Ex-Redskins up front on concussions
Mark Rypien looked down at a blue digital recorder on the table in front of him.
“Recording notes is something I asked my sweetie to start doing,” said the former Washington Redskins quarterback, viewing the recorder as something more than an electronic device.
It might ultimately document his shopping lists or where he parked his car when, mentally, he might no longer be able to do that himself.
“It’s depressing, you know?” Rypien told FOXSports.com. “A lot of time you think it’s because it’s where you live. You don’t see the sun a lot in November, December, January and February in Spokane (Wash). But it’s almost June and you’re still having bouts of depression and other things you have to deal with. How much of it is related to football?”
Rypien is one of three starters from the Redskins’ most recent championship team — the one that won Super Bowl XXVI 20 years ago — who have sued the NFL over the lingering effects of head injuries they sustained during their playing careers. Hall of Fame receiver Art Monk and Kurt Gouveia, a middle linebacker on that Redskins team, also have pursued legal action against the NFL, joining more than 2,000 former NFL players who have filed such suits.
Rypien, his hair graying at age 49, was in town for the Mickey Steele Celebrity Golf Tournament benefiting his foundation, among other charities.
Nearby stood the tallest person at this waterfront crab restaurant — 6-foot-7 Joe Jacoby — as a charity poker tournament was set to begin. Jacoby, a member of The Hogs, the Redskins’ offensive line that anchored three Super Bowl victories, is still an imposing figure at 52.
Jacoby isn’t convinced there is a connection between the well-publicized suicides of former Chicago Bears safety Dave Duerson or former Atlanta Falcons safety Ray Easterling — both of whom left notes asking that their brains be studied after their deaths — and the two dozen postmortem brains studied by researchers that showed signs of chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE), a debilitating brain disorder than can lead to depression, the loss of impulse control, memory loss and, in late stages, dementia.
“There have only been a few,” Jacoby said. “How many players are we talking about over the last 20 or 30 years? Thousands. That’s a lot of players and only a small percentage (had CTE). I’m not taking away anything from what happened to those gentlemen and what those families had to go through. I guess we are going to find out.”
Researchers in Pittsburgh and Boston are increasingly receiving permission from athletes to donate their brains after their death. (A postmortem analysis of the brain is the only way currently to identify CTE.)
Some experts fear brain damage from concussions — especially in impact sports like football, hockey and boxing — is widespread.
While understanding the long-term effects of concussions is a work in progress, it’s far ahead of when Jacoby broke into the NFL in 1981.
“I think back then when you first started out in the league, you have no idea what’s going to happen or where your life is going to end up at,” said Jacoby, an assistant football coach at Shenandoah University in Winchester, Va. “In any profession, there is chance you could get injured or something could happen. It depends on the risk of that job and what it entails.”
For decades, players have been acutely aware that the next play could result in paralysis or a serious orthopedic injury. “I don’t think anybody realized the long-term (mental) impact,” said Jeff Bostic, a center with the Redskins from 1980 to ’93.
“When you signed up you basically knew what the consequences are,” said Don Warren, a former Redskins tight end (1979-92). “That said, when time goes on, you definitely notice some stuff possibly going on.”
Bostic, 53, runs a contracting firm with his brother that builds apartment complexes in Georgia and other southern states. He said he feels fine, although the acts of suicides by former players — along with the questionnaires he receives from lawyers seeking to add to their client list — leave him second-guessing things.
“There’s uncertainty there,” Bostic said. “We’re human beings, and every day we get older. You wonder about your memory because it’s not as good as when you are 21, 24 or 29. Is that the effect of time, an effect of the hits you took or the culmination of both?”
Warren said his memory lapses could be attributed to more than simply getting older.
“It’s kind of hard to think it would just be age,” Warren said. “I’m 56 years old. I’m not by any stretch of the imagination old when it comes to memory loss and stuff like that . . . It’s something I noticed myself. As time goes on here, nothing has been said to me by my wife or family or anything else.”
For Rypien, one significant cloudy moment earlier this year made him join one of several multiple-plaintiff lawsuits, many of which include more than a hundred players.
“It was an alarming day when I realized it was something more than aging,” Rypien recalled. “I couldn’t remember the fact that I had helped save the life of a former college roommate of mine 20 years ago.
“His wife asked if I had access to MedStar (helicopter transport for critically ill patients) so they could fly down to Moscow, Idaho. I helped arrange that. He had an aneurism, and that saved his life. I couldn’t recall that, and that’s when I figured there is something more to this.”
The former Redskins interviewed by FOXSports.com had a difficult time pinpointing exactly how many concussions they experienced during their football careers. Rypien estimated he sustained two diagnosed concussions as a player, although there were “10 to 15 other times where I got knocked down and had to shake it off.”
Recalling the most significant blow to the head was an easier task. For Bostic, it came in a January 1992 NFC divisional playoff game against the San Francisco 49ers.
“I took a knee to the face mask,” said Bostic, who has the mask in his basement as a souvenir. “I had a double-bar mask, and the collision had bent the lower bar. I didn’t realize that until I got back to Redskins Park and had the gear put back in the locker. Those masks were supposed to withstand 1,600 pounds of pressure.”
