Don’t Let Your Kids Grow Up to be Cowboys, Or Play Football

Part of the above title is from the decades old popular tune by the late great Waylon Jennings, “Don’t Let Your Sons Grow Up To Be Cowboys,” which had a message its all own about the rough life and that reality was not as romantic as portrayed in the American myth of the cowboy and perhaps about his own life as well as a hard living, hard drinking country entertainer. I always wondered growing up what effect his not getting on the plane in the 1950’s with “The Big Bopper” and the equally great late Buddy Holly, that crashed and killed them, had on Waylon Jennings, the fact he accidentally avoided death. I thought even as a kid his music had a certain wistful, depressive undertone to it, rivaled only by a few other such singers and lyricists. My apologies to his spirit for commandeering his song title partly for this piece.

Since the death by shotgun blast aimed intentionally at his chest, by Dave Duerson over a decade ago, a former lineman for the St. Louis Cardinals (back then), there has been much controversy over the effect of head bashing and cranial trauma on football players, most of it focusing on the effects by the time one has reached the professional ranks as a young and pre-middle aged adult in one’s late 30’s when most pro footballers retire. Lineman, as I understand it, tend to play longer and have longer careers than running backs and maybe pass receivers who run, are more mobile in the specialty positions and far more likely to suffer “career ending” knee injuries much frequently earlier in their careers.

Dave Duerson knew something was badly wrong with him mentally and likely cognitively. He was reported to have complained of headaches, depressions that he could not shake, memory problems, awareness that his intellect was failing him, mood changes, i.e., anger outbursts that he could explain or control, but most of all apparently a growing persistent, unshakeable preoccupation with suicide. He apparently revealed almost none of this to close friends, associates, family, and I like everyone else have no idea whether he revealed these self witnessed changes to his physicians. In any case, he stunned the sports world when he committed suicide, left an explanatory note that he mandated his brain be donated to neurological science and studied for what he felt was wrong with him. It was immediately clear that his placement of the barrel of the shotgun he used to kill himself was intentionally placed on his chest to preserve his skull and brain for scientific study. His courageous, if one can use that term as I know there are many opposing viewpoints about the act of committing suicide itself, but sad death, put the football world on notice that nothing had before, that something¬†bad was going on with head injuries and possible or likely later in life serious repercussions like dementia and mental changes. The NFL had had by that time an ongoing study following players after retirement and had an investigational neurologist heading up the long term follow up study. But it gradually became enmeshed in horrendously vitriolic controversy as being inadequate, having conflicts of interest with the head of the study being paid and retained by the NFL and perhaps not open to enough peer review, scientific scrutiny. The NFL maintained relative silence on the issue but the uproar grew and grew especially in the neurologic scientific, brain research communities and the head of the program resigned or was fired (who knows how these work behind closed PR doors, especially when they say the standard exit euphemism of “He wanted to spend more time with his family”).THe study commissioned was thoroughly revamped, restocked with different personnel from many disciplines and made independent of the NFL. The sports media speculated on the supposed reactions of the team owners’ whose buckets of gold could potentially be threatened etc.

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