The sport of football is an inherently dangerous game for anyone who engages in it at full capacity. Right now, the NFL faces the macabre reality that football can kill. In recent years, professional football has been confronted with the reality of concussions and their complexity.
Due to the nature of the game, there has been empirical evidence linking football and severe head trauma, which often leads to CTE (Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy).
In the midst of all these new discoveries, the resulting backlash and the fight for awareness, someone needed to stand up and be a strong figure for those who could not help themselves.
Ex-NFL running back Dorsey Levens, formerly of the Green Bay Packers, Philadelphia Eagles and New York Giants, has been a pillar for this select community in dire need. I reached out to Levens, who was kind enough to schedule an interview where we went into great depths on the sensitive subject of coping with post-NFL life.
Aside from a successful football career, Levens is wrapping up a documentary entitled Bell-Rung: An Alarming Portrait of Professional Football. In the film, we hear from players like Jamal Lewis, Ellis Hobbs and Takeo Spikes about head trauma in the sport of football.
Levens also works with the Gridiron Greats, an organization that exists to provide aid to players who cannot help themselves. This foundation is led by President Shannon Jordan, and features a board of directors that includes, Mike Ditka, Marv Levy, Gale Sayers, Kyle Turley and Matt Birk.
What I took away from the conversation is that, more than anything, Levens wants people to know life is more important than any game. He genuinely wants to help people and draw attention to a prevailing issue in the NFL today.
Levens himself suffers from physical and neurological issues he claims stem from his playing days (not strictly in the NFL).
"Sleeplessness has always been my biggest thing. Looking back in hindsight, I had no idea...I just thought I had a hard time sleeping," said Levens. Fortunately, the sleeplessness and other issues have stabilized, instead of gradually getting worse.
This puts the retired pro in a position to support others suffering far worse than him.
First, certain realities surround the sport and need to be acknowledged. The most prominent is that, by its nature, football is as violent as any sport in the United States. Though signing up to play comes with innate risks, the NFL is in a position where it can and should take the initiative to become more cognizant of these issues.
More importantly, the league has an implied responsibility to pass that information along to its employees. There is an obligation to take a closer look at the factual medical perils and not neglect credible medical reports when presented (h/t Sam Farmer of the Los Angeles Times).
In defense of the NFL, though, this is relatively new information.
I spoke to a recent medical school graduate who informed me that CTE and its findings are new and were not required course work in the curriculum as recently as 2010. It is an evolving study that the NFL has been abruptly forced to react to.
While head trauma is not new, its origins, as well as severity, have recently been brought to light.
Right now, at minimum, Levens and countless others urge the NFL to promote awareness and acknowledge the matter.
Unfortunately for Levens, no one recognized the concussion epidemic during his tenure, even though it was clearly present. Nobody addressed it because teams and players did not know about it. That is a big reason for the latest responsiveness—to make up for lost time, as it were.
The NFL knows it is way behind the eight ball on this issue. Despite recent rule changes and medical precaution, the frequency of high-impact blows to the head is pretty standard in the sport.
Levens informed me that roughly two or three times a game a player would get his "bell rung"—the equivalent of a concussion in football terminology.
"I've been out of the league for seven years. It wasn't even an issue when I played, nobody talked about it," Levens said. He continued, "There wasn't a lot of dialogue—I’ve never had a diagnosed concussion."
Given the definition of the injury, it's difficult to fathom an 11-year veteran running back going his entire career without a concussion. According to how doctors now demarcate a concussion, Levens and an undisclosed colleague came to a number of approximately 300 concussions (dating back to his youth).
"Guys were out cold, that's what we thought was a concussion—when guys were on the field snoring, completely sleeping. We didn't know you could have a concussion and still be coherent. This information is new," Levens acknowledged.
A sizable evil in all of this has been the culture of the game. As Levens stated, "Every time you'd get your bell rung, you're taught from Pee Wee league to shake it off and get back in the game. We didn't know that was a concussion and that too many of those could lead to guys having dementia, and for some guys, in their mid-20s."
For decades, concussion testing was reprehensible. The coaches and training staff—ill-equipped to deal with head trauma—would simply run through a series of questions. If the player was halfway responsive, they were allowed to continue.
"Those questions are basically concussion questions. They ask you, 'Where are you? What day is it? What's your mom's name? Where are you from?'" Levens said. "Just basic questions and hopefully you can answer them."
This describes the extent of concussion testing Levens underwent during his tenure in the league.
In the 2011 NFL postseason, teams had doctors on the sidelines sitting in front of replay monitors and observing the body language of rattled players. This is a considerable step forward from what used to be acceptable.
It's the league's way of protecting its commodities.
However, what gets lost in translation in this barbaric sport is that these are normal human beings putting themselves on the line—mind, body and soul.
These are men with families to support and loved ones who care deeply about them well after their playing days are over. When the rest of the world stops caring about them, their families remain, and they have been just as affected by this.
"The biggest thing to them is worry," Levens said of the impact on family. "Like I said, this is all new information, and then when you hear about guys committing suicide, they worry about you. To them, you're more than just a football player; you're more than that commodity as the NFL sees you."
For current and future NFL players, increased value must be placed on life after football.
Levens also admitted things are going to get worse before they get better. More and more players have difficulty coping with a post-NFL life. After the money and the fame dissipates and there's nothing left but the physical consequences, it becomes difficult.
Levens told me players have reached out to him, informing him of suicidal contemplations. He added, "Some guys still have too much pride and they'll never reach out for help."
Levens stressed a situation much worse than it appears—that the regularity of these physical repercussions goes beyond what the general public is aware of.
