Mea Culpa: Why I Changed My Mind on the JuJu Smith-Schuster Suspension to Support #FreeJuJu!

Sometimes it’s simply best to fess up and admit you were wrong. So it is with me and the NFL’s decision to suspend JuJu Smith-Schuster.

  • To be honest, I reacted to seeing the flag being thrown by asking “Why?”

Really, it didn’t make sense. But then the replay showed helmet-to-helmet contact, and then JuJu clearly looked to be making light over Vontaze Burfict. That didn’t sit well, and in my post-game write up I came down hard on JuJu and on Rebecca Rollett’s site, Going Deep with the Steelers I observed, “JuJu Smith-Schuster was (rightly in my view) suspended for gloating over Vontaze Burfict…”

  • Let’s put it out front and center: I was wrong about JuJu Smith-Schuster’s suspension.

Several factors influenced my change in thinking, which I expand below.

JuJu Smith-Schuster, Vontaze Burfict, Steelers vs Bengals, JuJu Smith-Schuster suspension, David DeCastro

JuJu Smith-Schuster stands over Vontaze Burfict. Photo Credit: ESPN.com

Taunting is Wrong, but Is It Suspendable Offense + Vontaze Burfict Took a Dive

In taking JuJu Smith-Schuster to task put his actions into the context of what we know today as opposed to yesteryearWhen I saw Greg Lloyd 3 count Al Toon after Thomas Everett knocked the Jets wide receiver out with a concussion during the 1989 Steelers shut out over the Jets I thought it was awesome.

  • Of course at the time Mike Webster seemed to defying father time by playing for the Chiefs and the word “CTE” was close to 20 years away.

Given that, JuJu’s taunting of a seemingly concussed Burfict, while satisfying on one level is nonetheless wrong on so many others. But as Mike Silverstien, aka “Homer J” reprimanded:

No question Juju deserved 15 for taunting, but NO PLAYER IN NFL HISTORY HAS EVER BEEN SUSPENDED FOR TAUNTING. You throw the flag, give him 15, lighten his wallet and move on, damn it.

There no arguing with that logic, and while the NFL mentioned the taunting in its letter to JuJu it apparently clarified that the suspension was for the hit, not the taunting. Even Jason Witlock and Colin Cowherd, two jouralists not exactly known for their support of the Steelers, went at pains to say that the hit only borderline illegal.

But of course, it was a devastating hit, wasn’t it? Well, again Homer J’s analysis is instructive:

Juju clocks Burfict and lays him flat. Burfuct [sic] at first springs up, and he tries to twist and grab Juju’s legs. Then the flags start flying and Burfict flops like some damned Serbian midfielder in a match against hated Croatia. Just like he falls to the ground game after game during other team’s offensive drives. Just like he said Antonio Brown did in the playoff game two years ago. (So it wasn’t something he hadn’t thought about) He laid there like a slug. And they strapped him to the gurney and took him to the field hospital where the Civil War surgeons were ready to amputate his leg or something. But, wait! According to media reports, the second he got into the tunnel and away from cameras, the SOB demanded to be unhooked, and he jumped up and started to head back onto the field. He was faking it!

As no one disputes the press accounts that Burfict did in fact get off the cart after it was out of camera view, one must assume he did just that. And Homer’s analysis makes a lot more sense in that light.

NFL Has 1 Standard for Juju Smith-Schuster, Another for Ilokia and Gronk

When the news broke that the NFL had suspended Juju Smith-Schuster and while also suspending George Ilokia for his hit on Antonio Brown, the league at least looked to be trying to keep up the appearance of objectivity.
Never mind that Ilokia had a lot more opportunity to avoid hitting Brown’s head that JuJu had with Burfict.

  • But of course Ilokia’s suspension didn’t stick as his lawyer got it reduced to a mere $36,000 fine.

Sorry, no amount of sophistry can justify this, although Ilokia’s agent tried suggesting that Brown should have positioned his head differently.

I suppose JuJu’s agent should have tried the same argument with respect to Burfict. Except unlike Brown, Burfict didn’t have to worry concentrating to hold on to the ball as he was probably calculating whether he could injure Le’Veon Bell again.

Tony Defeo has already written about the NFL’s hypocrisy here and taken the argument further by contrasting the 1 game suspension that JuJu Smith-Schuster got for unintentional yet a (borderline) illegal hit, where as Patriots pretty boy Rob Gronkowski clearly pre-meditated, almost pro-wrestling style elbow to the back of the head of Bills defenseless defensive back Tre’Davious White.

Go read Tony’s full article, we need not rehash it here, but Defeo’s argument also played a role in shifting my thinking.

Where’s the Suspension for Ahmad Brooks Hit on Antonio Brown??

And that brings us to the third factor that shifted my thinking.

