Advertisement
 

A No-Brainer: Football Leads to Concussions : Al Toon Will Attest That Symptoms Can Remain for Years

October 20, 1995|T.J. SIMERS | TIMES STAFF WRITER

One more reception. "The last catch" as Al Toon now calls it. And one more hit to the head.

"Not a very big hit," the former New York Jet wide receiver says. But one more concussion. One concussion too many.

Almost three years later and the concentration lapses, irritability, sensitivity to light, sensitivity to movement, dexterity problems, headaches, emotional volatility, dizziness and fatigue continue.

"It's getting better," he says. "Now an episode comes, and I take a day, a week or a month off and it passes. They used to last up to three months. For a while there, I was basically laying down in a dark room all day. I was bedridden."

There have been no assurances of complete recovery. From the outset there was only one more hazy day rolling into the next, and now, upon reflection, Toon acknowledges, "There was a time when I thought of suicide.

"The act itself was never considered, but life was very frustrating," he says. "I bought a horse farm, and it was the saving grace for me. I spent a lot of time in the barn with the horses. I spent very little time with people."

Doctors advised him that it would be three months to three years before he would know just how wobbly he would ultimately stand.

"It's melting away, but very slowly," he says. "Here you were, a well-trained, mentally sound person, undefeatable, indestructible. . . . It's almost three years now, and it's very frustrating. It's not like you have a broken arm. It's all internal.

"People approach you, and you are constantly explaining that you just don't feel good today. I couldn't have concentrated long enough to have this conversation. Five minutes at the very most."

Toon was once the highest-paid wide receiver in pro football. For three consecutive years he was selected his team's most valuable player. He led the league in catches. He played in the Pro Bowl.

He caught the ball over the middle, prided himself in his fierce focus to go after everything and worry about nothing. He suffered one concussion in high school, passed through college without incident, and then became a possession receiver in the NFL, a 6-foot-4 target for linebackers to drill.

"I don't recall all of the concussions," he says. "There were more than five and probably less than 20. There was a serious blow my last year in the league, another in the middle of the season and then little bangs that everybody gets in every game.

"It was the cumulative effect of the previous concussions. I remember clearly to this day the doctor saying, 'You have reached the point where we don't know what's going to happen next. You may never recover.' "

A sad, sad story?

"Very, very commonplace," Toon says. "You play the game of football, people get hit in the head. It's no fluke."

*

It's Monday night, time for NFL football, and on ABC-TV there is the dramatic image of two helmets crashing together, the explosion a promise of aggressive entertainment.

"The theme is so strong; this is not a contest between highly trained athletes--this is war," said Dr. James Kelly, director of the Brain Injury Program at the Rehabilitation Institute of Chicago. "I am appalled at this level of understanding, this encouragement of violence.

"I'm worried that we are going to see something catastrophic happen. I hope not, but this has to be taken seriously. This is your brain. This isn't Dick Butkus' knees. This is you as a person and your ability to think."

Toon, who was left shaken by the game, will not condemn it.

"I don't think you can take away the spirit, the action, the big hits," he said. "That's why the people come out to watch. Maybe you can limit the area of the body that's being hit. I would eliminate any contact above the shoulders at any position.

"But if you keep taking away the excitement, the game is going to become too vanilla and you will start losing viewers. You lose viewers, then you lose revenue."

Players are bigger, stronger and faster these days and therefore pack more wallop. Sue Guzman, director of public affairs for the Brain Injury Assn., says the NFL reports there is one concussion suffered in every 3 1/2 games.

"That makes me laugh," Kelly said. "There may not be a player who goes through a game without suffering a Grade 1 concussion [no loss of memory, but confusion of thought]. It's getting your bell rung. It's accepted as part of the game."

Players who have been knocked out on Sunday are routinely back in the lineup the next Sunday. Some return to the game in which they have been hurt.

"That's probably not the right thing to do," said Dr. Daniel Kelly, assistant professor of neurosurgery at UCLA. "It's clear from our research work that there's a prolonged period of vulnerability to the brain that might last as long as a month.

"There are a lot of things we do not know yet, but the simplest thing would be to have players sit out a month. Of course, if you did that, you would probably have the quarterback, the running back and the tight ends sitting on the bench.

Advertisement
Los Angeles Times Articles
|
|
|