CINCINNATI (WKRC) – As the NFL gets ready to crown a new champion, concussions remain a focus of football.
While the league has done much to protect today’s players, some of the greatest players to ever take the field say they struggle with damage from concussions decades after they hung up their jerseys.
But there is hope as these legendary players push for a revolutionary treatment to heal their injured brains.
A Hall of Famer Lies Down
Legendary Green Bay Packers’ lineman, Dave Robinson, is at Bethesda Hyperbaric Oxygen Therapy, doing something he seldom did in his Hall of Fame career: lying down. It’s the first “dive” that Robinson will take in the hyperbaric chamber. “I’m apprehensive,” Robinson said, as staff clipped a wire to ground him in preparation for his journey inside the chamber. “We’ll start the pressure,” an aid says, as dials show the atmospheric pressure rise and 100% oxygen fills the tube.
Our Local 12 Investigation, “Dying for a Cure” documented the push by current and former military veterans to get access to Hyperbaric Oxygen Treatment, or HBOT. While 17 peer-reviewed studies prove HBOT heals injured brains, the US Food and Drug Administration, which approves HBOT for 14 conditions, has yet to approve it for treating brain injuries.
The Concussion Doctor
Dr. Joseph Maroon, a neurosurgeon for the Pittsburgh Steelers who was a featured character in the movie, “Concussion”, says he believes HBOT works. “It reduces inflammation in the body and it also helps promote the promotion of stem cells that can differentiate into new brain cells,” Dr. Maroon said.
More Times than Toes and Fingers
HBOT is an important breakthrough for countless people battling brain injuries and continuing issues following concussions. Many leading doctors say countless cases of depression, death and suicide in the military and among pro athletes are tied to brain injuries. When asked how many concussions he had in his playing days, Robinson didn’t hesitate to answer. “More than you have fingers and toes,” He said, half-laughing about the brutal nature of the game he played. Robinson says he still can’t recall the details of some the games he played. “To this day, I don’t remember,” he observed, the smile disappearing from his face.
To make matters worse, Robinson says he now lives with a foggy memory that is slowly consuming his quality of life. “I could talk to you and everything we said today, tomorrow, I’ll forget.” Robinson observed, adding he constantly deals with headaches, irritability and sleepless nights. He blames all of it on the hard knocks and concussions he received in the 1960’s and early 1970’s on the field.
A Star-Packed Board
Robinson is a member of the Board of Directors for the Pro Football Retired Players Association, where he and other greats of the game , including Jim Brown, Darrell Thompson, Mike Haynes, Ron Mix, Mike Singletary, Jackie Slater and Jack Youngblood help form policy for retired players across the country.
One of the priorities for the PFRPA are the effects of concussions on the former players. At a December meeting where I was invited to attend, I asked the greats who had gathered who had a concussion. Almost all the hands raised in the room. As many hands raised when I asked who was worried about the lasting effects.
At a Hyperbaric Medicine Symposium organized in Charleston South Carolina by Hyperbaric Medicine International (HMI) in September, another Hall of Famer, former Buffalo Bills lineman Joe DeLamielleure told me he got his life back after dozens of dives in the hyperbaric oxygen chamber. “I can’t believe that everybody isn’t doing it,” DeLamielleure said.
The Money and Insurance Hurdle
The biggest hurdle to getting these treatments is money. Insurance doesn’t cover HBOT for post-concussive relief and brain damage. Like most NFL players who retired before 1993, Robinson says he doesn’t receive enough income from his football pension to afford the 30 to 40 treatments he will need.
PFRPA’s CEO and Executive Director Bob Schmidt, who began playing in a leather helmet and was a star quarterback for USC in the 1950’s, is behind his group’s push for the NFL to provide regional HBOT clinics where current and former players and even veterans can receive treatment for free. “If I can play a small part to accelerate that, that’s where I want to be,” Schmidt said during an interview.
During their December meeting, PFRPA’s star-packed board voted to undergo HBOT themselves to prove it works. “We’re going to use our retired players to really bring this issue forward,” Schmidt said, adding he wants to be a key factor in changing the protocol for using HBOT.
Peace and a Race Against the Clock
After an hour, a massive door to the hyperbaric chamber in Bethesda was opened and Robinson reemerged. When asked how it went, Robinson answered, “pretty good,” adding that it was “very peaceful.” For those who believe in HBOT, they say Robinson is finally on a path to healing his injured brain. But at the 78 years old, Robinson knows that he is now in a race against the clock. “I don’t want to get to that point where I don’t’ recognize my friends and don’t’ know where I am” he said.
We did reach out to the NFL and the Players Association for comment about our story but have not yet heard back. Meanwhile, TreatNOW, a coalition of military veterans is planning the help Robinson come to Cincinnati to receive his full HBOT sessions, defeating what Robinson calls the opponent inside his head.
We plan to follow Robinson from start to finish.