Life Expectancy For Pro Linemen? How About 52?

Everyone who straps on the shoulder pads and ties their cleats wants to make it to the NFL one day. That’s where fortunes are made and men who are such athletic freaks of nature that they’re barely classifiable as human are revered. Sure, you’d get hurt, but you’d be good enough at football that you’d dole out some hurting yourself, and plus bones heal anyway, so what’s the big deal, right?

Brain Helmet
(Well, you have to take this guy out, his brain is glowing.)

Well, according to the CBC’S FIFTH ESTATE program, there is, in fact, no big deal–as long as you don’t feel like living much past your fiftieth birthday.

The program, set to air tonight at 9 p.m. (although that’s Canadian time, so I don’t know if that means it already aired or if you have to turn your TV sideways or what), examines a rash of early deaths among CFL linemen and finds that it closely resembles the plight of NFLers during the same era. Common themes: multiple concussions, substance abuse, and suicidal depression:

But for some players, including former Eskimos linemen Bill Stevenson, York Hentschel and David Boone, it appears the undetected concussions they suffered in the late 1970s and early ’80s, may have contributed to their premature deaths over the past three years.

Stevenson, Hentschel and Boone were members of an Eskimos team that won five consecutive Grey Cups from 1978 to 1982. Stevenson, an offensive tackle, died last year at age 55 after falling down stairs while drunk. Hentschel, a member of the Eskimos’ famed “Alberta Crude” defence, died two years ago at 52 of organ failure after years of alcohol and drug abuse and depression. In 2005, Boone shot himself at home in Point Roberts, Wash., after years of profound depression.

Line that up with stories about Mike Webster, pictured above, and other Steelers from the same era who are either dead or terribly brainscrambled, and it appears obvious that head injuries are much, much more dangerous than what even their immediate symptoms (which suck) would indicate.

THE FIFTH ESTATE will talk to former Patriots linebacker Ted Johnson, who retired in 2005 after 10 years of near-constant concussions. In additions to the several reported to medical staff that ultimately ended his career, Johnson reports that he “got concussions every game and estimates he got between three and five a game” in 2002.

Now, granted, every single doctor you talk to will inform you that Johnson is probably exaggerating, since 3-5 concussions a week over 4 months would kill you dead, but don’t let the exaggeration overshadow the problem here–Johnson’s got no reason to invent his claims, and the likely result of his career is that he won’t be around for much more than 10-20 more years, and the last few are going to be extremely uncomfortable for him and his family as his brain really starts to break down.

The NFL and CFL have both stepped up efforts to increase awareness among players about the dangers of concussions, and the NFL’s rules about fining coaches who try to supersede the wishes of players or training staff who diagnose a concussion will probably make their way north. Fine changes, to be sure, but little consolation to the men on the fast-track to an early death–and their families.