  • Where in the hell is the NFL’s suspension for the Green Bay Packers Ahmad Brooks  illegal hit Antonio Brown?

What’s that you ask, I don’t remember anything like that from the Packer’s game? Well, I missed it too, but it came on Martavis Bryant’s ill-fated end around at the goal line. What Brown has David DeCastro passes him by:

Gee, isn’t that interesting? Not only was Brown hitting hit from almost the same position that Burfict was standing in, unlike JuJu Smith-Schuster, Ahmad Brooks was clearly aiming at Antonio Brown’s head. This play also came on a nationally televised game, and yet, the only discussion of it came thanks the discussion board on Jim Wexell’s Steel City Insider in response to observations made by Craig Wolfley.

  • And just the point isn’t it? Cris Collinsworth and Al Michaels either missed this hit or chose not to talk about it.

Which shouldn’t matter, should it? The NFL is supposed to review all game tapes and look for offenses like this, aren’t they? That doesn’t seem to be the case, as Jim Wexell suggested on Twitter:

And that’s what’s so galling about the JuJu Smith-Schuster suspension. On paper the NFL has appeared to take strides towards injecting some objectivity into its administration of justice. But as the old adage goes, “Character is what you do when no one else is looking.” The calculus for understanding why JuJu’s punishment is so harsh is simple:

  • Jon Gruden got the rest of the NFL to look at JuJu Smith-Schuster’s hit, so Roger Goodell suspended him.

No one saw Ahmad Brooks illegal hit on Brown, so it Goodell saw no reason to do anything. Iloka George didn’t taunt and Brown didn’t get taken out on a stretcher, so his suspension can be reduced to a fine.

As for Ron Gronkowski? Well, he’s a Patriot and the one time Goodell tried to get tough on them he overcompensated, and it backfired. So Goodell’s back in his comfort zone of looking the other way when his buddy Bob Kraft is involved.

Let’s repeat something this site has mentioned before and will again:

  • Chronic traumatic encephalopathy aka “CTE” and related head trauma poses a threat to the existence of not just the NFL, but of football itself.

Football will only survive if the risk of CTE is eliminated or greatly reduced. But arbitrary administration of justice, whether that be giving protection to Tom Brady and Peyton Manning but not Ben Roethlisberger, or trying to make James Harrison a scapegoat, simply erodes the integrity of the game, without touching the threat of CTE.

And that’s why I’ve changed my mind. Apologies to readers for the error of my ways. #FreeJuJu!

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Ryan Shazier’s Spinal Contusion Sobers Reaction to Steelers 23-20 Win over Bengals

The Steelers 23-20 Monday Night Football win over the Cincinnati Bengals will spark debates and discussions for a long time. Unfortunately, this is one game that people will remember for the wrong reasons.

  • Football is a contact sport, and an often a brutal one.

On one level, there’s often something beautiful about this, as athleticism, precision, strategy, teamwork and pure force combine to form the ultimate test of wills. If the movie Concussion is accurate, even Dr. Bennet Omalu’s wife Prema Mutiso concurs.

  • Last Christmas, the Steelers and Ravens treated the world to an example of the NFL at its best.
  • On Monday Night Football, the Steelers and the Bengals treated the world to an example of the NFL at its worst.

One can argue whether this was simply a hard hitting game or a dirty game. A little bit of both is true, and both teams bear responsibility. Regardless, Ryan Shazier’s spinal contusion shows just how a big of a risk players take and how high of a toll the game extracts.

It’s hard, and it some lights feels almost inappropriate to focus on football in a context like this, but solider on we will.

George Lloka, Antonio Brown, Steelers vs Bengals

George Lloka drills Antonio Brown as he scores the Steelers 2nd touchdown in a brutal game against the Bengals. Photo Credit: Christopher Horner, Tribune-Review

Rocky III Reenacted on the Gridiron

A good friend of mine and founding member of the Pittsburgh Steelers Fan Club of Buenos Aires sees himself as an old-fashioned Cold Warrior, and I’ve often joked  that the 1980 US Olympic Hockey Miracle On Ice equals Rocky IV in real life.

  • If that’s the case then the Steelers first half vs the Bengals provided the football equivalent of Rocky III.

If you’ll remember, in the movie right before the first fight, Clubber Lang takes out Micky, Rocky fights anyway but is clearly out of sorts and gets KOed as a result. That pretty much sums up the Steelers first half against the Bengals.

To be sure, Road Ben Roethlisberger started the game for the Steelers, but Ryan Shazier got hurt 3 plays after Ben’s first interception.

After that, the next 24 and a half minutes belonged to the Cincinnati Bengals. You wouldn’t exaggerate if you argued that the Pittsburgh Steelers haven’t looked as aimless since the dark days of the 1998 and 1999 late season melt downs under Bill Cowher.

