'69 New York Jets Continue Their Winning Ways

FRIDAY, Oct. 5 (HealthDay News) -- The pluck and luck that helped the upstart New York Jets football team capture Super Bowl III in 1969 -- considered one of the biggest upsets in U.S. sports history -- seems to have followed the players well into their retirement.

A new study finds the collective health of the ex-Jets is just fine.

But the study authors were quick to add that these findings are probably not representative of retired pro football players in general. In fact, controversy continues to grow around calls for compensation to many aging -- and often sick -- retired players.

"I don't think that you can generalize the entire population of pro football based on this small microcosm" of New York Jets, said the study's lead researcher, Dr. Stephen Nicholas. He's director of the Nicholas Institute of Sports Medicine and Athletic Trauma at Lenox Hill Hospital, in New York City.

For more than 40 years, Nicholas and his father before him, the late Dr. James Nicholas, have been team doctors for the Jets. The elder Nicholas was charged with the care of the 1969 team, including star quarterback Joe Namath.

At the time, the Jets were dismissed as hopeless underdogs hitched to the maligned American Football Conference. Their 16-7 victory over the prohibitively favored Baltimore Colts of the National Football Conference is considered among the most important pro football games ever played.

Now, drawing on 35 years of follow-up data, researchers led by the younger Nicholas found that the Jets veterans of that legendary match-up -- now averaging 62 years of age -- are in as good or better shape physically and mentally as other men their age.

Thirty-six of the total 41 members of the Jets participated in the study, whose results are published in the October issue of The American Journal of Sports Medicine. (Three of the original team members had died by the time the data was collected in 2004, Nicholas said.)

Players who suffered knee ligament injury during their football careers were at higher risk for knee osteoarthritis and knee replacement, the researchers found. In fact, two-thirds of the retired Jets went on to suffer from injury-linked knee trouble.

On the other hand, "the general health of these players was surprising," Nicholas said. "They had very little incidence of diabetes, their hypertension wasn't bad, and there were actually less deaths than you'd expect compared to an age-matched population."

Players with knee arthritis had physical health scores that were on par with the average 60-something American male, and those without knee trouble had scores that were 19 percent above the norm, the researchers found.

Even when players were overweight or obese, "we did not see diabetes," Nicholas noted. That may stem from the team members' continued commitment to fitness.

"I know most of these players," Nicholas noted. "I was a waterboy on that team in 1969. I knew them back then, and I know them now as a physician for many of them -- they maintain their fitness, and they are still in shape."

That includes brain fitness, too, he said. The study found that the ex-Jets were as or more mentally sharp than men of similar age, despite the neurological hazards that playing football can bring.

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