made strictly by doctors.”

Asked what advice he would give Tebow, Hoge said the former Heisman Trophy winner should become as educated as possible about his condition and be honest about the symptoms he’s feeling.

“What’s one more week to sit out when you are talking about the rest of your life,” Hoge said.

Contact Kevin Brockway at 352-374-5054 or brockwk@gvillesun.com.

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