  • Cam Heyward, Javon Hargrave and Stephon Tuitt got dominated at the line of scrimmage, leading to…
  • Tyler Matakevich aka, “Dirty Red,” looking clearly out of his depth ,as Giovani Bernard and Joe Mixon ran up the middle at will
  • Coty Sensabaugh proved that the long touchdowns he’s given up since taking over for Joe Haden were no fluke

Indeed, Coty Sensabaugh looked to be playing the role of a tormented child struggling to catch a bar of ice cream tossed between Andy Dalton and A.J. Green in cruel game of keep away.

Steelers vs Bengals, A.J. Green, Robert Golden, Coty Sensabaugh

A.J. Green catches a touchdown pass as Robert Golden and Coty Sensabaugh can do little more than watch. Photo Credit: Chaz Palla, Tribune-Review

The Steelers offense was just as unfocused. Martavis Bryant dropped another catchable long bomb, Antonio Brown dropped a would-be touchdown pass, Le’Veon Bell couldn’t find room to run, the offensive line gave up a sack on 3rd down, and Ben Roethlisberger threw several near interceptions.

When Andy Dalton connected with A.J. Green for their second touchdown of the night with 0:45 left in the first half, it looked as if both a blowout and a shut out were in the making.

Comeuppance for Tomlin Clock Management Critics

Steel Curtain Rising has already challenged the conventional wisdom by complementing Mike Tomlin’s clock management skills, but the Bengals game adds new fuel to the fire.

After getting torched on the road during a cold, rainy Monday for another touchdown on a night after you’ve lost your most dynamic player and your down by 3 scores, taking a knee when you’ve got 26 seconds left in the half must be appealing head coach.

  • As long as that head coach isn’t Mike Tomlin.

Tomlin ordered his offense to go for it, and a heads up play by Le’Veon Bell, combined by a foolish pass interference penalty by the Bengals allowed the Steelers to get into position for Chris Boswell to knock in a 30 yard field goal.

17-3 at the half isn’t pretty, but it sure beats 17-0.

Steelers Rally, Show Resiliency in 2nd Half

It would be easy to look at the Steelers offense’s 17 point second half and credit them for the comeback. And the offense did play much better in the final 30 minutes which were highlighted by:

  • An offensive line protected Ben Roethlisberger well an opened holes for Bell and James Conner
  • Le’Veon Bell’s heads up, play to the whistle touchdown while Cincinnati snoozed
  • A pass interference call set drawn by Martavis Bryant that set up Chris Boswell’s first field goal
  • An incredibly tough touchdown catch by Antonio Brown as he got KOed by George Lloka

The real story of the second half, however, was the Steelers defense. The unit began the night without Joe Haden and Mike Mitchell, lost Ryan Shazier 3 plays into the night, and lost Tyler Matakevich a few plays into the 3rd quarter, leaving L.J. Fort as their last healthy reserve linebacker.

Andy Dalton, Vince Williams, T.J. Watt, Steelers vs Bengals, Vince Williams sack Andy Dalton

Vince Williams sack of Andy Dalton keyed the Steelers most important defensive stand of the night. Photo Credit: Chaz Palla, Tribune-Review

Having seen enough of Coty Sensabaugh, Mike Tomlin and Keith Butler started the rookie Cam Sutton in the second half. At one point it looked like a preseason game as Arthur Moats, Anthony Chickillo were also seen on the field along with Fort and Sutton.

  • Despite that, the Steelers defense persevered as the Bengals fell apart, particularly on third downs.

After the Steelers pulled to within a touchdown, Vince Williams spearheaded the key defensive series as he charged untouched on 1st down to sack Andy Dalton. That led to a three and out, which in turn set up the Steelers touchdown drive.

  • Bud Dupree closed the night with another sack of Dalton, forcing a punt with 2:48 remaining.

For those looking to complain about clock management, look no further than Tim Lewis who allowed the Steelers to burn up over 2 minutes of time before using his time outs. By the time Chris Boswell was kicking the game winner, time had expired.

A Word about JuJu

The NFL has suspended Steelers rookie JuJu Smith-Schuster for his hit on Vontaze Burfict. Looking at the replay, yours truly concurs with those who argue that JuJu’s hit, while illegal, wasn’t intentional.

  • But his standing and gloating over Burfict is unacceptable and appalling.

Knowing what we now know about CTE (Chronic traumatic encephalopathy), we can argue about whether the NFL’s defenseless receiver, no helmet to helmet hit and concussion protocol amount to real protections for players or mere window dressing.

That’s besides the point. This isn’t 1989 when ESPN PrimeTime would lead with footage of Thomas Everett knocking out  Al Toon out with a concussion followed by Greg Lloyd by giving Toon a WWE style three count. JuJu Smith-Schuster should know better, and for that alone he’s earned his suspension.

Nice that Steelers Won, But….

This was another game that shouldn’t have been close on paper but that went down to the wire. The Steelers have been in several of these, yet they keep managing to come out on top.

