Cleeland’s post-NFL battle with concussions
Cam Cleeland’s pinkies and thumbs don’t work properly. His shoulder’s separated, his knees need arthroscopic surgery and he has a sports hernia. There are bone spurs from prior Achilles’ tendon surgeries. Bone fragments in his neck also require removal.
And this isn’t the worst harm Cleeland’s suffered from his football playing days.
The aftermath of eight diagnosed concussions – and the strong likelihood he suffered more that weren’t properly identified – has taken a greater toll than any other physical damage. Diminished mental capacity sent Cleeland into what he described as a three-year “downward spiral” that didn’t end until receiving an innovative medical treatment.
This is why Cleeland paints a sobering picture for those who ask about the price he paid after eight seasons as an NFL tight end.
“I tell people, ‘Grab your bike helmet, line up about 20 yards away and run into a concrete wall as hard as you can about 40 times,’” Cleeland says while sitting on the couch of his modest lakefront home an hour north of Seattle. “That is one game. Do that 16 times over a season – and then throw in 20 or 30 times a day during practice – and you’re going to see what you do to your body and head. Then let me know if you can do that and not screw yourself up.
“Fans just see Sundays. They just see a game, the fun, the millions of dollars, the bling, pretty cars and whatever. We’re paid well. Don’t feel sorry for us. But something is going to be wrong with you after you do this for so many years.”
Cleeland is living proof.
The NFL didn’t take a strong proactive stance toward concussion diagnosis and treatment until midway through last season. That left generations of players susceptible to the kind of brain trauma Cleeland’s experienced.
Before becoming New Orleans’ 1998 second-round draft pick, Cleeland had even suffered three concussions at the University of Washington. The most severe caused an 18-hour blackout. The only thing he remembers was playing in the second half of a Huskies game and waking up in his parent’s house.
“Those types of concussions are extremely serious,” Cleeland said. “I was playing the next week.”
Five more concussions followed at the NFL level. One came when Cleeland was whacked in the head with a sock full of quarters during a rookie hazing incident. After suffering another during a game with the St. Louis Rams, Mindy Cleeland had to drive her husband to the emergency room for a brain scan.
The NFL now bars anyone who’s suffered a concussion from re-entering a game. That safeguard wasn’t there during Cleeland’s playing days.
“I can tell you 20 to 30 times when I had blurry vision the whole rest of the game,” said Cleeland, who appeared in 89 regular-season contests with New Orleans (1998-01), New England (2002) and St. Louis (2003-05). “Everybody knows it’s a concussion and (the trainers) tell you, ‘You’ve had your bell rung.’ I haven’t been out of the league that long, but it sure feels like that (diagnosis) was archaic when I was playing.”
The cumulative damage left Cleeland susceptible to the concussion-related problems also affecting some of his peers.
Shorty after retiring in the 2006 offseason, Cleeland found himself in a persistent mental fog with occasional bouts of dizziness. He began gaining weight and lacked energy. He would fall asleep early at night, but never dozed for more than a few hours at a time.
Cleeland had formed a construction company with his brother-in-law while still an active player. He became less involved as the financial stress of lawsuits and real-estate market declines mounted. The business was forced into bankruptcy.
Cleeland was diagnosed with depression and attended counseling, but the prescribed anti-anxiety medication didn’t help for long.
“He really just wanted to play golf every day, which was fine until two or three years go by,” Mindy Cleeland said. “Playing golf isn’t going to keep food on our table.”
Even worse were the bursts of anger. The 6-foot-5, 270-pound Cleeland admits he would fly off the handle at a moment’s notice, especially when participating in recreational sports.
“I got in fights in co-ed softball with the whole team,” Cleeland said with a hint of shame in his voice. “I (verbally) attacked a guy on a golf course for no reason other than just being frustrated that he stole my ball on another fairway. I ended up almost being put in jail for knocking a guy out in a pick-up basketball game. I broke his eye socket. I wasn’t punching. I just spun the elbow and the guy was right there, but I play very physical. I felt awful, but he called the police on me.
“The violence I used to get away with, you can’t in the real world. I wasn’t able to differentiate that off the field. That comes with the amount of damage I had with the whole front part of my brain.”
The fury carried over into Cleeland’s family life. Mindy Cleeland said her husband became so irritable around the couple’s three young children that she didn’t trust leaving them alone together. Adding to the mystery of why he began behaving this way, Cleeland said he’s never done recreational drugs and was only a casual drinker of alcohol.
“It was very scary,” Cam said. “I got frustrated with a lot of emotions and not being able to handle all that stuff. You go, ‘Something is wrong.’”
But just when the Cleelands were poised to increase the staggeringly high divorce rate of former NFL players, their prayers were answered by Dr. Daniel Amen.
