FAIRMONT – “Daddy, is your brain getting better?”
It’s a question T.J. Abraham – now 42 years old, and formerly a collegiate football player at Duquesne – has trouble answering. Not because he doesn’t know the answer, but because the truth is a bit tough to confront, especially when his own daughter is the one inquiring.
“My heart breaks because I know the answer is no,” Abraham told The New York Times in an interview.
Abraham was a prominent doctor in western Pennsylvania after his football career ended – as well as a loving husband and father – but had to retire from his job upon being diagnosed with neurodegenerative dementia. This essentially means the neurons in his brain will progressively degenerate and/or die, slowly. His movement and mental faculties will become impaired as they go. There is no cure.
There is also no way to truly pinpoint the cause, but multiple doctors from coast-to-coast agreed that Abraham’s case most likely can be traced back to his long playing career on the gridiron; yet another case where the sport of football has been traced to serious brain disorders and damage due to the physicality of the game, which has become an increasing trend in recent years.
On Tuesday, Abraham joined numerous other advocates – including Harvard graduate and co-founder of The Concussion Legacy Foundation Christopher Nowinski – to testify in favor of New York banning tackle football for children of age 12 and under, one of many proposals nationwide to help curb the epidemic.
“The research has discovered that the single best factor that best drove whether or not [football athletes] developed CTE (chronic traumatic encephalopathy) is how many years they played tackle football,” Nowinski said.
The science says such claims are accurate as well. A Boston University School of Medicine Study published in October showed that from a sample size of 266 deceased former football players, those who played fewer than 4.5 years were 10 times less likely to develop CTE than those who played longer, although several men who played four years or fewer were diagnosed with CTE. Those who played greater than 14.5 years were 10 times more likely to develop CTE than those who played fewer. On average, likelihood of CTE increased 30 percent with each year played.
A 2017 study published by the Journal of the Medical American Association studied the brains of 202 deceased football players and found 87 percent of the athletes showed evidence of CTE, with 99 percent of 111 former NFL players shown to have the disease.
“I do not want to see anyone lose what I’ve lost or experience this disease. I strongly urge you to ban tackle football at the age of 12 and younger in the state of New York,” Abraham spoke during his testimony on Tuesday.
Whether such a ban eventually does pass in New York, or in other parts of the country, the increasingly available data relating to brain injuries and football has led to changes in the sport in recent years. For example, Abraham recalled a drill known as “bull in the ring” from his playing days — for those unfamiliar, players form a circle and one teammate steps into the middle and shuffles his feet as each teammate charges at the “bull’” and cracking pads full force.
Those drills, among others, are much less common in the sport these days, and the drills pertaining to the development of the players now tend to use more safety precautions than in previous eras.
“There’s data out there that shows a link, and a lot of the drills and things that were legal 20-25 years ago aren’t allowed now. Our live sessions are very tame now, and we use a lot of blow pads when teaching tackling and such. The game itself has evolved, and looking at what the players have now is much better than what we used to have,” East Fairmont High ead coach Shane Eakle said.
For Eakle and his staff at East Fairmont High, they find no expense too costly – and no action too small – when it comes to protecting their athletes on the gridiron. Whether it’s an assistant coach prodding a shaken-up athlete to get a potential injury checked on, as was the case Friday night as the Bees battled Lewis County, or the new top-of-the-line helmets that cost $400 each; safety is the top priority inside the program.
“They don’t seem like big decisions, but the more knowledgeable you are about something, the more effective you’re going to be. We have more information about these things now, and because of that we’re playing a much safer sport than we used to. You have to change and evolve in life, and the same principle applies in football,” Eakle said.
There are also proactive steps athletes can take in their playing style, especially when it comes to scenarios where tackling or making high-impact contact are involved. Keeping the body physically prepared with proper strength and conditioning exercises also plays a factor.
“Our coaches teach us to tackle with our heads up, and to make contact with a certain style to keep your head out of the hit. I also feel like to help prevent these types of injuries you need to strengthen your neck,” said Fairmont Senior linebacker Nate Kowalski.
And regardless of the piling data and horror stories such as Abraham’s, it still hasn’t appeared to deter young athletes from lacing up their cleats and taking the turf each fall. For Fairmont Senior High’s Malachi West, not doing so has never once crossed his mind.
“Even though there’s a risk in playing football by injuring yourself, I have never thought about ending my career early because I’m afraid of that. I still go out there every game and play hard,” he said.
“Personally, I’ve never had any doubts about not playing football. This sport is truly my passion and I wouldn’t give it up,” Kowalski said.
Follow Joe Smith on Twitter @joesmithwrites.