Back in his playing days, Jay Brophy routinely relied on “sniffers,” or smelling salts, to keep him on the football field after violent collisions.
The few times the linebacker was actually diagnosed with a concussion during his four-year NFL career in the 1980s, he returned to play with little or no break.
“Back then, if you could see three fingers and they had five of them, you’re still going in,” he said.
Now Brophy, 53, of Akron, is feeling the toll the sport took on his brain as well as his body.
At times when he’s driving, he has to pull off the road and ask himself, “Where am I heading?”
He’s missed doctor appointments, forgotten to call back friends for days and lost his train of thought in the middle of conversations.
A neuropsychologist diagnosed him with minor brain damage, he said, resulting from multiple hits to the head.
“For my kids’ sake and my wife, I want to feel as good as I can,” he said.
The Cleveland Clinic is helping former professional football players tackle neurological, mental and other potential long-term health problems from repeated collisions and blows to the head.
Three Cleveland Clinic sites, along with the University of North Carolina and Tulane University in New Orleans, are working with the National Football League Players Association to launch a new program to assess the brain health and overall wellness of retired NFL players. The details of the plans were announced Wednesday.
Through the program, known as The Trust, former NFL players who played at least two years will be eligible for complete physical and neurological evaluations and follow-up care to relieve symptoms, restore function, improve cognitive skills and slow the damage.
“We’re trying to be proactive,” said Jay Alberts, director of the Cleveland Clinic Concussion Center. “If they’re having some issues, we’ll intervene and help them. And if they aren’t having issues, we will monitor and see where they are over time.”
Along with medical help, The Trust also will provide former players with free assistance in career transition and development, education and entrepreneurship, financial literacy and personal interaction.
The NFL players union set up the organization to help thousands of former players as part of its latest collective bargaining agreement with the league, said Bahati Van Pelt, executive director for The Trust. Each year an estimated 300 players retire from careers in the NFL. The average career of a player is less than four years.
The league is providing $22 million annually for the program, with a 5 percent increase each year, through the end of the 2020-21 season.
“Our goal is to spend every penny of that money to provide resources for former players,” he said.
Brophy, a former football coach for St. Vincent-St. Mary High School, said he plans to participate in the new program.
“If they offer any kind of treatment that would help or diagnose us, I think it’s a huge plus,” he said. “With things coming out, we’re in the right direction. Things are going the right way.”
The Cleveland Clinic’s main campus, its hospital in Weston, Fla., and the Cleveland Clinic Lou Ruvo Center for Brain Health in Las Vegas will be offering medical services through The Trust for an estimated 250 to 350 retired NFL players per year.
Some of the former athletes could have sustained “hundreds or thousands of hits that are sub-concussive,” even if they weren’t diagnosed with concussions, Alberts said.
“There has been some data to suggest this is a population that may be at higher risk of Parkinson’s, Alzheimer’s and even ALS,” also known as Lou Gehrig’s disease, Alberts said.
Repeated collisions in contact sports also are tied to cognitive impairments, pain, irritability, impulse control issues, paranoia, violent outbursts or even suicide, according to the Cleveland Clinic. Depression and difficulties with transitioning from pro athlete to post-sports life also will be addressed.
“We’re not giving up on anybody here,” Alberts said. “We’re going to try to develop and implement some interventions that could potentially help.”
Legacy of hits
Dave Wohlabaugh, 41, of Bath Township, doesn’t remember being diagnosed with a concussion during his nine-year career as a center with the Cleveland Browns and New England Patriots.
“I was never knocked out,” he said. “But I think by today’s standards, there were multiple times I had a concussion that was never properly diagnosed. I remember specific instances when you get blindsided or wiped out covering an interception and you’re walking off the field and you’re walking sideways. I don’t think you can talk to anyone who played the game at any level who hasn’t had that happen.”
Wohlabaugh, who now works as a financial adviser and helps coach his youngest son’s youth football team, said it’s hard to tell whether his occasional forgetfulness is just a sign of getting older or a consequence of his football career.
“When you play a game like football, there is an inherent risk,” he said. “It’s a violent sport. … The scary thing is there’s no crystal ball to see where you’re going, what’s potentially ahead of you. Do I look at myself and say I might have some things lingering potentially? Yes.”
Participants who complete the program through the Cleveland Clinic will undergo a thorough medical history and neurological and physical exam, including a functional MRI to look for any signs of brain abnormalities, Alberts said. “It’s an opportunity to get the baseline to see how things are changing or maybe not changing.”
A team of neurologists, neuropsychologists, physical therapists, wellness experts and other specialists will work with the patients to develop a personalized treatment plan.
Wohlabaugh said if he discovers he has health problems as a result of his playing days, he’ll address them the same way anyone would deal with injuries from their chosen career.
“I had a great job for a long period of time,” he said. “I got to play a game for a job. Not too many people can say that.”
Beacon Journal correspondent Jim Isabella contributed to this report. Beacon Journal medical writer Cheryl Powell can be reached at 330-996-3902 or firstname.lastname@example.org.