"You know, a week before Junior Seau committed suicide, Ray Easterling committed suicide. An old football player for the Falcons; a little older than Junior but not as popular as Junior. ... Junior wasn't the first guy to commit suicide, and he won't be the last guy," Levens said.
As the conversation drew deeper, it grew apparent that this was an emotional and personal issue for the former NFL star. As the co-head of Gridiron Greats, a pioneering safe haven for ailing ex-players, Levens shared some sensitive material that shed light on a very dark reality.
"Talk to the families, talk to some of these wives. I interviewed Shane Dronett's wife, another guy who committed suicide that you probably never heard of. Here in Atlanta, committed suicide three years ago, interviewed his wife," Levens said, clearly bothered. "Talk to the kids, whose dad committed suicide in their own kitchen. Talk to these kids."
I had a guy tell me that the only reason he hasn't committed suicide is because he's a Christian. That's the only reason, because he wants to go to heaven. So if he believed something else, he wouldn't be with us right now. That's the only thing saving his life, he told me.
I had another guy call me up and say if he doesn't get help soon, he's going to do something drastic...and we know what that means. "I can't live my life like this. If I can't get help, I'm going to do something drastic, I'll take care of it myself." These are the guys that I talk to, so those guys who say it's worth it—eh, maybe. But maybe not, though; talk to these guys.
This is what's taking place out there, whether the NFL chooses to recognize it or not. People have begun to connect the dots, and it's clear there is a traceable formula linking severe head trauma and CTE.
Moreover, this condition has been found posthumously in numerous ex-athletes who have made a career in a contact sport.
Chronic traumatic encephalopathy is a degenerative brain disease that results in behaviors similar to Alzheimer's disease (AD). However, according to researchers, CTE has a clear environmental cause (repeated brain trauma) rather than a genetic cause. In other words, CTE is the only preventable form of dementia.
Originally termed "dementia pugilistica" otherwise known as "punch drunk", this disorder was first described in 1928 in boxers because boxers suffered from slowed movement, confusion, speech problems, and tremors (Sports Legacy Institute, 2010).
Although only recently termed chronic traumatic encephalopathy (first documented in the medical literature in 1996), CTE is now the preferred medical term for this disease.
The disease is characterized by a number of neurological and physiological changes in the brain including the buildup of an abnormal protein called tau. This protein builds up in places in the brain where it is not supposed to be and congregates in clumps in and around the brain disrupting its function.
The symptoms are undeniable as well: Memory lapses, disorientation, blurred vision, confusion, dizziness, headaches, poor judgment, impeded speech, tremors, vertigo and other neurologically-based irregularities.
I encourage those curious to Google a former NFL or NHL player that has suffered a similar fate to Junior Seau and match what they were suffering before their deaths to the very definition of CTE.
The tragic tale of ex-NHL enforcer Derek Boogaard, formerly of the Minnesota Wild and New York Rangers, comes to mind. John Branch of The New York Times provided an in-depth look at Boogaard's journey, including his last days.
Levens reiterated the connection between traumatic brain injury and the snowballing consequences. "There is a guy who, I talked to him one day, he tells me, 'Chances are I'm not going to remember this conversation. I'll try to write it down, but I just can't remember stuff, I don't remember stuff anymore,'" Levens related. "He's depressed; he's an alcoholic because he's depressed. His body—he’s had like four surgeries, so he's popping pain pills...the guys are out there."
There seems to be no shortage of painful tales of what has become of these once-great figures. These men were once on top of the world, among the nation's few elite athletes who made it to the National Football League.
In the blink of an eye, they go from living the dream to enduring a nightmare. And for the majority of the generation suffering from it now, they had no way of knowing the extremes that playing football would inevitably cause them.
"Some guys are doing OK, it's not everybody,” Levens assured. "But the guys who are not doing well, they're doing really bad. Like eye-opening really bad. Like, 'Oh my God, I can't believe that happened to this guy, or I can't believe he's acting like this. I used to play against this guy; he never talked like this before.'"
Unfortunately, there is no real conclusion to this piece, because as far as this entire case goes, there is no end in sight. The sport of football will forever be dangerous, and it cannot be changed without compromising the integrity of the game.
But a very real issue is at hand.
Even with the inherently dangerous nature of football, there will be a never-ending source of athletes willing to risk it.
Between the love of the game, its essence as an American pastime and the financial cascade that comes with it, the NFL will never be finished—it's constantly evolving. As dark a side as this may be, there have been numerous success stories as well.
The NFL has provided opportunities to individuals who may have otherwise been swallowed by the harsh circumstances they came from.
However, current and future players must take a close look at how bad it can really get.
It is only when we are confronted with the ugly truth that we choose to recognize it must be dealt with. This is now the case with head trauma and contact sports. For many it's too late, but fortunately, men like Levens and Ditka have banded together to help combat this serious problem.
It's something that will take time, but Dorsey Levens believes making people aware is the first step.
"That's my goal: be aware, know what you're getting into and play the game a little safer," said Levens. "You're a living, breathing human being. That's a thing a lot of people lose sight of, is that we're human beings just like everybody else. We're superior athletes, but we're still human beings."
Before the start of the 2012 NFL season, concern surrounding head trauma in the league appeared to be mounting. With the tragic loss of Junior Seau in May of 2012, scrutiny regarding the safety of the game and the league’s actions about player safety began to intensify.
That summer, I reached out to retired NFL running back Dorsey Levens. Even after football, he has been a pivotal figure in the NFL community as one of the more proactive minds promoting concussion awareness.
Levens was kind enough to take a few moments to speak with me, during which time he provided me with an in-depth look at the dark side of the sport we all love.
I originally published this article with Niners Nation and The Mercurial. However, given the need for concussion awareness, it felt appropriate to share this one-of-a-kind interview on Bleacher Report.
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