While it’s nice that the Steelers won, seeing Ryan Shazier carted out on the back board with his hands covering his face casts a pall over everything and reminds us that the most important outcome of this game has nothing to do with the score.

Get well soon Ryan, our thoughts and prayers are yours.

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Is Former Steelers Fullback Jon Witman Doomed to Become CTE’s Next Victim? Let’s Hope Not

Disconcerting. That describes my reaction to the headline “Former Steelers fullback Jon Witman pleads guilty to DUI crash.” For the record, Jon Witman was on a painkiller and a muscle relaxer when he ran a stop sign and crashed into a tree. Clearly Witman wasn’t on any sort of drunken rampage.

The Pittsburgh Tribune Review’s headline specifies a “2nd DUI crash” but only details the stop sign and tree incident. There’s more to Jon Witman’s story, it is not pretty, at least potentially, and it hits home for this writer.

Jon Witman, steelers fullback jon witman, 2001 steelers afc championship loss patriots

A distraught Jon Witman after the Steelers 2001 AFC Championship loss to the Patriots. Photo Credit: Matt Freed, Post-Gazette

Jon Witman and the Upshaw Players Assistance Trust

It’s ironic that we often get less news in the age when publishers no longer need worry about ink and page space limitations. A quick (and admittedly incomplete) Google search reveals that most of the news outlets ran the same AP stub on Jon Witman that appeared in the Tribune Review.

  • No one offered details regarding Witman’s other crash.
  • No one hinted that a bigger backstory lay behind Witman’s latest brush with the law

That’s a shame, because the last time Steelers Nation saw Jon Witman’s name in the news, USA Today sports writer Tom Pelissero was presenting Witman as a success story of the Gene Upshaw Players Assistance Trust. As Pelissero detailed, Witman was out of money, depressed, hooked on pain killers and literally had a gun to his head until the sight of his son walking into the room convinced him not to pull the trigger.

  • Michelle Witman called the NFLPA, which led to Witman spending time in detox and rehab for a methadone habit.

The article reported that assistance had gotten Witman sober, but that the former NFL running back still struggled with pain from back and ankle fusion surgeries. While Pelissero pulled no punches describing Witman’s post-NFL struggles, his December 2015 article did suggest that Jon Witman had turned a corner.

This latest news muddles the picture.

Don’t Jump to Conclusions on Jon Witman & CTE, But….

Let’s be clear on a few critical points:

  • This site has zero information about Jon Witman’s medical condition
  • Substance abuse alone can lead to the same, self-destructive behavior that Witman exhibited
  • Millions of people who’ve never had head trauma issues struggle with substance abuse

Fortunately, it is clear that Witman and his family are still actively seeking help. But it is hard not to read about this and wonder if Jon Witman isn’t doomed to be another victim of CTE. CTE is of course chronic traumatic encephalopathy, and CTE is caused by the accumulation of tau proteins in the brain due to repeated hits to the head.

CTE claimed the lives of former Pittsburgh Steelers Mike Webster and Justin Strzelczyk, as documented in the feature film Concussion, as well as Terry Long and Adrian Robinson.

The only objective indication that head trauma might be an issue is that Jon Witman has been getting treatment at Michigan’s Eisenhower Center whose “After Impact” program targets former soldiers, athletes, and first responders suffering from, among other things, post- concussion syndrome.

Possibility of Jon Witman Having CTE = “Citadel Moment”?

The possibility that Jon Witman might be falling victim to head trauma hits home especially hard for me. I really don’t have many memories of Mike Webster playing, other than perhaps watching the tail end of the Steelers 1988 final preseason game against the Saints, and answering “Mike Webster” to my older brother’s “Who in the hell is that old man?” inquiry.

Mike Webster, CTE

Mike Webster in 1988. Photo via: Small thoughts in a sports world

Terry Long was little more than a name I’d occasionally see in the Monday morning papers while following the Steelers from Maryland in the late 80’s. I do remember Justin Strzelczyk well, rooting for him as he moved through all four positions of the offensive line whenever he was needed.

Reading about Jon Witman’s latest troubles called to mind a scene for Pat Conroy’s autobiographical My Losing Season. Conroy he recounts how, cadets at the Citadel during the 60’s cheered at breakfast whenever it was announced that an alumni had been killed in Vietnam, because more Citadel graduates were giving their lives for their country than West Point graduates.

  • But as Conroy chilling reminds his readers, one morning in the mess hall the cheering stopped, because someone the cadets had studied with had died.

That’s why Jon Witman’s troubles are different for me, because I remember when he was drafted. I remember a friend of mine telling me how good of a player he was going to be, I remember him flashing in preseason, and remember rooting for this 3rd round draft pick in his rookie season that earned him Joe Greene Great Performance Award honors.