How did that blow feel to Bostic?
“The lights were on, but nobody was home,” he said. “You stand up and you don’t know who you are or what you’re doing. It’s like you’re being controlled by your subconscious or something. All I remember was my teammates knelt me down until the trainer and doctor got out there.”
Warren’s most significant head trauma came against the Green Bay Packers in 1988.
“I caught the ball over the middle and I got hit in the back of the head,” said Warren, who fumbled the ball on the play. “I was out before I hit the ground. You can tell I was out (on the replay) because my body went limp. Thank God, (Redskins athletic trainer) Bubba (Tyer) kept me out of the game.”
Warren can’t recall much of the rest of that day, although he said there was likely some pleading to go back into the game.
“Knowing me, I probably did,” Warren said.
The Milwaukee Journal reported at the time that Warren had suffered a “slight concussion” and he was back in the lineup a week later.
That was in an era before league-mandated baseline testing, which measures memory, reflexes and cognitive ability of a player when he’s healthy. Those measurements are later compared with the test results of a player who is suspected of having a concussion. While not infallible (Denver Broncos quarterback Peyton Manning said last year he intentionally failed baseline tests to skew the results), the current system is far superior than what was available during the Redskins’ heyday two decades ago.
“Back in the day when we played, (the athletic trainers) would ask, ‘You feel good? What month is it?’ You answer them and you were good to go and you’re back in the game,” Warren said.
The Redskins did have a novel approach to concussion management: the buddy system.
“Our training staff was always good about making sure if a guy had a concussion, somebody would make sure they got home OK from Redskins Park,” Rypien said. “Once a player got home after a game on a Sunday, he was usually back on the field Monday for practice. If they asked you how you were feeling, you just go. They didn’t have any of these new tests.”
The way concussions are policed has changed, but the former Redskins players who were interviewed doubted you could change how the game is played fundamentally to eliminate the risk of head trauma — at least, not without damaging the product.
" . . . Football is a tough sport," Hall of Fame defensive back Darrell Green told FOX Sports Houston’s Tully Corcoran last week. "You get hurt. I’ve got a plate in this arm. You ice, you get injured, that’s a part of it. I don’t think that’s gonna go away unless they start playing touch or tag (football).”
Said Rypien, “I don’t think anyone wants to ruin football. This is the greatest game in the world. Did we know all we need to even know about brain injuries? I don’t think we do. We understand some of it. Are we neurologists who understood what was going on? No. We played the game.
“There are risks, but we want to make the game safer so we won’t have any more Dave Duersons, Ray Easterlings . . . ”
To that end, Rypien said lawsuits like the one he filed have a chance to make in impact — and he’s not talking about reaping a huge monetary award.
“Realistically, do we have an opportunity to win in a lawsuit and make millions of dollars? I doubt that very much,” Rypien said. “We have an opportunity to bring awareness to those who have played in the past so we can give them assistance and make their lives better. Hopefully, that will happen and we might be able to make the game a little safer for those players who followed us. If that’s the only good that comes out of this for these guys, I’ll be happy.”
Jacoby isn’t convinced all these lawyers had altruistic goals in mind when they filed the lawsuits, most of which have been consolidated in US District Court in Philadelphia.
“They are ambulance chasers trying to capitalize on this,” Jacoby said.
FOXSports.com attempted to reach each player on the Redskins team that beat the Buffalo Bills 37-24 on Jan. 26, 1992, including Monk. His lawyer, Thomas Girardi, said Monk didn’t want to do interviews, though his client’s issues are very much real.
“He clearly shows the effects of concussions,” said Girardi, one of the more famous litigators in Southern California.
Girardi declined to say anything more about Monk’s health. In the lawsuit filed in Los Angeles Superior Court earlier this month, Girardi wrote that Monk “suffered multiple concussions that were improperly diagnosed and improperly treated throughout this career.” The head trauma has left Monk with “short-term memory loss, headaches and speech difficulties.”
“His heart is in the right spot,” Girardi said. “He felt like this is something that more important players should be involved in.”
Some former Redskins players were unavailable for comment but still involved in the game. Russ Grimm, a Hall of Famer and former member of The Hogs, is currently an assistant head coach of the Arizona Cardinals. (Messages were left with a Cardinals spokesman, but Grimm did not respond.) Andre Collins, a linebacker on that Redskins championship squad, currently works as the director of retired players for the NFL Players Association. He referred an interview request via text message to an NFLPA spokesman, who said Collins would not be available for comment.
Warren — without ever uttering the world “blackballed” — was hesitant to discuss the subject of litigation as he stood next to a table of signed Redskins memorabilia last week that was about to go to auction for charity.
He’s a scout for the Carolina Panthers and responded quickly when asked why he wasn’t about to join Rypien, Monk or Gouveia in suing the NFL.
Warren’s message was clear: In this complicated, controversial search for answers and justice regarding player safety, choosing sides can also be perceived as dangerous.
“What do you think is the reason why I wouldn’t join?” Warren asked.