AFC East: Don Hasselbeck

Thomas (mercifully) ready to retire a Fin

February, 15, 2010
As someone who once served a couple terms as president of the Boxing Writers Association of America and covered the National Hockey League for seven years, I've encountered my share of athletes -- some still active -- who cope with diminished mental states because of head trauma.

But in the past two weeks I've heard a few of the most bizarre stories about the impact of repeated concussions.

The most fascinating was New England Patriots tight end Don Hasselbeck's history. He told me he'd suffered at least 20 concussions, and each time he regained consciousness he thought he was waking from his first concussion in high school.

Hasselbeck is among the growing number of active and retired NFL players who are donating their brains to the Center for the Study of Traumatic Encephalopathy at Boston University School of Medicine.

Zach Thomas, the Miami Dolphins' iconic linebacker, is another.

Thomas hasn't played since Kansas City Chiefs training camp last summer but told the Miami Herald he's still experiencing problems, "including fuzziness when it gets cold."

Miami Herald writer Barry Jackson reported the all-decade linebacker would like to re-sign with the Dolphins for a day so he can retire in aqua and orange. Thomas has no intention of playing again, which is comforting.

Thomas had become known as a concussion-prone player before the Dolphins released him in January 2008. He played in only five games in 2007 because of an on-field concussion that was aggravated weeks later by a fender bender.

He insisted on leaving the game on his own terms and signed with the Dallas Cowboys, playing all 16 games and starting 14.

"They labeled me with that, as prone for concussions," Thomas said during Cowboys camp that summer. "Everybody just thinks I'm some guy out here that's punch drunk, running around."

He then tried to latch on with the Chiefs and suffered another concussion. The Chiefs soon cut him. A grievance filed in October over his release is pending.

NFLers banking brains for future

February, 10, 2010

Stephen Dunn/Getty Images
Former Dolphins linebacker Zach Thomas is one of a growing number of NFL players vowing to donate their brains to research.

At least 20 times, the memory came crashing back for Don Hasselbeck.

In a flash, he was a teenager again, a star tight end for La Salle High in Cincinnati. His quarterback had thrown an interception against Purcell. Hasselbeck went into hot pursuit. The rumbling ball carrier veered toward him, driving a knee into Hasselbeck's head.

A few moments later, Hasselbeck regained his senses and sat upright and surveyed the La Salle teammates and coaches that had gathered around him on Purcell's field.

Only he wasn't a teenager anymore. He was a New England Patriot in Schaefer Stadium. Or a Los Angeles Raider in the Coliseum. Or a New York Giant at the Meadowlands.

"Every time I was knocked out -- bang! -- I thought it was the first one in high school," Hasselbeck said. "I can be in the ninth year of the pros, and think I was on that high school field. What is that in my brain that gets triggered to make me think I'm 18 years old?"

Hasselbeck estimated his number of concussions "on the 20-plus side" before his nine-year NFL career was over in 1985. He traveled back in his cranial time machine on every nasty headshot.

He's worried those repeated brain injuries will impact his life.

"I get concerned when I read articles of guys killing themselves or being depressed or dementia or Alzheimer's," said Hasselbeck, a mostly healthy 54-year-old and a longtime Reebok executive. "That scares you. You don't want to see these guys falling apart in front of you."

Al Messerschmidt/NFLOver the span of his nine-year career, tight end Don Hasselbeck estimates he suffered more than 20 concussions.

Hasselbeck is among a growing crowd of retired and active NFL players who have pledged to donate their brains to the Center for the Study of Traumatic Encephalopathy at Boston University School of Medicine to research the long-term impact of football-related head trauma.

The registry for what's known as "the VA CSTE Brain Bank" -- housed at the New England Veterans Administration in Bedford, Mass. -- is up to 250 players who want to further a cause that began when Chris Nowinski, a Harvard alum and former pro wrestler, got inquisitive about his future after suffering six concussions.