Clearly, I never thought Jon Witman’s career would equal that of Franco Harris or Dick Hoak, two other Penn State running backs who played for the Steelers.

  • But during his rookie year, I thought he might develop in the mold of Merril Hoge.
Jon Witman, steelers running back jon witman, Jerome Bettis, Steelers vs Jaguars 1990's

Jon Witman blocks for Jerome Bettis. Photo Credit: Statesman Journal

As a rookie Jon Witman got 69 yards on 17 carries for a respectable 4.1 yard average and got 59 yards on 10 carries in the playoffs. But his role as a running back never evolved. He was stuck for the next few years behind Tim Lester who was blocking for Jerome Bettis.

Witman got the starting job full time during the God-awful 1999 campaign, and was off to a strong start in 2000 before an injury cost him the season in week six. That injury led to Chris Fuamatu-Ma’afala shot as a starting fullback. But Fu also got injured, opening the door for a little-known practice squander named Dan Kreider.

Jon Witman reclaimed the starting role in 2001, only missing the season finale in week 16 and starting both of the Steelers playoff games. Sadly, the Steelers first AFC Championship loss to the Patriots was Jon Witman’s last game, and sight of him staring down in despair at game’s end is one of the enduring images of the game for me.

  • Currently, there is no way to diagnose CTE in someone who is alive.

So let’s hope he wins his battle with substance abuse and pulls his life together. Let’s hope he doesn’t have and never gets CTE. And let’s pray that if there ever is a CTE diagnosis for Jon Witman remains a long, long way off in the future.

But should that diagnosis ever come, it will be yet another painful reminder of the brutal toll that the game we love exacts on players we cheers so heartily for.

Are you a former NFL player that needs help? Maybe you know one. Get help below:

NFL Life Line
1-800-506-0078
nfllifeline.org

NFLPA Get Help Hotline
1-877-363-8062
www.yourpaf.com

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Why Rod Woodon’s Rugby Tackle Crusade is a Wise One

The Pittsburgh Steelers have sent three cornerbacks to the Pro Football Hall of Fame: Jack Butler, Mel Blount and Rod Woodson. While all three earned a ticket to Canton by dominating opposing receivers and quarterbacks, Mel Blount and Jack Butler have also left their mark off the field.

Blount so thoroughly dominated opposing receivers that he forced an NFL rule changed that opened up the passing game. Jack Butler, as head of the BLESTO scouting combine, had a role, albeit an indirect one, in constructing the Super Steelers.

  • Now Rod Woodson has a chance to make an even bigger mark.

As Yahoo sports writer Eric Edholm details, Rod Woodson is stepping out to work with middle school and high school players in an attempt to make the game safer. Rod Woodson, currently the Oakland Raiders secondary coach, will be working at the Pro Fooball Hall of Fame’s academy to encourage and teach young players to tackle Rugby style.

  • Edholm praises Rod Woodon’s rugby tackle crusade suggesting it might help save the game of football.

Edholm probably takes things too far. Nonetheless, no one can question the wisdom of Rod Woodson’s rugby tackle initiative.

Applying the Rugby Tackle to Football

The idea of importing players or principles from Rugby into football is hardly new. Like Brad Wing before him, Steelers punter Jordan Berry has experience as a Rugby player. On a number of occasions, this site’s Spanish language writer Gustavo Vallegos aka “El Dr. de Acero” has suggested that the NFL could improve its tackling technique by studying the way Rugby players do it:

El Dr. de Acero’s 2014 missive, “Mirando Los Steelers, Me Hace Preguntar ¿Tacklear o Golpear?” (Watching the Steelers Forces Me to Ask, “Tackle, or Hit?” speaks directly to the points that Rod Woodson is trying to address – NFL players too often try to hit first and tackle second.

  • Tackling in today’s NFL is more about mustering force and hitting than it is about using technique to bring the person down.

It wasn’t always this way.

Although memory flaws may betray some of the details, I can remember Terry Bradshaw discussing this while doing a Steelers game in the early 1990’s, contrasting the shoulder pads used in the 1970’s with the ones used in the 1990’s. Bradshaw used visuals to depict how “improved” shoulder pad technology allowed players like Delton Hall to use their shoulders like projectiles, barely needing to wrap a ball carrier.

  • Similar improvements in helmet technology, have, ironically facilitated the use of the head in tackling.

Woodson relates as to why this is a problem:

When your head is in front of the ball, a lot of time what happens is that his head and your head collide. When [the students] see the rugby players tackle – and do so without helmets, without pads, and not get nearly the number of concussions that NFL players get, I think it will be beneficial.

This brief tutorial on rugby tackling helps bring the issue into perspective:

Absent pads and helmets, the importance of protecting the head becomes an issue not only for the tackled but the tackler as well. And, as the video makes clear, while force is necessary, the rugby tackle makes it clear that proper technique goes a long way.

