Professional, college and high school football players all engage in forceful tackles and head-to-head hits to protect the football and -as much as possible - win the game.
Head-to-head collisions, however, are banned from most American football leagues such as the NFL and NCAA because of the severe and negative effects on athletes.
For instance, researchers from Oklahoma found that sacks, tackles and concussions significantly change the size and structure of an athlete's brain. They also found that as the years of football-playing increase, an athlete's reaction time somehow decreases.
Not only that. Athletes who have suffered from a brain injury may recover from the symptoms of concussion, but a study has revealed that they may still experience reduced blood flow in their brain for eight days.
Studies in the past have also shown that 96 percent of now-deceased NFL athletes had developed chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE) before death.
This severe degenerative brain disorder, which is the result of repeated exposure to head injuries, has been known to impact battered boxers. CTE also affects both amateur and professional football players.
The Case Of Former Football Player Michael Keck
At the young age of 25, former college football player Michael Keck died from a congenital heart defect.
Before his death, Keck had experienced memory failure, had trouble focusing and had become short-fused and uncharacteristically emotional. He suspected he might have CTE, and then told his wife Cassandra, in case of death, to donate his brain to Boston University for research.
Keck is not the first athlete to be diagnosed with CTE after years of playing football, but his case was vital because he went through a series of cognitive and psychological tests when he was still alive. These tests could help Boston University researchers examine how the symptoms of CTE might develop.
In a series of tests, the team of researchers found a pattern of unusual and abnormal protein clumps dispersed throughout Keck's brain. This clearly indicated the existence of CTE.
"It was the worst CTE I've seen in an individual this young. It was quite widespread," said Dr. Ann McKee, the co-author of the study.
Keck had been playing tackle football since he was 6 years old. By the time he was a junior college student, he had sustained more than 10 concussions, which had rendered him unable to play anymore. He suffered excruciating headaches and became extremely sensitive to light.
Researchers said the CTE in Keck's brain was as worse as that in the brain of Junior Seau, a former NFL star who shot himself in the chest at the age of 43 because of CTE.
McKee said the severity of Keck's case might have been due to the fact that he played football early on. Keck had had 16 years of football experience. "That's a lengthy exposure," said Mckee. "Brain injury is cumulative."
Keck's wife Cassandra recalled that her husband was knocked unconscious during practice in 2009. That was when things began to change, she said.
Before that, Keck maintained a 3.8 GPA at his high school in Missouri. At his freshman year at the University of Missouri, he was able to keep his grades high.
When he transferred to Missouri State University, Keck had sustained his second college concussion.
Keck took one year off to recover from his injury, but when he tried to train with his team again, he would experience agonizing headaches and his vision would fade to black. His vision would come back, but the event was so frightening for Keck that he told his coaches he couldn't play anymore.
"He was having difficulty with learning and executive function, he had persistent headaches, problems with memory and concentration," said McKee. "Towards the end of life, he experienced personality changes, with abuse and aggression towards his wife; that's very characteristic of CTE."
CTE Affects Young Individuals
A severe CTE case in someone as young as Keck has troubled researchers. McKee said Keck may have had a certain hardwiring in his genetics that made him susceptible to experience the worse outcomes from concussions.
Dr. James Noble of Columbia University said Keck's case provides a chance for researchers to look into important and ongoing developments in the field of CTE and concussion, but several questions still remain, he said.
"How often do concussions actually occur in sports? And, is it the number of hits, the quality/intensity of each hit, or a combination thereof that matters?" With that, Noble said he hopes these questions will be answered soon.
Meanwhile, some experts are hesitant to believe that CTE could affect young individuals, because the brain disorder is often found in people who are much older. McKee said some were surprised that Keck had CTE.
Still, while further research should be done to find out how CTE affects young individuals, McKee said the degenerative disorder is a public health issue that clearly affects college and high school athletes. "There's an added urgency to be able to identify this early on," she said.
McKee and her team's findings are featured in JAMA Neurology.
Photo: Parker Knight | Flickr