Ex-player sues NCAA over football injuries

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Matthew Onyshko went from college football player to educator to firefighter to, at age 32, terminally ill neurological patient.

In a lawsuit filed Tuesday, he and his wife alleged that concussions sustained on the gridiron led to his crippling ailment -- and that the NCAA should have tried to prevent the injuries.

"I don't know that I've ever seen a case as sad as his situation," said Jason Luckasevic, Mr. Onyshko's attorney, who was also a pioneer in the concussion lawsuits against the NFL. The Onyshkos "have two daughters ages 4 and 1, and Matt is just a complete shadow of himself."

He suffers from what the lawsuit described as symptoms associated with amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, commonly called Lou Gehrig's disease, including "severe headaches, numbness, twitching, muscle atrophy, fatigue, loss of mobility, slurred speech, difficulty swallowing [and] weakness."

Mr. Luckasevic said that the case in U.S. District Court is the first personal injury lawsuit against the National Collegiate Athletic Association claiming football-induced ALS.

An NCAA spokeswoman, though, wrote that the claim was "patterned after other litigation," and that it was misdirected.

Mr. Onyshko, a Brighton Heights resident and North Catholic High School graduate, played linebacker for California University of Pennsylvania, said Mr. Luckasevic.

The school confirmed that he was a redshirt in 1999-2000, then played the next four seasons before graduating in 2004.

"He said that he remembered three times that he was knocked unconscious," said Mr. Luckasevic, and "returned to every one of those games, and can't remember any of those games."

The lawsuit claims that the NCAA knew, from at least the 1980s on, that football-induced brain injuries cause long-term damage, according to the complaint. Some of the research on the subject was done by NCAA member institutions, Mr. Luckasevic wrote. Only in 2010, he wrote, did the NCAA adopt a concussion management policy.

"The NCAA remains committed to student-athlete safety, one of the organization's foundational principles," NCAA spokeswoman Stacey Osburn wrote. "We will continue to make changes to rules, equipment requirements and best practices as science, medicine and technology identify advancements to address head injuries in NCAA sports."

She did not respond to a request for any concussion protocols that may have been in place during Mr. Onyshko's playing days.

Post-graduation, Mr. Onyshko worked for the Pittsburgh Public Schools before joining the city firefighters in 2007. This year his neurological condition worsened dramatically, according to Mr. Luckasevic.

While he remains on the city roster, Mr. Onyshko can't function as a firefighter, and he faces "an incurable, terminable condition," the attorney said.

"There's very little treatment," for ALS, said Dr. Robert Friedlander, director of the Neuroapoptosis Laboratory at the University Pittsburgh School of Medicine. The medication Riluzole can add "a couple of months" to the typical life expectancy of two to five years post-diagnosis, he said.

Dr. Friedlander is involved in research involving other drugs and stem cells, but to date none of that is approved for human use.

He said that the death of motor neurons seen in ALS isn't fully understood. Some people may have tendencies to brain cell death that are triggered by stress, including head injuries, he said.

"There's really no proof of that association," he said. "That trauma causes brain damage -- that's common sense."

The complaint alleges negligence on the part of the NCAA, causing injury to Mr. Onyshko and loss of companionship to Mrs. Onyshko.

It seeks compensation for economic damages and costs. A news release by Mr. Luckasevic, of the Downtown firm Goldberg, Persky & White, noted that the NFL concussion settlement provides $5 million to former players with ALS.

That settlement, reached in September, totalled $765 million. It was driven in part by research such as a 2012 National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health study suggesting that league veterans had mortality rates from Alzheimer's and ALS that were four times those seen in the general population.

Mr. Luckasevic said others have filed class-action lawsuits against the NCAA demanding medical monitoring of former players, with an eye toward compensation if they deteriorate. He said he's only interested in representing the Onyshkos.

"I'm looking for him to receive some kind of compensation so his family can move on."

Rich Lord: rlord@post-gazette.com, 412-263-1542 or on Twitter: @richelord. First Published December 17, 2013 11:50 AM

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