Lest anyone fear that using rugby style tackles will soften the game, this video should dispel those worries:

Can Safer Tackling Save Football?

Steelers Nation reacted with outrage in 2010 when Roger Goodell and Ray Anderson scapegoated James Harrison in their attempt to reduce helmet-to-helmet hits. When Steelers fans fans complained that Goodell and Anderson were attempting to sissify the game, the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette’s Ed Bouchette cautioned that Pittsburgh legends such as Joe Greene, Jack Ham, Jack Lambert and Andy Russell managed to combined hard hitting with textbook tackling.

  • At the time, it seemed like Bouchette might be offering a simple solution to the emerging CTE crisis.

After all, the first known victims of CTE, Mike Webster, Terry Long, Justin Strzelczyk and Andre Waters had all played in the 80’s when players got seemingly exponentially bigger, faster and at the exact time when hitting was eclipsing technique in NFL tackling.

  • Alas, we now know things aren’t so simple.

With CTE diagnosis coming following the deaths of older players like Ken Stabler and Frank Gifford, and younger players like Adrian Robinson, we now know that the problem’s roots run far deeper. And it should be noted the specter of CTE is causing its own complications for sport of rugby.

IF Football is to answer the threat that CTE poses to its very existence, then an effective response will likely come in the form of some sort of impact absorbing helmet technology, drugs that neutralize the TAU protein that causes CTE and safer tackling. If that day arrives, as anyone reading this surely hopes it does, then Rod Woodson’s rugby tackle crusade will have helped preserve the game we love.

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A Lifelong Steelers Fan Watches Concussion

Concussion: The story of Dr. Bennett Omalu. The tragedy of Mike Webster. The discovery of Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy or “CTE.” The crisis that threatens the existence of the sport we love.

When someone pens the definitive history of the NFL and its CTE-fueled head trauma crisis, Pittsburgh will occupy ground zero. Steelers Hall of Fame center Mike Webster will play the role of patient zero. Dr. Bennet Omalu will act as the canary that sounded an alarm from deep inside the diamond mine.

For a lifelong Steelers fan watching Concussion was going to be difficult. Not because of what I might learn, but because of what I already knew:

  • The hits that Mike Webster took in football that caused the CTE that took his life are in no way an aberration.

Difficulties aside, Concussion tells a story that any conscientious football fan must hear. Steelers fans know it all too well. Mike Webster died at age 49, penniless and robbed of his wits thanks to the tau proteins that accumulated in his brain. CTE took Justin Strzelczyk two years later, at age 36 in a fiery wreck. Yet another year later, Terry Long ended his own life by drinking antifreeze while suffering from CTE. Less than one year ago, Adrian Robinson was posthumously diagnosed with CTE after committing suicide the age of 25.

Concussion recounts the story of a young Nigerian doctor, who saw 2 + 2 not equaling four and insisted, at his own risk, on doing something about it.

A Steelers Fan Watches Concussion

From an artistic stand point, Concussion represents a work of excellence. Its imagery and acting in many ways capture the essence of Pittsburgh. Will Smith provides an Oscar-worthy performance. David Morse became Mike Webster. While there’s an undeniable “David and Goliath” air to Concussion, the producers do tell a balanced story.

  • They pull no punches when it comes to depicting the horrors of CTE and the resistance the NFL marshaled when Dr. Omalu refused to keep quiet.

Yet, Concussion also conveys to the viewer the power and pull of football. Interspersed with live game footage showing Mike Webster taking hits to the head throwing blocks for Franco Harris or Rocky Bleier shots of Terry Bradshaw rocketing off bombs to John Stallworth and Lynn Swann epitomizing just how graceful a sport defined by brute force can be.

  • The director takes some artistic liberties – depicting a meeting between Strzelczyk and Webster that almost certainly never happened.

Another apocryphal meeting between Dave Duerson and Andre Waters one between serves the same purpose: To clarify football stands at the very crux of the tragic deaths suffered by these players.

In Concussion, the NFL establishment plays the part of the antagonist. Yet Steelers Nation will likely see the portrayal of their Pittsburgh representatives, in shades of grey and rightly so.

Concussion casts Dr. Joseph Marron the same Steelers doctor who once earned the wrath of this site, as one of the ultimate NFL skeptics and someone vehemently hostile to Dr. Omalu. But according to Julian Bailes, the movie casts Marron in an unfair an inaccurate light.

  • But one thing Dr. Marron’s character claims in the movie is undoubtedly accurate:

Football forms a fundamental part of the fabric of Pittsburgh’s identity and the Rooney family has been pillars of the community. In an earlier scene, Danny Sullivan, a fellow doctor who plays Bennett Omalu’s antagonist in the coroner’s office pleads with Omalu not to press forward with a deeper investigation of Webster arguing that it was players like Webster who gave the city hope when J&L and the rest of the steel industry collapsing.