Nowinski and Dr. Ann McKee founded the center. Their findings from CSTE research -- that players are highly prone to clinical depression and early onset of Alzheimer's -- has triggered sweeping changes in the way the NFL views head trauma and could transform the way the game is played both on the practice field and on Sunday afternoons.

"We've made remarkable headway," Nowinski said. "I don't think I ever dreamed the NFL would agree there was a problem. For legal reasons, I just didn't think they'd admit it. It was the pathological research, the brains of the deceased players, pressure from the active and retired players who were courageous enough to stand up."

Nowinski's passion is collecting autographs and game-used equipment.

The autographs are signatures of players such as Baltimore Ravens center Matt Birk, Arizona Cardinals receiver Sean Morey, former Miami Dolphins linebacker Zach Thomas and Hall of Fame cornerback Mike Haynes; the game-used equipment he gets them to consign are their brains.

"Once I'm dead, I'm not going to need it anymore," said former Buffalo Bills guard Conrad Dobler. "I plan on being cremated. I always wonder what they do with all those parts.

"But if I'm going to be cremated anyway because I don't feel like laying in a casket and having worms eat my body for eternity. My brain will live forever to help some others, and to let the world know that I actually had one."

Nowinksi wrote the 2006 book "Head Games: Football's Concussion Crisis from the NFL to Youth Leagues." About a month after the book was released, former Philadelphia Eagles safety Andre Waters committed suicide. Nowinski convinced Waters' family to donate his brain for research, a seminal moment for the brain bank.

Waters' brain was examined by Dr. Bennett Omalu in Pittsburgh, and it resembled those of Mike Webster and Terry Long, former Pittsburgh Steelers who died young after bouts with depression and dementia.

"We started with guys who were disasters," Nowinski said. "Now we're moving on to guys who might or might not be impacted in varying degrees. But these are people who are committed and recognize the problem and want to be a part of the solution."

Nowinski's cause has reached a level of consciousness where players are approaching him to will their brains without him needing to deliver a sales pitch.

"I told him I would donate my brain," former Bills offensive lineman and columnist Ross Tucker said. "I was never diagnosed with a concussion, but I can remember at least four plays during my career where the collision was just different. When you play football for 18 years, you can tell when something's different.

"For 10 to 15 seconds after, I was thinking 'Wow. That was crazy. I don't know what happened there, but I don't like it.' "

The CSTE scored a major victory in December, when the league announced it would impose stricter guidelines on players returning from concussions and teamed up with the Center for Disease Control to produce a public-service announcement that urges youth coaches, players and parents to be educated on the dangers of head injuries.

"That showed me there was no going back," Nowinski said.

The next step is enacting rules that protect players from Pop Warner and up.

Nowinski referred to testimony Houston Texans guard Chester Pitts gave before Congress. Pitts declared he would forbid his son from playing football because it was too dangerous.

"That's kind of creepy that he's exposing himself to a violent game he wouldn't let his own son play in," Nowinski said. "That's a sign we need to change things."

NFL commissioner Roger Goodell appeared Sunday on "Face the Nation" and told host Bob Schieffer the league would consider eliminating the three-point stance. Nowinski, citing research that shows 75 percent of head shots occur in practice, raised the possibility of no-contact, helmet-less workouts.

"There always will be four downs," Nowinski said. "A touchdown will be worth six points, a field goal worth three points. But how we hit each other, how we collide has to change."

While Tucker dismissed abolishing the three-point stance as meaningful (linemen don't build up enough momentum in such a short space to make that type of contact significant), he lauded the NFL's decision last spring to eliminate the wedge on kickoff returns as a step in the right direction.

Players on return and coverage teams generally are the last 10 players who dress on game day, the most easily replaceable parts.

"How hard they run down there and how hard they hit that wedge is the difference between 650 grand and going back to Columbus, Georgia, to find a job for 12 bucks an hour," Tucker said. "If those were your options, you'd hit that wedge pretty damn hard, too."

