NFL players push it to the limit on the field, often coming away with broken
bones and banged-up bodies in the process. And they do so working as a team.
But after their career is over, some players can feel alone as they face
the long-term health effects of their sport.
Hoag Hospital in Newport Beach is preparing to take on the role of teammate,
helping former pros in retirement.
The Hoag Neurosciences Institute announced last month it’s partnering
with the Cleveland Clinic in the Brain and Body Program, part of a collection
of services set up by the nonprofit The Trust to help NFL veterans transition
out of a career in football.
Hoag’s program comes at a time when more people – especially
parents – have growing concerns over the long-term cognitive health
effects of contact sports such as football.
Former players or their families have described wild mood swings and depression
– even suicide – linked to a history of head trauma during
play. This year, the family of sportscaster and NFL Hall of Fame running
back Frank Gifford, who died in August at age 84, revealed doctors had
found evidence of a degenerative brain disease called chronic traumatic
And the controversial film “Concussion,” about pathologist
Bennet Omalu’s findings of CTE in the brains of pro football players
while working in the Allegheny County Coroner’s Office in Pennsylvania,
has generated much discussion leading up to its Christmas Day release.
The Trust was launched about two years ago through an agreement between
the league and the NFL Players’ Association. Bahati Van Pelt, executive
director of The Trust, said partnering with Hoag was an easy decision.
Many of the players served by The Trust live in Orange County, Los Angeles
or San Diego.
“One of our most popular sites was (the Cleveland Clinic’s)
Las Vegas site,” Van Pelt said. “We hope this will cut down
our guys’ travel times and be less stressful on careers or family.”
For now, the Brain and Body Program is focusing on players who retired
within the past 15 years, Van Pelt said. About 1,900 players have enrolled
with the Trust so far. Similar benefits for older players will launch
in 2016, he said.
Former players get a complete workup from head to toe to evaluate their
physical and cognitive status. They’ll have blood tests, a brain
MRI, cognitive evaluations, psychological assessments and balance and
sleep assessments. They’ll also receive nutrition information to
help with their post-football diet as well as a life skills consultation.
Kirk Morrison, an eight-year NFL linebacker living in Los Angeles, said
he signed up for an assessment in February. He’s not particularly
concerned doctors will find anything worrisome, he said, but he’s
glad to get a better sense of his health.
“It’s basically a check-up,” said Morrison, who was drafted
in 2005 by the Oakland Raiders and later played for the Buffalo Bills.
“(The assessment) is there to give you peace of mind.”
The process takes a day-and-a-half, said Michael Brant-Zawadzki, a senior
physician executive with Hoag Hospital who is developing its program.
When the full checkup is complete, players are given a summary of health
issues doctors noticed, what concerns they may run into in the future
and what they can do to avoid or treat health pitfalls after years on
“We’re really pleased to participate in this program,”
Brant-Zawadzki said. “We’re happy to help these (players)
who’ve entertained us for so long.”
As the film “Concussion” illustrates, there’s greater
awareness of the risks of football, from the professional level on down
to youth sports. Brant-Zawadzki said it’s a good idea to be wary
of potential long-term effects of any contact sport. But the doctor cautions
that public awareness has outpaced science on the topic of sports-related
concussions and brain disorders.
The public may have made connections between football and later disease
that haven’t been sufficiently studied yet, he said. And variations,
such as a person’s genetic predisposition to brain disease, may
muddy the data, he added.
“There’s a dramatically growing awareness of the issue for
young athletes as well as professional athletes,” Brant-Zawadzki
said. “It’s changing things like how trainers treat athletes
on the sidelines, how long to keep folks out if they’re injured.”
While monitoring brain health is a top priority, The Trust’s Van
Pelt said tracking blood sugar level, hypertension and other functions
can be just as important to ensure the health of retired players.
“We do understand the concern about head trauma and issues of that
nature, but we also need to make sure we’re addressing all needs
of the former player,” he said.
While the science catches up to public concern, programs such as Hoag’s
can help players plan out their new life, Morrison said. He’s now
a “captain” with The Trust and is reaching out to former players
living in the area.
Morrison said that while a lot of players transition out of the NFL just
fine, some stumble when trying to adjust their diet or exercise. A lot
of newly retired players aren’t used to worrying about calories
or planning a workout on their own.
“In the NFL especially, everything is right there for you,”
Morrison said. When you retire, “suddenly it’s ‘Where
do I go, how do I do this?’”
And tracking down proper medical care can be a whole new experience for
an athlete used to having a team doctor at his beck and call, Morrison said.
“They need to figure out what their body needs.”
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