WDVE’s Scott Paulsen spoke to that reality in his seminal essay “Steeler Nation” that provides a touchstone for both the city, the products of the Pittsburgh diaspora and the Steelers nationwide legion of fans. Before the 70’s, Pittsburgh was known for its steel. Since then it’s known more for the Steelres.

  • No one can dispute that.

But based on what we now know, Webster’s may have suffered from the first diagnosed case of CTE, but he certainly was not the first to suffer from that affliction. As former ABC Radio journalist Mike Silverstein observed in a related story on Going Deep with the Steelers, that as long as 20 years ago “…there were stories of ‘punch drunk’ ex-football players living in abject poverty, without medical care or insurance.”

Still, several times during Concussion Mike Webster repeats, “If we finish the game, we win.” The movie’s none too subtle message is that perhaps the key to winning at football is not to play at all….

  • And it’s getting more difficult to dispute that.

Fear not loyal readers, Concussion does not represent a “Come to Jesus” moment for this site on CTE any more than Adrian Robinson’s CTE diagnosis.

Perhaps new helmet technology can dissipate impact to prevent the brain from sloshing against the cranium. Pittsburgh Post Gazette writer Ed Bouchette has commented that he’s seen hundreds of former football players grow into their golden years with sharp minds but with painfully broken bodies. Maybe some study will pinpoint the independent variable that correlates to the excellent mental health of those players. Perhaps an enzyme will be discovered that neutralizes the tau protein.

  • Yeah, that’s the emotional side of my brain talking more than the intellectual side, for sure.

Still, on January 29th 1974 – the famous 1974 NFL Draft where the Pittsburgh Steelers took a chance on an undersized center from Wisconsin named Mike Webster, the idea that someone with prosthetic legs could run marathons pure science fiction. So was the idea that you could communicate globally with a hand-held communicator. Now, both are realities.

Conclusion on Concussion, the Steelers and CTE

Early in the movie my wife asked me why so many ex-Steelers had CTE. I told her, “It was really just a conscience.” Later, I asked myself, “Was it because Chuck Noll was such hard driving coach?” After all, the Steelers were one of the last teams to stop live tackling in practice and Webster, Long, and Strzelczyk all played for The Emperor.

  • If Concussion makes one thing clear, it is that neither of those explanations are valid.

CTE was not discovered in Pittsburgh because of football’s fundamental role to the city. CTE was discovered in Pittsburgh because fate intervened allowing Webster, Strzelczyk and Long to find their end in a place where Dr. Omalu was practicing medicine and because Dr. Omalu refused to accept the simple answer and insisted on searching for the truth, even if it meant opposing some very powerful interests.

Are you a former NFL player who needs help? Perhaps you know one who needs help. Help is available. Get it now:

NFL Life Line
1-800-506-0078
nfllifeline.org

NFLPA Get Help Hotline
1-877-363-8062
www.yourpaf.com

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The Adrian Robinson CTE Diagnosis Raises Deeply Disturbing Questions

The suicide of former Pittsburgh Steelers linebacker Adrian Robinson caused a lot of commotion last May. And so it should. Robinson was 25 and seemingly had just renewed his lease on a pro football career, having signed a contract to play for the CFL’s Hamilton Tiger-Cats. Yet, he took his own life.

As family and friends struggled asking “Why?” Ivey DeJesus of Penn-Live asked the normal battery of questions:

He seemed to have so much: a career, friends, a loving family, a girlfriend and a baby daughter. What led him to the desperation? Was it the pursuit of perfection? Was it disappointment that his NFL career might be ending? Had his brain been ravaged by years of playing football – years of hits to the head? [Emphasis added]

The normal battery of questions, save for the last one, which today is all the more ominous, as tests on Adrian’s Robinson’s brain revealed the presence of an abnormal protein known as tau. The tau protein is similar to the proteins that build up in people who suffer from Alzheimer’s, although it builds up in different places in the brain. In other words Adrian Robinson was suffering from CTE (chronic traumatic encephalopathy.)

Adrian Robinson, Adrian Robinson CTE, CTE,

Adrian Robinson playing for the Steelers against the Kansas City Chiefs. Photo Credit: Fox Sports

Why the Adrian Robinson CTE Diagnosis Should Deeply Disturb You

The Adrian Robinson CTE diagnosis is deeply disturbing on many, many levels.

CTE is the same brain disorder which afflicted former Pittsburgh Steelers Mike Webster, Terry Long and Justin Strzelczyk. Mike Webster died after suffering for years from the disease, and the tales of his struggles in Gary Pomerantz’s Their Life’s Work are simply harrowing. Terry Long committed suicide. Justin Strzelczyk died in a fiery crash after a lengthy highway chase.