Tucker also would like to see certain drills outlawed. He described what he and his Washington Redskins teammates called "the headache drill" in 2007. Offensive linemen would take on a linebacker at full speed, the frequent result being a helmet-on-helmet collision.

"We hated it," said Tucker, a Princeton alum who retired that year because of herniated discs in his neck and back. "I remember feeling my brain rattling around.

"I don't think it has truly impacted me, but there are times when I forget stuff that I shouldn't. I've always been known for having an amazing memory, but it just seems there's short-term stuff I don't remember sometimes.

"I'm not concerned about it, but there's probably something going on, and if I can help in any small way, I'm willing to do that. Guys are only going to get bigger, only going to get faster. Unless we do something, it's only going to get worse and worse."

Zach Thomas donating brain to research

February, 1, 2010
MIAMI -- Miami Dolphins folk hero Zach Thomas, after a career marked by repeated concussions, is donating his brain to the Boston University School of Medicine, which has conducted groundbreaking research on football-related trauma.

Thomas was named to the NFL's All-Decade team Sunday. He played linebacker for 13 seasons. He attempted to make it 14 last year, but the Kansas City Chiefs cut him after he suffered another concussion in training camp.

"I would like to make sure the game of football survives," Thomas said in a story by Palm Beach Post reporter Hal Habib. "The scientific findings to date are clear that repetitive trauma to the head results in [chronic traumatic encephalopathy] in many athletes. I want to do my part to help the researchers understand this disease and to discover treatments and an eventual cure.

"This is not just about professional athletes who may know there are risks to the game. This is about making sure that the game is safe for all of those children playing the game today and in the future."

Thomas was a hard-charging, overachieving tackle machine for the Dolphins. But that reputation gave way later in his career. The Dolphins released him after he missed most of 2007 with a concussion that was soon followed by residual affects exacerbated by a rear-end auto collision on his way home from a game.

Rather than think of a great player, many observers feared for Thomas' safety, knowing that one more concussion could be devastating for him.

"They labeled me with that, as prone for concussions," Thomas said after the Dolphins cut him and he joined the Dallas Cowboys in 2008. "Everybody just thinks I'm some guy out here that's punch drunk, running around."

Thomas was one of 19 active or retired players to join the Boston University registry. Others with AFC East ties include former Buffalo Bills offensive lineman Conrad Dobler, former New England Patriots cornerback Michael Haynes and Patriots tight end Don Hasselbeck.

LT learned a thing or two from Tippett

July, 31, 2008
Ken Levine/Getty Images
Andre Tippett is the Patriots' franchise leader in sacks (100) and fumble recoveries (17)

FOXBOROUGH, Mass. -- The notion young New York Giants assistant Bill Belichick could hold up another player for Lawrence Taylor to emulate sounds preposterous.

Taylor was the nouveau outside linebacker, remaking the position before our eyes with every wicked movement. Taylor revolutionized the position, made it his own. He was considered the standard.

"When you're coaching Lawrence Taylor and Carl Banks," Belichick said, "there's not a lot of guys you can really put film up on and say 'Let's do it the way that guy's doing it.' In most cases (other linebackers) couldn't do it as well as those two could."

Except one guy. There was a contemporary outside linebacker who could be considered Taylor's peer.

Andre Tippett, who toiled on so-so New England Patriots teams for most of his career, was overlooked compared to the Big Apple spotlight Taylor enjoyed.

But in NFL film rooms he was looked at over and over and over.

"We'd watch him play and talk to our players about 'See how he's doing that? That's the way we want to do it,' " Belichick said.

"He was one who was every bit as dominating of a player in his time and in his game."

Tippett on Saturday night will be inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame in Canton, Ohio.

