Will Smith Concussion

I attended the premiere in Westwood for the new film "Concussion," which is mandatory viewing for anyone associated with the sport of football at any level. It delivers a powerful and often frightening punch in chronicling the story of Pittsburgh neurologist Bennet Omalu, who discovered the presence of chronic traumatic encephalopathy in the brain of retired and dysfunctional Steelers center Mike Webster.

Concussion Will Smith

Omalu's revelations that football could produce brain damage were not welcomed by the football hierarchy, and he and his family were harassed. Director Peter Landesman and actor Will Smith have done a brilliant job in painting a portrait of a stubborn, principled pioneer who paid a price for unwanted research.

I love football and have spent more than 40 years representing many of the greatest players to ever play in the NFL. I believe it teaches great values and skills like self-discipline, teamwork and courage under pressure.

But I had a crisis of conscience in the 1980s. I was representing on certain weekends up to half the starting quarterbacks in the league, and they kept getting hit in the head. Was it a breach of fiduciary responsibility to a player to keep putting millions of dollars into his bankbook if the result of his career was dementia? We held a player safety conference in the early 1990s with leading neurologists like Julian Bailes, Robert Cantu, and Mark Lovell reporting on the state of knowledge to an audience of NFL players and issued a white paper with potential reforms.

Not much changed.

Giants Bears

In 2007 the Concussion Institute, retired quarterback Warren Moon, and I held a conference on concussions in Los Angeles. Dr. Omalu reported on his findings on chronic traumatic encephalopathy -- it was frightening.

Dr. Cantu, Dr. Kevin Gusciewicz, Dr. David Hovda, Dr. Bailes, Dr. Lovell, Dr. Tony Strickland, Chris Nowinski and others presented studies which emphasized that three or more concussions produce an exponentially higher risk of Alzheimers, premature senility, ALS, chronic traumatic encephalopathy and depression. I called their reports a "ticking time bomb" and "undiagnosed health epidemic."

New NFL commissioner Roger Goodell then convened a conference on the crisis. Dr. Omalu was not allowed to present. The NFL, to its credit, did institute mandatory baseline testing and later a concussion protocol. Players with visible hits were more carefully scrutinized.

CTE in NFL vets

 

Mike Webster #52

As a player, Mike Webster was an all-time great, earning nine Pro Bowl selections and winning four Super Bowls with the Steelers. In 1997, Webster was inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame.

 

Mike Webster #52

Unfortunately, Webster's post-football life was troubled. He was afflicted by amnesia, depression and dementia in his later years, many of which he spent homeless despite having relatives willing to house him. After his death in 2002, he became the first NFL veteran diagnosed with CTE.

 

Forrest Blue #75

As an offensive lineman, Forrest Blue was a four-time All-Pro. His eleven-year NFL career was split between the San Francisco 49ers and Baltimore Colts. Blue died in 2011 in an assisted care facility, after which he was diagnosed with CTE.

 

Lew Carpenter #30

Lew Carpenter made a 47-year career out of football. After playing at the University of Arkansas the running back spent 10 years playing for the Cleveland Browns, Green Bay Packers and Detroit Lions. He retired from coaching in 1996 due to health reasons and died in 2010, agreeing to donate his brain to science.

 

Lou Creekmur #76

An eight-time Pro Bowl offensive lineman, Lou Creekmur suffered from a 30-year decline in mental health leading up to his death in 2009. He was 82.

 

Shane Dronett #99

After a 10-year career in the NFL, defensive lineman Shane Dronett experienced significant cognitive troubles in 2006. He suffered from confusion, paranoia, and bouts of rage. In 2009, he picked up a gun and confronted his wife, who fled. In her absence, Dronett fatally shot himself. He was 38.

 

Dave Duerson #26

In 11 NFL seasons, Duerson was a four-time Pro-Bowler and the 1987 NFL man of the year. In 2011, he shot himself in the chest and died. Duerson had suspected something regarding his mental health: just before shooting himself, he texted his family asking them to donate his brain to science.

 

Ray Easterling #32

An eight-year veteran who spent his entire career with the Atlanta Falcons, Ray Easterling was one of the veterans to add his name to a federal lawsuit against the NFL regarding concussions. In April 2012, he fatally shot himself, allegedly due to the worsening of his clinical depression and the deterioration of his cognitive functioning.

 

Cookie Gilchrist #2

Between the CFL and the AFL, Cookie Gilchrist earned nine All-Star bids. The running back was also a two-time AFL rushing champion. After his playing career, Gilchrist displayed erratic and sometimes angry behavior, particularly to those he had worked with in his playing days. He died in 2011 and was diagnosed with advanced CTE.

 

John Grimsley #59

A 10-year NFL veteran, Grimsley is best known for making the Pro Bowl in 1988. In 2008, he died of an apparent accidental gunshot wound, after which he was diagnosed with CTE.