A mental-health practitioner and best-selling author of books like Change Your Brain, Change Your Life, Amen’s carved a niche through his research and slick self-promotion. Mindy’s sister saw an Amen infomercial on PBS last summer and told her his treatment program might be a viable option.
Cam was skeptical, as Amen’s critics have decried a lack of scientific scrutiny for some of his claims and methodology. Amen told FOXSports.com that he stands by the validity of his research. But Cleeland’s trepidation quickly faded after their first meeting at the Amen Clinic in Newport Beach, California.
“He opens my scan, looks at it and starts spouting off all the things that are wrong,” Cleeland said. “He literally diagnosed me to a ‘T’ without having met me just by looking at where the damage was.”
Amen had conducted a nuclear imaging test known as a SPECT (Single Photon Emission Computed Tomography). The scan provides a detailed look at the brain’s blood-flow activity and any possible damage incurred.
Amen estimates he has run 57,000 SPECT tests, including those for 101 current and former NFL players, as part of a personal research project. With holes and craters in his brain, Cleeland was a mess compared to the average 34-year-old. He found impairment in Cleeland’s frontal lobe, which is vital to judgment and impulse controls, and the cerebellum that helps control motor functions. [A copy of the scan can be found here].
“I fully expected all these players to have great cerebellums because they’re world-class athletes,” Amen told FOXSports.com. “More than half of them gets this turned off because of the chronic damage they experience from repeated blows to the head.”
Cleeland scored well below average in a Microcog neurological function test that compared him to others of the same age group and education. Particularly alarming were his low marks for general cognitive functioning and spatial processing – i.e. the ability to track moving objects. A player who notched 131 career NFL receptions ranked lower than 95 percent of others who’d taken the same spatial processing test.
“If there were multiple people in the room, it was distracting,” Cleeland said. “I would try to turn to tunnel vision, close my eyes and say, ‘One thing, one thing. Focus.’ It was really weird.”
While admittedly alarmed by Amen’s initial diagnosis, Cam and Mindy also felt a sense of relief. At least they now knew what the problem was and could begin trying to correct it.
Working closely with Amen assistant Dr. Kristen Willeumier, Cam made dietary changes that netted a 25-pound weight loss. He also began a supplement regimen that included a multivitamin and “boosters” containing fish oil.
Eight months later, a follow-up SPECT scan and Microcog test show Cleeland had made significant progress. He still struggles to multitask and gets headaches when in the sun for too long, but his family life has greatly improved. He also now has a job, helping high school football teams throughout Washington with fundraising.
“We still have some room for improvement for sure,” Mindy said of her college sweetheart. “But he’s definitely out of the situation he was in, which was pretty scary, having three children and wondering how my husband was going to be able to function from day to day.”
Asked what his life would be like without Amen’s treatment, Cam paused and said, “I’m probably divorced. I’m probably not moving forward with a positive mental attitude. I’m probably going down the road saying, ‘I can’t fix this. Everybody is telling me there’s something wrong. I’m going to start self-medicating. Maybe I’ll drink more or go on a bunch of (anti-depressants).’ There are a lot of guys who do that.”
Amen and Cleeland both hope to reach other former NFL players grappling with mental-health issues. Amen provided free supplements and SPECT scans to those participating in his study at what he said was roughly a $400,000 out-of-pocket cost. He’s applied for an NFL medical grant so he can pursue further research.
“Rehabilitating brain trauma is my goal,” Amen said. “Think of these players like police officers or firefighters. We know it’s a dangerous job, and we own up to it. It’s the same thing for these players.”
In March, the NFL began offering neurological evaluations for former players at five medical centers across the U.S. NFL commissioner Roger Goodell told FOXSports.com the league’s new neck, head and spine committee is evaluating whether to make more changes
“I’ve specifically reached out to a number of players to have (evaluations),” Goodell said.
Although he doesn’t advocate youths play football until high school, Cleeland said he has no regrets about his gridiron experience except his concussions not being properly diagnosed. He has a workman’s compensation lawsuit in California pending against the Rams for his football injuries (a Rams statement declined comment regarding the claim).
Cleeland went public with his medical condition to try and inspire other concussion-saddled players to seek help. And while this idea won’t fly with NFL doctors still unconvinced about the effectiveness of Amen’s treatments, Cleeland said the league should provide complimentary SPECT scans immediately upon retirement and help pay for supplements if needed.
“I’m sick of seeing the broke, the divorced, the depressed and the dying NFL veterans who aren’t being taken care of and thrown to the wayside like gladiators,” said Cleeland, whose close friend and former Saints/Rams teammate Kyle Turley is also suffering from concussion-related health issues. “We’re not in the Roman times any more.
“I don’t have any other goal but to share my experience and let people decide. Everyone has their own mind, but don’t be skeptical until you actually do it. The proof is there.”
Alex Marvez and co-host Jim Miller interviewed Mindy Cleeland on Sirius NFL Radio.