Tippett spent his entire career with the Patriots. He made five Pro Bowls, all in a row, and finished as the franchise leader with 100 sacks and 17 fumble recoveries. He recorded the highest two-season sack total in 1984 and '85, amassing 35 of them.

He was named the NFL Players Association's top linebacker in 1985, '86 and '87. That was in Taylor's prime.

"The average guy goes 'I don't really remember him.' Well, look at his stats," said former Miami Dolphins tight end Joe Rose. "He was special, boy.

"He was unbelievable. He was just phenomenal."

This weekend, though, Tippett's an emotional wreck. He admitted so himself. He has been overwhelmed since he got the call. The more he learns about Canton's magnitude, the more intense the whole thing gets.

"There is so much history here in the National Football League," Tippett said Thursday during a news conference in Gillette Stadium, "and to be part of the Hall of Fame is unbelievable."

Tippett rattled off numbers that put his awe in perspective, starting with his estimate that there have been 18,000 players in NFL history.

"The percentages will stun you when you look at it," Tippett said.

There are 247 Hall of Fame members. Only 230 were players. Tippett said 155 honorees still are alive.

He's the 17th linebacker to get in and the second career Patriot behind guard John Hannah.

"This is something you can't pay for," Tippett said. "You can't be cut from this team. You can't even quit.

"To be part of this is the greatest honor there is. There is nothing after this honor -- just to die."

For 11 seasons he snuffed opposing quarterbacks. He overmatched tight ends, tackles and fullbacks, leaving them strewn behind him in a path of tornadic ruin.

His sack total began with Mike Pagel in September 1983. He dotted the likes of Cliff Stoudt, Vince Ferragamo, Art Schlichter, Brent Pease and Browning Nagle along the way before stopping on Scott Mitchell in January 1994.

Two of his favorite destinations were within his division, Hall of Famers Dan Marino and Jim Kelly.

"I just remember seeing Andre as a guy that was dominant," Belichick said. "Tight ends couldn't block him. They couldn't run outside to his side. They couldn't run off-tackle to his side.

"He was a very powerful pass rusher. He was fast. He was athletic, and he used great technique. He used his hands well."

Oh, those hands.

That's where Tippett had it over everyone else. He studied martial arts since he was 13, when self-preservation in the Newark ghetto motivated him to learn karate. He was a black belt when he played, and the reflexive hand movements he demonstrated in his Sunday dojo were studied and adopted around the league.

Belichick, for one, put his linebackers through hand drills because of Tippett. When he became head coach of the Cleveland Browns in 1991, he hired a martial arts instructor.

"When you watched Andre play you could really see it," Belichick said. "You could see how fast his hands were and how he was able to swat people off him or knock blockers' hands down to create a better leverage."

Tippett explained his objective was to work the outside frame of a would-be blocker to make him reach. That's when Tippett unleashed a torrent of forearms and elbows. Former Patriots tight end Don Hasselbeck once said nobody inflicted more pain on him that Tippett did in practice.

"Pass rushing was really simple because of pass rushing and playing outside linebacker is hand-to-hand combat," said Tippett, who still owns two of the top six season sack totals for linebackers in NFL history.

Tippett was named to the NFL's all-decade team for the '80s, a period when outside linebackers overtook middle linebackers as the defensive glamour position. His best season was 1984. He recorded 18 1/2 sacks, 118 tackles.

Yet he never garnered the widespread attention Taylor did.

Taylor became known as the most vicious defensive weapon in NFL history, a reputation galvanized with a pair of Super Bowl victories.

Tippett, meanwhile, played for middling teams. The Patriots had six losing records in his 11 seasons. They totaled double-digit victories twice and reached the Super Bowl once -- the epic blowout defeat to the Chicago Bears.

The Patriots were ordinary during Tippett's tenure, but now he can count himself a member of football's ultimate team, every bit as worthy as Taylor or Jack Ham or anybody else in Canton.

"It's cool," Tippett said. "I feel so cool. I can't wait to put that jacket on."