By Dan Kennedy • The press, politics, technology, culture and other passions

Head cases

Here’s a little context for Jackie MacMullan’s story in today’s Boston Globe on Ted Johnson, the former Patriots linebacker who’s suffering from depression and other ailments that he blames on repeated concussions during his career.

In August 2004, the Globe’s Gordon Edes checked in with Johnny Damon, who, you might recall, had suffered a concussion in an outfield collision with Damian Jackson and missed two games in the 2003 post-season. Edes wrote:

He is dealing, he said, with some physical aftereffects from that Jackson collision, most notably its impact on his vision. He is sufficiently concerned, he said, that he has an eye exam scheduled and plans to have doctors check out a few other things, too, though he refused to be more specific (“I’d rather not talk about it,” he said).

“I definitely can’t see like I used to,” he said. “When I cover up an eye and try to get a clear vision, it’s not there. At night, at dusk, I definitely have a tough time. It’s something I have to battle with.”

Then there’s this, from Damon’s book, “Idiot”:

While I was on a stretcher being put into an ambulance, I gave a thumbs-up. When they carted me off the field, everyone thought I was okay, but I wasn’t. I’d suffered a bad concussion. My mind was scrambled. I actually thought I was wearing an Oakland uniform and that I was walking off the field waving to the Oakland fans, saying, “Thank you for supporting us this year….”

When we got back to Boston, I went to the team doctor, and he said everything was checking out fine, that I was regaining some of my faculties. But the truth was I wasn’t close to normal — it took me four or five months before I had a clear, vivid picture of what was going on.

Remember, this was after one concussion, and Damon, by all appearances, made a full recovery. By contrast, here’s what Johnson told MacMullan: “Officially, I’ve probably only been listed as having three or four concussions in my career. But the real number is closer to 30, maybe even more. I’ve been dinged so many times I’ve lost count.”

Based on MacMullan’s story, it would seem that Patriots coach Bill Belichick is slated for a mighty uncomfortable off-season. Still, Belichick, by pushing Johnson to play before he was ready, wasn’t doing anything unusual by football standards.

The larger question is what is the NFL going to do about it. The players need to be protected from themselves.

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  1. mike_b1

    Dan, what few people realize is that athletes may sustain far more concussions than are diganosed. It is generally felt that those who sustain concussions become more susceptible to future concussions, and that the effects of become magnified with each new incident. It is entirely possible Damon, who by all accounts was an outstanding multisport teen athlete, had sustained previous — but undiagnosed — concussions.Obviously, I’m not attempting to diagnose Damon’s condition. However, reporters who are interested should talk to Dr. Tom Hammeke at MCW in Milwaukee; he’s spent the past six or so years developing a massive database of teen sports-related head injuries and cataloguing the effects over time. Any serious journalism research into this starts with him.

  2. Anonymous

    After Daryl Stingley was paralyzed, I decided not to watch football anymore because it is too violent. But people love to see this violence every Sunday.

  3. A.J. Cordi

    Johnson is a head case, so the headline matches the post.However, protecting players from themselves? Good luck…

  4. mike_b1

    a.j., as many neurologists and neuropsychologists have pointed out, Johnson’s behavior could be directly tied to his brain injuries (some of which, I shoudl add, he may have sustained long before he entered the NFL). You might try banging your skull against a brick wall a few thousand times; you’ll act a little funny afterwards too.Insofar as protecting players from themselves, this very well become the norm. We could see the day where players will get fMRI scans prior to each season, and are monitored for changes in brain activity and damage. Keep in mind that, in what is likely to become a landmark, ex NFL lineman Mike Webster’s estate won a multimillion suit against the NFL relating to injuries sustained while playing. At $3,000 a pop per fMRI, it would be far cheaper for the NFL to monitor this upfront than to argue it in the courtroom later.

  5. Anonymous

    Acording to NFL statistics, thePatriots have the lowest concussion rate in the league annually. The Players who wear a retainer like mouth guard, developed with Marvin Hagler, are protected from the effects of the boxers “glass jaw”. Obviously some players chose not to use this corrective procedure, now a subject of a peer reviewed study and an ESPN series by Peter Keating. for more info go

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