Head injuries and the price to play sports

It wasn't easy for Joe DeLamielleure to say it, to answer the question. If he had to do it all over again, knowing what he knows now, would he choose a career in the National Football League?

"What I know now?" he repeated before simply saying. "No."

It's hard for him to say it because he has so many memories, so many friendships created over 13 years in the NFL. The hard hitting reality though is many of those friends are dying young. He just hopes his memory won't be lost next.

DeLamielleure started playing football in 5th grade.

"I wanted to be like my (older) brothers, Tom and Dave," said DeLamielleure. "They were my heroes and I was their water boy."

He later played to impress his father who owned a bar in suburban Detroit. His dad would take him to the NFL's traditional Thanksgiving Day game between his hometown Lions and the Green Bay Packers.

"We were in the stands and I told him, one day I'm going to play in this game," said DeLamielleure.

It wouldn't be long until Joe was impressing college coaches, legends like Schembechler and Parseghian. He would end up at Michigan State where he had one goal, start by his sophomore year. Freshman weren't allowed to play back then. If he did crack the starting lineup, his dad said he'd make sure his mom was the stands. Joe held up his end of the bargain. He was a starter as the Spartans kicked off the 1970 season at the University of Washington.

"They got a (flight) out of Lansing and they (his parents) were there in Seattle," said DeLamielleure.

It turned out Joe wasn't just good at football. He was great. In 1973 he was a first round draft pick of the Buffalo Bills.  Number 68 was immediately a starter on the famed offensive line nicknamed "The Electric Company."  They were called that because they were the ones who turned loose the "Juice," superstar running back OJ Simpson.

Joe would play 13 years and end up Pro Football's Hall of Fame.

"We say that's my PhD in football," said DeLamielleure looking at his Hall of Fame replica bust in the living room of his Charlotte home.

But busting all those holes for running backs and keeping "Mean" Joe Greene away from his quarterback meant banging heads.

"That's how you played, you blocked with your face," said DeLamielleure. "If you don't put your face in there you were a wuss. They'd say you couldn't play."

What Joe didn't know, neither did those he played with, or against, sticking his face in there was likely damaging his brain. Joe's wife, Gerri, is a nurse. She says it started in his very first game in the NFL.

"(He) got knocked out that first game," said Gerri DeLamielleure. "It was an exhibition game."

"All I remember is getting smelling salts on the bench, said Joe DeLamielleure. "And when I woke up, I thought I was in my dad's bar, just for a second mopping the floors."

"He went right back in," said Gerri DeLamielleure.

It was probably a concussion, but not once in Joe's career was he ever diagnosed with one.

"Never diagnosed," said Gerri putting up her hands up to put quotes around the word diagnosed.

It's not just the big burly NFL types paying the price to play. Myers Park sophomore Katie Little was diagnosed with a concussion last fall after a collision in a soccer match.

"I don't remember a 100% what happened," said Little, "But apparently she elbowed me in the forehead."

Katie went down, but got up and finished the game. She says she felt fine that night and suited up to play the very next day.

"By the second half my head was hurting so bad I nearly started crying," said Little.

"That is very common," said Dr. David Wiercisiewski.

Wiercisiewski is the director of the Carolina Sports Concussion Program. He diagnosed Katie with her concussion. He says symptoms like headache, nausea, memory loss often don't show up for 6 hours or more. 

"There is a cascade of cellular events that happen that almost mask the ramifications of the injury for the first several hours," said Wiercisiewski. "You expect to start to see symptoms when you put the brain under more duress."

Katie was diagnosed, not just by her symptoms, but because of a test she had taken long before her injury. It measures memory and speed of thinking. The results are a baseline to be compared after a hit to the head.

"My memory had dropped by about 50%. It just kind of chopped it in half," said Little. "I was like crap. I'm in school this can't happen. I need my memory."

The only cure is time. In Katie's case it took four months to bring her scores back to the baseline.

"In sports it's the one injury that doesn't get better by working through it, it only worsens," said Wiercisiewski. "You need an extended period of rest from participation in sports because your vulnerability increases when you have a cluster of injury."

It's probably fair to say DeLamielleure played through many clusters. Sitting out was never really an option offered.

"Always had a headache, everyday," said DeLamielleure. "Everyday come home from practice with a bad headache."

Last year DeLamielleure traveled to UCLA. Doctors took scans of his brain as well several other retired NFL players. Researchers say they found evidence of Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy (CTE). It's a disease of the brain caused by a buildup of a protein called Tau.

"The invasion of Tau protein into a nerve cell basically shuts it down," said Wiercisiewski.

CTE is thought to cause memory loss, changes in mood including depression. Boston University researchers say CTE has been found at autopsy of more than 30 former NFL players. At least two of those players, Junior Seau and Dave Duerson had committed suicide.

The UCLA study marks the first time evidence of CTE was found in those still living.

"What is the prognosis? That is the question I needed to ask," said Gerri DeLamielleure. "They say we don't know. We have no idea."

Joe DeLamielleure has made it his mission to look for answers. He says he's willing to try and test just about anything. He recently joined some military veterans who are working their way through head injuries and Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder. They traveled to Gracie's Hope Hyperbaric and Healing Center in Huntersville. He wants to know if hyperbaric therapy can help heal the brain.

Researchers are interested in Joe's case. He has had problems with insomnia and attention, but he's doing better than a lot of his contemporaries.

He's convinced it's because he didn't drink, didn't take prescription drug or steroids. Doctors would like to know if there is a link and what else can be done to reduce, or reverse symptoms.

He says it's not about him, or even just football players. It's for veterans, stroke victims, anyone living with a head injury.

"I don't want (my kids) to say, or my grandkids, boy he was a great football player," said DeLamielleure. "I want them to say he did a lot trying to help other people."

The only thing he'd like a return, some help from the NFL like health insurance and better retirement benefits. It's a battle he and many former players have been fighting a long time.

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