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The Head is the Hardest Hit: Briggs, Sayers and the Brain

By Bryan Dietzler

The news for Bears fans in recent weeks has been difficult.  Two of the team’s brightest stars from the past, one from the distant and one from the more recent past, have been rumored to be suffering from head trauma related problems.  Famous running back and Hall of Famer Gale Sayers has been battling dementia for several years now.  Former linebacker Lance Briggs believes he is suffering from the symptoms of CTE (Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy).

This is tragic news for fans of Bears everywhere.

Brain trauma in football is nothing new.  It’s been there ever since the first player was tackled in the first football game ever.  And it’s not going to go away anytime soon.  Sayers has been suffering from dementia for about four years now, according to his family, but we just recently found out about it.  They have stated that it has to do with his football career.  Sayers played running back position when he played in the league in the 1960’s.  The running back positon is one that takes a lot of punishment in every single game.  They are, perhaps, the most tackled, hit and knocked down player on the football field.

He absorbed a lot of hits during his career.  Did this have a direct effect on his having dementia?

Doctors have even pointed to the possibility that the hits and shaking his brain have received could have contributed to football players having dementia.  But did playing football lead to Sayers struggles with dementia?

All those years of punishment may have taken their toll.

Briggs played in the NFL for twelve seasons at the outside linebacker position.  Whereas the running back position takes a lot of hits, the linebacker position dishes out a lot of punishment.  But when he’s dishing it out, he’s getting it as well.  His head and brain are being shaken with every hit and all of this shaking causes long term, damaging effects.

He has come to the conclusion that he has CTE stating he has the symptoms of it.  The full, positive diagnosis for CTE can only come post-mortem.

It is easy to see how Sayers and Briggs developed their illnesses.   And both are the most recent in a long line of football players who have suffered or are suffering from the effects of the punishment football can deliver on the human body.

Quite a while ago, I wrote an article about the causes and effects of CTE.  I was inspired by the movie Concussion, starring Will Smith, who played Dr. Bennet Omalu.  Omalu was the one who discovered CTE in football players after performing an autopsy on the late Pittsburgh Steelers great Mike Webster.  His work caused a stir among the NFL community and he was called a quack, his work invalid and his findings a lie.  Still, he pressed on and soon people began to take notice of what he had discovered.

And now, today, we realize this is a big cause of what is crippling and killing these former athletes.

There have been some former players, including former Chicago Bears safety Dave Duerson, who have struggled and then lost their lives because of CTE.  Junior Seau, Andre Waters and the afore mentioned Webster died because of the disease.

Football is fun for fans, lucrative for the owners and players but it can be costly.  Not every player suffers from CTE though.  The numbers seem to be small but now that we know what to call it, it seems to be more prevalent.  Now that we know what it is, it’s easier to see who has it.

Is there a way to prevent this terrible thing from happening some might ask?  There is nothing that anyone has found yet and perhaps the only way to avoid these this is by abstaining from playing.  That’s not good for anyone.

Along with CTE, you have other diseases of the brain like the dementia that Sayers has been diagnosed with.  You also have ALS.  ALS is another disease that has been attributed to playing football (not exclusively) and there are some former football players that have the disease. Perhaps the most well-known former football player with ALS is Steve Gleason. Gleason has become a role model for those with ALS and had done a lot to try to fight the disease and help those with it cope.

Former San Francisco 49ers tight end Dwight Clark, famous for “the catch” has revealed he has ALS.  The list of players who get this disease is sure to grow.

There are risks to many things that we do in life.  Football, for a very select few, is one of those things.  We, as fans, love the game.  We love the big hits, the long touchdown passes and hard luck make it big type of players.  There is a lot to love about the game and then there is its dark side.  The dark side, with things like ALS, CTE and dementia, are tough to deal with.

I am someone who is praying for Sayers and Briggs.  I was too young to watch Sayers first hand” but I have seen a lot of his film, know his story, have his autographs and have met him in person.  He is a big piece in an even bigger piece known as Chicago Bears history.  And he’s an important piece.

Briggs was not only a great player but also a fun person to listen to and be around.  He has a comical personality and still keeps us entertained to this day.  We remember him as part of that great Lovie Smith defense that made their way to the Super Bowl over ten years ago.  Coupled with his teammate Brian Urlacher, he was part of one of the most prolific Bears linebacker duos in history.

Football is fun but there is a price that is paid.  But is that price too steep?


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