Research Finds Football Hits May Lead to Brain Injury

Research finds that high-impact football may lead to brain injuries.

ByMartin Bashir and Roxanna Sherwood
October 16, 2009, 3:31 PM

Oct. 16, 2009— -- Football players are getting bigger. The game is getting faster. Now, the chorus of concern is getting louder. At least four recent studies have raised serious questions about the impact of pro football on the brains of players. But are they being driven mad by the game?

Garrett Webster treasures every memory of his father, legendary Pittsburgh Steeler Mike Webster.

"These [rings] are, I guess you could say what my dad got back for giving his life, three Super Bowl rings and a Hall of Fame ring," Garrett Webster said. "My dad was everyone I wanted to be. I mean he was smart, funny and he was caring and loving. To me he was Iron Mike. ..."

"Iron" Mike Webster, as he was known, was a seemingly indestructible center for the Steelers during the 1970s and '80s. He played 150 straight games, winning four Super Bowls. He was selected to the Pro Bowl nine times.

Dr. Julian Bailes, chairman of neurosurgery at the West Virginia University Hospitals, was team doctor toward the end of Webster's playing career.

"He was the consummate professional, one of the greatest players on perhaps the greatest team ever," he said. "And he was the leader; he was the center of the line and was the focal point. And I think he was the spiritual leader in many ways of that team."

That's why nobody could understand Mike Webster's behavior after he retired from the game at age 38.

"It was a fast, major change," Garrett Webster said. "We would go through times where he would have absolute mood swings and just destroy things in our apartment, our house, his memorabilia."

"I remember one time he got so angry ... he smashed the porcelain sink to pieces," he said. "Then other things started to change. We noticed he wasn't there for birthdays, we noticed he was forgetting to come home at night. We noticed he would disappear for days, weeks on end."

Mike Webster's life began to disintegrate. He started living out of a truck, used a Taser gun to ease his back pain and put Super Glue on his teeth. His behavior was incomprehensible to friends and family -- and its connection to the game he loved seemed unclear. Mike Webster was never known to have suffered a single documented concussion during 17 years of pro football.

On a cold September morning in 2002, just after his 50th birthday, Mike Webster died.

Dr. Bennet Omalu, a neuropathologist who grew up in Nigeria and was qualified to practice in the United States, was working as a medical examiner in Pittsburgh at the time of Webster's death and performed the autopsy. He confirmed that Webster had died of a heart attack.

"However, a question kept on lingering in my mind. The heart attack could not explain his life after football. I had to provide an explanation for that," Omalu told "Nightline." "I took out his brain, and I was extremely disappointed when I opened up his skull and his brain looked normal. His brain looked like a perfect textbook picture of a normal brain."

Determined to find answers, Omalu got permission to continue studying Webster's brain. After months of painstaking microscopic analysis, a whole new scientific account began to unravel. Omalu said what he found was nothing less than a new medical condition.

Researcher: Blows to Head Kill Brain Cells, Lead to Dysfunction

Omalu compared a region of the brain of a normal, middle-aged individual to a football player's. His analysis showed an accumulation of brown staining in the football player's brain.

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