He's 52. He is an NFL alumni, a player with each an Orange Bowl and Super Bowl championship ring, and a concussion sufferer since Pop Warner football. He carries a notebook each day -- he has boxes full at home from the past generation -- because he jots down all important matters that he knows his mind won't retain. He pops pills daily as a barely middle-aged man: Namenda and Aricept for short-term memory loss, and Lamictal for seizures.
He has undergone, by his count, nine brain surgeries.
Repeat: nine brain surgeries.
Those surgeries involved drilling four different holes in his skull -- he jokingly refers to it as his "bowling ball head" -- and reworking a shunt, that relieves spinal-fluid buildup from his brain and drains it down a tube in his body. He can list as if on a warranty the period of time each shunt remained in working order until the next surgery: eight months, 10 hours ("given last rites"), four years, five years, three months, one week, four months, nine years and 15 years "and counting."
George Visger has a story to tell.
He emailed two weeks ago upon reading the most recent installment of the Concussion Series, and I asked in response if he would mind sharing his story.
Here is his tale:
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Due to the size and speed of today's football players, the kinetic energy they generate during hits will have long-term consequences on not only their health, but personal and family relationships.
My football career began at age 11 in 1970, when I first suited up for the West Stockton Bear Cubs Pee Wee Pop Warner team. It was the first Pee Wee team Stockton, Calif., ever fielded, and of the 29 kids on the team, three of us went on to sign NFL contracts in 1980: myself, drafted by the New York Jets in the sixth round; Jack Cosgrove, by the Seattle Seahawks in the eighth round; and Pat Bowe with the Green Bay Packers as a free-agent.
During my third year of Pop Warner, I was hospitalized when I knocked myself unconscious in a tackling drill. The drill was a needless Bull-in-the-ring exercise, which was more of a gladiator competition for the coach's amusement then teaching young players any techniques. Concussions followed through my high-school career at A.A. Stagg High though I never missed a game or practice. We went 20-1-1 my two years on the varsity, including 11-0, ranked No. 3 in California and in the national Top 20 my senior year in 1975.
I attended the University of Colorado on a football scholarship in 1976 as a 6-foot-5, 235 pound defensive tackle. I majored in Biology, made the traveling squad my freshman year and played Ohio State in the 1977 Orange Bowl. After starting for three years as a defensive tackle, where I had a number of minor concussions but never missed a play, I was drafted in 1980 by the New York Jets. By then I was 275 pounds. I was cut at the end of preseason and picked up by the San Francisco 49ers prior to the first Dallas game early in the season.
On my first play early in the first quarter I suffered a major concussion but played the entire game. The trainers told me afterwards I went through 25 to 30 smelling salts during the game, as they would give me a handful each time I came out, pop a couple, clear the cobwebs and go back in. We laughed about it after as I watched game films the next day and never remembered a single play. I was on the field the next day practicing.
Early in my second season with the 49ers in 1981, a few weeks after my first knee surgery, I developed hydrocephalus (spinal fluid on the brain), and underwent emergency shunt brain surgery. I turned 23 lying in intensive care. Four months after we won Super Bowl XVI my shunt failed, and I had back-to-back emergency brain surgeries 10 hours apart -- and was given last rites. I fought off creditors for nearly five years while undergoing two more knee surgeries, including an experimental Gore-Tex ACL transplant.
Since that time I survived nine emergency brain surgeries, including Nos. 4 through 7 in one 10-month period while I was completing my biology degree in the late 1980s. In 1990, I graduated at age 32 and have been working as a Wildlife Biologist/Environmental Consultant since. At age 52, I have now survived nine football-caused brain surgeries, multiple gran mal seizures and suffer from major short-term memory deficits.
I read earlier this week about Nathan Stiles, a 17-year-old, high-school football player in Kansas who died near Halloween from an apparent second subdural hematoma (brain bleed) in a month. He was concussed four weeks earlier and cleared to return -- even after what his mother said was a CT scan that normally shows such a subdural hematoma. He died of another subdural hematoma after a typical hit during his next game.
It's time we come to the realization the human brain was not meant to be used as a weapon. Get rid of helmets. All the new technology just makes one feel that much more invincible to injury.
I know I did.
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To read more from or about him, try:
> Visger's rules for heads in football.
> An NPR story on Visger and his troubles.