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Big Ben, Do You Know about Iron Mike?

Kevin LindseyAnalyst INovember 26, 2009

KANSAS CITY, MO - NOVEMBER 22:  Quarterback Ben Roethlisberger #7 of the Pittsburgh Steelers walks off the field after being injured against the Kansas City Chiefs at Arrowhead Stadium on November 22, 2009 in Kansas City, Missouri.  The Chiefs defeated the Steelers 27-24.  (Photo by Wesley Hitt/Getty Images)
Wesley Hitt/Getty Images

Ben Roethlisberger may be undertaking the biggest risk of his life by playing on Sunday against the Baltimore Ravens.

Big Ben suffered a concussion last Sunday against the Kansas City Chiefs. If Roethlisberger suffers another concussion this weekend he will be at enhanced risk for long-term brain damage.

I hope that those around him have adequately explained the long-term risks to his health. I hope that someone has told him about Steelers Legend Mike Webster. 

Not about how Webster earned four Super Bowl rings protecting Terry Bradshaw and leading the way for Franco Harris.

Not about how Webster was so tough that he started in 150 straight games and played in 177 consecutive games.

No. The story that needs to be told is what happened after Webster stopped playing.

Webster retired from football in March 1991 after playing 16 years and suffering multiple concussions, which had damaged Webster’s frontal lobe.

The remaining 11 years of his life after football were not pleasant.

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Webster’s health deteriorated, leaving him unemployed, debt-ridden, and occasionally homeless. Webster even found himself on the wrong side of the law, accepting five years of probation after being charged with forging prescriptions for the drug Ritalin.

Webster died at age 50. At the time of his death he was suffering from brain damage and had been diagnosed with traumatic or punch-drunk encephalopathy.

Prior to his death, Webster sought to collect disability benefits from the NFL’s Retirement Plans. The dispute ended up before the Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals before Webster’s estate reached a reported multi-million dollar settlement. [1]

The NFL Retirement Plans were undoubtedly encouraged to reach settlement by the finding of credible evidence that Webster had suffered brain damage before he retired from the game.

The story that needs to be told about Webster is how the league reacted in response to his death.

After the Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals opinion was issued, the league faced criticism over how proactive the league was to ensure the safety of its players.

The Webster case was a significant factor of why Congress invited the NFL to Washington to discuss reducing concussions among its players. The visit to Congress has already prompted the NFL to act.

This week the Associated Press reported that commissioner Roger Goodell sent a memo to NFL teams on Tuesday about concussions, which stated, in part, that the co-chairmen of the league’s committee on brain injuries had resigned.

Goodell’s memo also states that Dr. Ira Casson and Dr. David Viano had resigned and that the league was in the process of identifying their replacements. Goodell’s memo noted that he wanted to add new members “who will bring to the committee independent sources of expertise and experience in the field of head injuries.”

Dr. Casson was recently criticized by the NFL Players Association and members of Congress for his comments, calling into question independent and league-sponsored studies linking NFL careers with heightened risk of dementia and cognitive decline.

Commissioner Goodell also announced this week that he is looking into rule changes and how teams conduct practices and offseason workouts, in an effort to reduce the likelihood of concussions among players.

The story that needs to be told is about how Webster’s death may have lead to the discovery of a degenerative brain disease.

Jeanne Marie Laskas in the October issue of GQ magazine chronicles how Dr. Bennet Omalu discovered and named a progressive degenerative disease, Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy, after discovering a toxic protein in the brain of Webster. The identified toxic protein kills brain cells and impairs function. 

CTE has been found in the brains of several former NFL players that have died prematurely such as Terry Long, Justin Strzelczyk, and Andre Waters. University research is now being conducted related to CTE.

There is no doubt that Big Ben is one of the game’s mightiest warriors by any measurable standard applied. There is also no doubt that the same could be said for "Iron" Mike Webster.

ESPN analyst Merrill Hoge, a former Pittsburgh Steelers running back who retired early due to the number of concussions he suffered during his career, suggested this week that the NFL needs to adopt a bright line policy for dealing with the return of players who have suffered concussions.

Hoge’s suggestion is that a player at a minimum would be held out for one week from any contact and would be ineligible to play for seven days. 

His suggestion is based upon the consensus within the medical community that once a player suffers a concussion, they are much more susceptible to subsequent concussions in the future if they suffer head trauma prior to completely healing from the initial concussion.

The decision to play this week is not insignificant to Big Ben or the Steelers. Pittsburgh is in second place in its division at 6-4 and is fighting to make the playoffs. Big Ben leading the Steelers would be a pleasant sight.

Of course having a healthy Big Ben leading the team for several productive years and being a goodwill ambassador after he retires is also significant to the Steelers, and something the fans would love to see.

The decision to play after a concussion carries risk, as Brian Westbrook learned earlier this season. I hope Roethlisberger makes the right decision after having all the facts before him.

I hope that someone has told Big Ben about Iron Mike.



[1] See Sunny Jani v. The Bert Bell/Pete Rozelle NFL Retirement Plan; The NFL Player Supplemental Disability Plan, No. 05-2386 (Dec. 13, 2006).

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