Garrett Webster has seen firsthand what head injuries can do

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Steelers Hall of Famer Mike Webster started it all, really, the national attention devoted to repetitive head injuries in sports. After his fabulous 17-year NFL career ended after the 1990 season, he struggled with dementia, depression and erratic behavior before dying of heart failure and other complications in 2002 at 50. His was a compelling, if tragic, story, the quick, hard fall of Iron Mike Webster, one of the toughest, most durable players in NFL history. It made even more headlines because Webster and his family sued the NFL -- and won -- over its disability plan.

There was pro wrestler Chris Benoit, who killed his wife and young son before hanging himself in 2007 at 40. Subsequent tests revealed he had Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy (CTE), a degenerative brain disease linked to multiple hits to the head.

There was Cincinnati Bengals wide receiver Chris Henry, who was 26 when he was killed when he fell out of the back of a pickup truck in 2009. Tests on his brain revealed he also had CTE, proving an athlete didn't have to be 40 or 50 or 60 to suffer from brain disease.

All seminal stories.

Now, perhaps, there is Junior Seau -- a lock to make the Pro Football Hall of Fame -- who committed suicide last week at 43.

"If the tests on his brain come back positive, it probably will be bigger than even my dad's death," Garrett Webster was saying Monday morning from his Moon Township home.

Webster seemed like the right person to call after Seau's death Wednesday, the same day NFL commissioner Roger Goodell handed down stiff suspensions to four players in the New Orleans Saints' Bountygate. "Probably the worst day in NFL history," Webster said. He was 18 when his father died and was his primary caregiver late in his life. Now, he's 28 and is the administrator for the Brain Injury Research Institute, which is studying the long-term effects of repetitive head injuries. It was his job to reach out to the Seau family to ask that Seau's brain be donated to medical science. The family still is deciding if it will make the donation and to what institute. Besides Webster's group, there is another -- the Sports Legacy Institute at Boston University -- that also is doing similar brain research.

"We're the Yankees and the Red Sox," Webster said. "But, at the end of the day, what's important is that somebody looks at [Seau's] brain. We learn a little bit more with each brain we examine ...

"People ask me why we can't study brains while people are living. They think we can put them in a brain MRI. It doesn't work that way. We have to slice the brain into sections and put it all on slides.

"It's going to take time. This still is all so new. How long did it take before they understood heart disease -- 20, 30, 40 years? And they had a much bigger donation base than we do."

Webster said the goal of his institute is to develop treatment so the impact of symptoms of brain disease can be kept to a minimum.

"We're not out to end football or change football. That's 100 percent not the case. We couldn't afford to change it even if we wanted to. Football has such a big impact on our economy. Look at how important the Steelers are here. Football isn't going anywhere. We know that. We're just trying to find ways to make the game safer for kids and adults."

Webster said the NFL has come a long way with player safety since his father played. He mentioned the league's crackdown on helmet-to-helmet hits and Goodell's tough stance against the Bountygate players, who offered cash rewards to teammates to knock out opposing players. He predicted more rule changes to try to make the game safer "even though they'll never be able to make it completely safe." Mostly, though, he talked about how the league finally is recognizing concussions as a legitimate injury.

"When my dad played, it wasn't considered an injury because you couldn't see it," Webster said. " 'So you're loopy? Shake it off and get back in there.' It's not that way now. Back then, I don't think it was a case of maliciousness. I think it was just ignorance."

More than 1,000 former NFL players might disagree with Webster's assessment. They have sued the NFL, claiming the league knew all along of the dangers and long-term impact of concussions but did not share that information with the players.

The Webster lawsuit was a little different. The courts ruled in 2005 that Mike Webster was permanently and totally disabled by football and due payments totaling $1.18 million going back to his retirement.

"I'm not a lawyer, but I've got to think it's going to be tough for those lawsuits," Garrett Webster said. "I've heard the comparisons to the tobacco lawsuits, but tobacco is addicting. The NFL will argue the players could have quit football at any time. No one put a gun to their head and said you have to play."

That probably was a poor choice of words considering three former NFL players -- Seau, Ray Easterling and Dave Duerson -- have shot themselves to death in the past 15 months. But you get Webster's point.

It's nice to think the day will come when lawsuits against the NFL aren't necessary.

"We've learned so much about brain injuries," Webster said. "My dad didn't understand why a lot of things were happening to him. If he were still alive today, he'd know.

"But we still have so much more to learn. That's why Junior is going to be a very important figure in all of this. People knew him and admired him. As fans, we live and die with players like him. When they're gone, it's almost like losing a family member or a friend. What happened to him, we don't want happening to anyone else. We've got to do everything we can to try to keep it from happening again."

roncook

Ron Cook: rcook@post-gazette.com. Ron Cook can be heard on the "Vinnie and Cook" show weekdays from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. on 93.7 The Fan.


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