 

Chris Henry #15

Henry's CTE diagnosis was a breakthrough that brightened the spotlight on football's dangers. After several run-ins with the law, Henry died in 2009 from a motor vehicle accident. An autopsy revealed that Henry had CTE at just 26 years old. He was the first still-active NFL player to be diagnosed with the condition.T

 

Terry Long #74

Long was a consistent starter for the Steelers from 1984 until his retirement in 1991. That same year, Long tested positive for steroids and attempted suicide. He eventually killed himself in 2005 by drinking antifreeze.

 

John Mackey #88

A five-time Pro Bowler and two-time NFL champion, John Mackey was only the second tight end ever admitted to the Pro Football Hall of Fame. After his playing days, Mackey was afflicted with dementia, and his condition worsened until he required full-time care in an assisted living facility. He died in 2011.

 

John Mackey #88

Since John's death, his wife, Sylvia Mackey, has become a powerful advocate for NFL veterans and continues to push the NFL to change through her activism and legal work.

 

Ollie Matson #33

In addition to having a 14-year NFL career, Ollie Matson also won two medals at the 1952 Olympics. He died in 2011 from complications from dementia and was later diagnosed with CTE.

 

Tom McHale #73

A bruising defensive end with an Ivy League education, Tom McHale played in the NFL from 1987 to 1995. He died in 2008 from an accidental drug overdose. His widow now works for the Boston University CTE Center as a family relations liason.

 

Junior Seau #55

Perhaps the most accomplished player to be diagnosed with CTE, Junior Seau was a 12-time Pro Bowler, the 1994 AFC Player of the Year, and a member of the NFL 1990s All-Decade team.

 

Junior Seau #55

In May 2012, Seau was found dead from a self-inflicted gunshot wound to the chest. While never diagnosed with a concussion during his playing career, Seau's wife reported that he did admit to experiencing several. The linebacker also experienced insomnia for years leading up to his death.

 

Justin Strzelczyk #73

As an offensive lineman for the Pittsburgh Steelers, Strzelczyk's career was cut short by his erratic off-field behavior and legal troubles. Upon his death in a high-speed police chase in 2004, alcohol and drugs were initially blamed. An autopsy revealed that the lineman had suffered brain damage.

 

Andre Waters #20

During his 12-year NFL career, Andre Waters earned a reputation as one of the hardest hitters in the NFL. Unfortunately, Waters wound up shooting himself in the head in 2006. An autopsy discovered brain damage sustained during his playing days.

 

Jovan Belcher #59

A young, promising NFL linebacker, Jovan Belcher killed himself in a murder-suicide in December 2012. After killing his girlfriend, Belcher drove to the Kansas City Chiefs' practice facility and shot himself with a handgun in the parking lot.

 

Jovan Belcher #59

After Belcher's death, an autopsy diagnosed CTE in the 25-year-old.

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However, it is subconcussive hits that are not diagnosed or reported that seem to be a larger danger. Each time a lineman hits a lineman at the line of scrimmage it produces a low-level subconcussive event. Dr. Omalu estimated that Mike Webster might have aggregated as many as 70,000 practicing and playing in high school, college and the pros.

The goal of a breakthrough film like "Concussion" and the efforts of reformers is not to eliminate football, but to make it safer. If 50 percent of mothers of teenage boys react to the danger by telling their sons, "We will support you in every sport, but you cannot play tackle football," it will not destroy football, but it will change the socioeconomics of who plays the game. Athletes desperate to escape economic hardship, as in boxing, will be the participants.

The first key in solving this problem is a realistic awareness of the stakes. The brain is the center of personality, character, memory and judgment. All injuries are negative, but brain injury can take away the ability to live and function.

Athletes are in denial and accept norms of physical risk from Pop Warner on that prevent them from protecting themselves.

The majority of the burden of reform will need to rest, however, with the families who love and care for them and skilled medical personnel, engineers and innovators. We are launching a foundation "Athletes Speak," which will have retired athletes speak to those playing.

I will outline specific steps to make the game safer in Part II, and highlight researchers making a difference. "Concussion" makes an important contribution to the dialogue and reform surrounding traumatic brain injury. If you care about football, you need to see it.

Related Story: Leigh Steinberg Reveals 'Jerry Maguire' Details In His New Book 'The Agent'

-- Leigh Steinberg has represented many of the most successful athletes and coaches in football, basketball, baseball, hockey, boxing and golf, including the first overall pick in the NFL draft an unprecedented eight times, among more than 60 first-round selections. His clients have included Hall of Fame quarterbacks Steve Young, Troy Aikman and Warren Moon, and he served as the inspiration for the movie "Jerry Maguire." Follow him on Twitter @leighsteinberg.