VILLANOVA, Pa. - Only 33, Brian Westbrook already suffers from short-term memory loss. He can't remember names, recall facts or retain new material moments after he's told them. Westbrook can trace his health problems to at least a pair of concussions suffered during a shortened nine-year career.
A former All-Pro running back for the Philadelphia Eagles, Westbrook fears more debilitating symptoms are ahead.
"Hopefully, they won't continue to progress," he said.
Westbrook might be winding down his NFL career had it not been for a series of punishing blows to his head. Instead, he's the latest in a list of former athletes who have become advocates for head injury education and prevention, leaning on the mistakes of his career to help everyone from kids to professional athletes understand the dangers of trying to play through a concussion.
Westbrook, former Philadelphia Flyers captain Keith Primeau, five-time MLS All-Star Taylor Twellman, former NFL linebacker Jim Nelson, former Green Bay Packers VP Andrew Brandt and other head safety advocates took part in a panel discussion of the "Concussion Conundrum," Friday at Villanova University. The program was part of the Jeffrey S. Moorad Sports Law Journal Symposium.
They hope to bring greater awareness to concussions and the lingering effects that ruin the quality of life.
"I know we can't see the injury," Primeau said. "But trust me, people suffer."
Primeau said he had four documented concussions over his 15-year NHL career but had no idea how many others he may have suffered since he started playing as a 5-year-old-boy. His first diagnosed concussion came in 1997, while playing for the Hartford Whalers. Team doctors simply ordered him to rest for one week — no physical contact, practice or games.
After a lengthy layoff following his fourth concussion in 2005, the Flyers' training staff refused to clear him. When even the most mundane skating drills causing him headaches and fuzziness, Primeau retired at 34.
He's since co-founded the website stopconcussions.com that aims to reduce, research and manage concussions. Primeau hopes to prevent athletes from making some of the mistakes he did. Primeau was carried off the ice on a stretcher after he was knocked out of a playoff game in 2000. He returned five nights later for the Flyers for Game 1 of the Eastern Conference finals, and even got into a fight.
"I reflect on that as probably the beginning of the demise of me," he said.
Primeau said it took until only recently for his health to regain some sense of normalcy.
After the panel, Primeau credited his improved health to prolotherapy, often a series of pinpoint injections that can spark the body's immune system, regenerate damaged tissue and strengthen joints.
While his symptoms aren't as severe as other former NFL players, Westbrook now says he returned too soon from a concussion that knocked him out cold against Washington in 2009. He returned only three weeks later and was quickly hurt again.
"I thought I took enough time off to rest and recuperate. I thought I was healed completely," Westbrook said. "But I got hit, I got my bell rung. I was out for another few weeks with another concussion."
Like Primeau, Westbrook wants to change the culture in a sports world where wins come at any cost, even at the expense of brain injuries. Westbrook started the process in a familiar spot — Philadelphia. Eagles running back LeSean McCoy missed four games last season because of a severe concussion. He refused to sit out the final two games of the season for further rest because he called himself a "competitor."
McCoy told Westbrook how he wanted to play only a couple of weeks after he was hurt. Westbrook asked him, "Can you run? Can you practice? Can you think without having a headache." McCoy answered no to all.
"He said, 'But we're losing and I've got to get back out there,'" Westbrook said.
Westbrook said the Eagles were smart not to clear McCoy until he was ready. And he credited doctors and the training staff for the way they treated his head injuries. But the athletes wondered if independent physicians — without undue pressure or assumed favouritism by teams — are the best option.
The panelists were unanimous that no one — from the youth soccer player to the hardened pro veteran — should ever rush back from a concussion.
The panelists also debated whether players suing the NFL for concussion-related damages will win the right to pursue their claims in federal court, or if a judge will conclude they belong in arbitration under terms of their labour contract.
Senior U.S. District Judge Anita B. Brody will hear arguments on the question next month in Philadelphia. If the players win and she keeps the case in court, lawyers for the 4,000 former players who have sued the league can seek discovery, and potentially get their hands on internal NFL documents to see what the league knew when about concussions.
They can also depose NFL executives, team doctors and people who served on the league's Mild Traumatic Brain Injury committee in the 1990s, which long disputed any connection between concussions and later cognitive problems.
"The pawns have been the players," said Philadelphia lawyer Sol Weiss, whose firm filed the first class-action lawsuit, leading the cases to be consolidated before Brody.
Their lead plaintiff, former Atlanta Falcons safety Ray Easterling, died last year at age 62 after battling undiagnosed dementia, depression and financial problems.
"We talked to Ray a lot. He couldn't take it. He killed himself," said Weiss, who also noted the suicides of former players Dave Duerson and Junior Seau.
Given the steady supply of players eager to play no matter the risks, several panelists said efforts should be made in youth sports, to protect the next generation.
"The players may not win (the lawsuit), ... but we as a society will benefit, because the young kids are going to be protected, while these old guys pay the price," Weiss said.
The NFL had initially planned to participate in the session on the concussion litigation, but ultimately declined to send a representative, event organizers said.
Associated Press writer Maryclaire Dale contributed to this report.
Dan Gelston can be reached at http://www.twitter.com/APGelston
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