By all accounts, “Crazed” does not even begin to describe Justin Strzelczyk’s behavior before he died led police on a 40 mile chase.

  • Why is the Adrian Robinson CTE diagnosis so troubling? Let me count the ways.
Dr. Bennet Omalu, Mike Webster, cte, tau protien

Dr. Bennet Omalu

Mike Webster’s death, and Dr. Bennet Omalu post-mortem investigation on his brain, is credited for sounding the alarm bell on the dangers and risks that head trauma poses to football players.

But if Webster provided the medical community with a landmark case, his story was also somewhat exceptional. Webster played center for 17 years, and was estimated to have suffered tens of thousands of hits to the head.

For a time, Terry Long’s case appeared to be a potential exception because he was a known steroid user, although research has since discounted a connection between steroids and CTE. While Justin Strzelczyk had no known steroid use, Strzelczyk had banged heads for 9 years as an offensive lineman.

While no one would suggest that there was anything “comforting” about the cases of Webster, Long, or Strzelczyk all three men were lineman who played in an age when playing with a concussion was almost a mark of pride. Their cases, along with other high profile cases such that of Dave Duerson or Andre Waters came from players who played the game for a long time.

  • That at least suggested that awareness of the problem, along with the proper precautions, could mitigate the dangers of CTE.

The Adrian Robinson CTE diagnosis goes a long way to dispelling that illusion.

Adrian Robinson’s CTE Diagnosis Is a Potential Game Changer

Adrian Robinson was only 25, and had appeared in only 22 professional football games, unlike the hundreds of games played by Webster, Duerson, Waters, Long or Strzelczyk. If you love football AND you’re concerned about protecting players from head trauma then Adrian Robinson’s CTE diagnosis HAS to make you more uncomfortable.

The presence of tau in Robinson’s brain presents several inconvenient truths for football fans:

  • Robinson, like former Bengals wide receiver Chris Henry, had never been diagnosed with a concussion
  • Ergo, protecting against concussions is at the very least insufficient
  • With only 22 NFL games logged, the Adrian Robinson CTE diagnosis certainly suggests that CTE begins in college, if not before
Jonathan Dwyer, domestic violence, cte

(Photo Credit: David KadlubowskI/The Republic)

Robinson’s CTE-influenced suicide also suggests that any number of active NFL players could be suffering from CTE at this very minute. Last year when the NFL was reeling from the Ray Rice scandal, former Steelers running back Jonathan Dwyer was arrested for domestic violence.

At the time, former Steelers linebacker Larry Foote was a teammate of Dwyer’s at Pittsburgh West aka the Arizona Cardinals and expressed shock at Dwyer’s arrest, indicating that he and his wife hat traveled with the Dwyers to an off season Christian Conference.

No one on this site will excuse Dwyer or anyone for domestic violence, but he if did experience a sudden change in character then it raises a legitimate question:

  • Could Jonathan Dwyer be suffering from CTE?

We don’t know. But the Adrian Robinson CTE diagnosis suggests that it remains a distinct possibility.

Adrian Robinson CTE Diagnosis Forces Another Gut Check

Raise your hand… if you’ve been concerned about CTE and head trauma but honestly wished the issue would “Just Go away.”

Raise your hand… if you’ve looked at players like Mike Ditka, Franco Harris and Lynn Swann, to name a few, who’ve made it into their 60’s or beyond without exhibiting any outward signs of CTE and thought, “See, those guys show the problem can’t be that bad….”

Raise your hand… if you’ve read stories about CTE and thought, “This is serious shit, but honestly, I know plenty of people who played in high school or college and are just fine as adults.”

Raise your hand… if you’ve seen the NFL rollout concussion protocols and other measures to protect the head and thought, “Good, that’s going to help a lot.”

My hand is raised to each of those questions and, if you’ve read this far, I suspect yours is too. And if you’ve gotten this point, I suspect that you’ll join me in celebrating any Steelers success vs. the Arizona Cardinals this afternoon, or whomever they’re playing next if Google should bring you to this article.

Fair enough.

For as deeply disturbed I am at the Webster, Strzelczyk and Juinor Seau stories and the stories of others who’ve suffered from CTE, I haven’t reached my “Come to Jesus moment” yet that forces me to turn away from the sport I love.

  • But let’s repeat something said here before: CTE is dangerous enough not just to end the NFL but the entire sport of football itself.

And the Adrian Robinson suicide and subsequent CTE diagnosis suggest that roots of CTE and the forces that generate the tau protein that causes it drive far deeper and are woven far more fundamentally into the fabric of football than we’d like to believe or wish to admit.

Are you a former NFL player who needs help? Perhaps you know one who needs help. Help is available. Get it now:

NFL Life Line
1-800-506-0078
nfllifeline.org

NFLPA Get Help Hotline
1-877-363-8062
www.yourpaf.com

Like this? Share it with Steelers Nation!