Commentary

Younger ex-Bears joining suits

Former Bears conflicted on idea of joining concussion lawsuits

Updated: July 28, 2012, 8:49 PM ET
By Melissa Isaacson | ESPNChicago.com

CHICAGO -- Former Bears cornerback Terry Schmidt had his share of "dings" during his playing career. But it wasn't a case of experiencing serious symptoms of football-related head injuries that motivated him to add his name to the rapidly growing number of teammates and other retired NFL players currently suing the league.

[+] EnlargeAdewale Ogunleye
Scott Boehm/Getty Images Adewale Ogunleye is one of the younger former players suing the NFL at the age of 34.

Schmidt, 60, is one of about 200 former Bears players now included in lawsuits claiming the NFL misled them about the dangers of long-term harm from concussions. Some are as young as defensive end Adewale Ogunleye, 34, who last played in 2010; tight end Chris Gedney, 41, an assistant athletic director at Syracuse; and Shane Matthews, 42, a high school football coach in Florida who started seven games for the Bears in 1999 but was mostly a backup in 14 NFL seasons.

Schmidt, who played for the Bears from '76 to '84 and is the chief of dental services at the Charles George VA Medical Center in Asheville, N.C., says that after experiencing some minor short-term memory problems, he took a standard test last month to establish a baseline on the advice of a neurologist.

A score of 59 out of 60 made him feel better, but he also says he will not ignore what has happened to current teammates and opponents and is not so na´ve as to rule out any future issues he may face.

"It really shocked me when Dave Duerson committed suicide," Schmidt says of his former Bears teammate, who shot himself in the chest in 2011 at age 50, and upon autopsy was found to have the brain trauma-induced disease linked to other deceased players. "We played for three years together and he was just a great guy. ...

"What bothers me is that guys get to the desperation point where they take their own life. I read where (Junior) Seau (who also committed suicide by shooting himself in the chest in May at age 43, and whose brain tissue is also being tested) went to people but nobody realized what was going on. ...

"I want more awareness and places where we can go to get evaluated. Plus, if something catastrophic happens, I'd like for my wife to be taken care of."

Other Bears currently included in lawsuits include Brian Baschnagel, 58, Shaun Gayle, 50, Jim Covert, 52, Keith Van Horne, 54, Emery Moorehead, 58, Jim McMahon, 53, Mike Richardson, 51, Vestee Jackson, 48, Donnell Woolford, 46, Dennis Gentry, 53, Wendell Davis, 46, and Maurice Douglass, 48.

During a four-day period a little more than a week ago, reported ESPN.com's legal analyst Lester Munson, 1,847 players joined lawsuits, including such names as Eric Dickerson, 51, Keith Byars, 48, Todd Marinovich, 43, Mark Rypien, 49, Curt Warner, 51 and Tony Dorsett, 58.

They join more than 3,000 former NFL players attached to various lawsuits, with the number expected to rise to approximately 5,000 of the at least 20,000 retired NFL players, a segment (about 15 percent) far greater than represented in most class-action suits.

Baschnagel, like Schmidt, says he does not currently have any symptoms of brain injury and initially was resistant to the emails and phone calls from former players and lawyers trying to persuade him to join one of the lawsuits. But the former receiver, who played in Chicago from '76 to '84, agreed to have his name included several months ago.

[+] EnlargeChicago Bears
Arthur Anderson/Getty ImagesJim McMahon has joined a lawsuit, but Jay Hilgenberg has not. Hilgenberg, however, sees both sides of the argument.

"You just never know what can happen five, 10 years down the road and once I get much older," said Baschnagel, who risks running afoul of the league since he conducts uniform inspections for the NFL.

The possible conflict because of league affiliation is one of many reasons why some players have resisted joining the fight. There are also those who say they are anti-litigation, and others who are afraid that by revealing their conditions, they expose themselves to loss of current or future employment.

And then there are those elderly players so severely impaired by dementia that they are simply unable to fight for themselves.

While some Bears players not included in lawsuits privately wondered if it was not a potential "money grab" for some, others insisted that was not a motivation.

"It's probably silly to say nobody is in it for the money," said Richardson. "I'm sure some guys signed up thinking, 'Hey, this is a possible payday.' But I think most are guys who are currently impaired and guys like me who don't know what can happen down the road. I think most, if not all of us, want to see some kind of attention paid to this."

Specifically, says an attorney who serves on the plaintiffs' executive committee, they are seeking a nationwide system of monitoring players by experts in brain trauma, as well as therapies and treatment that could reduce or eliminate such causal effects such as dementia, anxiety and suicide.

"Would I prefer not to have this litigation?" Richardson said. "I'd love to have none of this and have everybody living their lives healthy. But guys are suffering."

There are also those with the gladiator mentality, saying they essentially knew what they were getting into. But even those who may have once stood behind that belief, realize it isn't that easy.

"I've accepted that I have bad knees and that my shoulders creak," said former safety Gary Fencik, not currently a part of any lawsuits. "But I couldn't have anticipated what an enormous issue (brain injuries) have become ...

"Part of it is that I've never put two and two together. I've never thought certain issues are related to football. Is it that I'm almost 60 that I forget things or is it a pattern?"

Like Fencik, former center Jay Hilgenberg is also not currently a plaintiff, though his uncle Wally Hilgenberg, an NFL linebacker, died at 66 of what initially was thought of as ALS but is now suspected was chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE) caused by repetitive hits from football.

Though he has not added his name to a lawsuit, Hilgenberg said he sees both sides of the issue. "Hopefully everything gets better as these things progress," he said pointing to automobile companies that had to eliminate metal dashboards and include seat belts in their cars.

"It just makes me wonder if maybe in the last CBA, the NFL would have helped retired players with more health benefits, if there would probably be less lawsuits?" Hilgenberg said. "I would think so."

Players stress that they are not trying to cripple the league, only make it accountable. And none of this is going to "bring down the NFL," as some may have the public believe. Look no further than the tobacco industry, say insiders, for evidence that the league could absorb even the largest of lawsuits without going into bankruptcy and continuing to flourish financially.

Baschnagel, like a lot of players, have conflicting feelings about just how much the league knew.

"[But] I think the league was negligent, if nothing else, just in terms of warning us," he said.

And he admits it is hard not to worry about the future.

"We all had dings," Baschnagel said. His "ding," however, was more serious than most as he once woke up in the hospital the day after a game not knowing why he was there.

"I had complete amnesia of that (game) day," he said. "My wife, who I was not married to at the time, tells me stories that I called her from the hospital every five minutes because I didn't remember I had called."

Baschnagel said after the injury, which was later termed a concussion, he was kept on the sideline.

"So they handled that properly," he said. "But then after that, I was released the Monday after the game and I played the following weekend, so they didn't put me through any series of tests. Now if they knew there were any long-term consequences, they probably should have kept me out until tests were done, which is protocol now. I just don't know what the league knew."

Baschnagel said he has no regrets over his choice of career and that he does not want to do a baseline test because "If I start losing my memory, I don't want to know."

The fear of the unknown is frightening enough.

Melissa Isaacson

Columnist, ESPNChicago.com
Melissa Isaacson is a columnist for espnW.com, ESPN Chicago and ESPN.com. The award-winning writer has covered Chicago sports for most of her 31-year career, including at the Chicago Tribune before joining ESPN in 2009. Isaacson has also covered tennis since 1986.