Steelers Notebook: Signs of early CTE in Hall of Famers draw current players' attention

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Steelers running back Felix Jones smiled Thursday afternoon when recalling his chance meeting with Hall of Fame running back Tony Dorsett when he played for the Dallas Cowboys.

“Just to get a chance to talk to him was great,” said Jones, a former No. 1 draft pick of the Cowboys who played five seasons in Dallas before joining the Steelers this year. “I was excited just to meet a legendary guy. He’s a good person. He threw some knowledge at me.”

Jones’ smile turned to concern when he was told Dorsett had been diagnosed with signs of chronic traumatic encephalopathy, a neurological disease that is prevalent in boxers and football players.

Dorsett, 59, revealed to ESPN Wednesday that he was diagnosed with the disease after taking part in a study at UCLA, where doctors and researchers are among the first to develop a test for the presence of CTE in living people. Previously, CTE only had been diagnosed postmortem as was the case with Steelers Hall of Fame center Mike Webster.

Dorsett was one of three former NFL players diagnosed with CTE. Fellow Hall of Famer Joe DeLamielleure, an offensive lineman for the Buffalo Bills and Cleveland Browns from 1973-85; and former New York Giants defensive lineman Leonard Marshall, who played in the NFL from 1983-94, also were diagnosed in the UCLA study. Five other former NFL players, three of whom remain unidentified, were diagnosed with the same test last year.

“It’s unfortunate what is going on with him right now,” Jones said. “It’s something we all have to be cognizant of. When you take a risk and do what we do, put our bodies on the line every day, especially during a game, you tend to be concerned about what will happen later.

“We have to take care of our bodies now so later on we’ll be all right.”

Will Johnson plays one of the most violent positions in the NFL. As a fullback, Johnson’s main job is to block for running backs, and those blocks often are better described as violent collisions with an oncoming linebacker.

Johnson said he is concerned about the effects his football career will have on his quality of life, but he said he can’t think about it.

“I try to put it out of my mind, but it’s something that’s definitely there,” Johnson said. “You can’t run from it or hide from it. It’s pretty tragic what happened [to Dorsett]. I definitely worry about that in the long run, but I try to put it aside for now.”

Steelers rookie safety Shamarko Thomas was part of one of the most violent collisions in football last season when he played for Syracuse. Thomas was involved in a head-to-head collision with Pitt tight end J.P. Holtz. Thomas was knocked unconscious on the field.

Thomas, who does not know how many concussions he has had, was asked Wednesday if he thinks about the effects of concussions and his future.

“You want me to answer that question truthfully?” Thomas said, laughing.

He then answered the question in the manner many players do: “I don’t think about concussions. That’s the gamble of football, man. You’re going to get concussions, nicks and bruises. Whatever happens at the end of your career happens.”

The NFL and the players association have taken measures in recent years to protect players from head injuries. There are rules on targeting the head for defenders and ballcarriers.

Safer helmets are being developed, and the collective bargaining agreement stipulates teams can practice in pads only 14 times a season, a guideline that was put in place to help limit head trauma in practice settings.

“Every day they’re finding out more ways they can protect us,” Jones said. “That’s all you can really ask for. The game is still developing. We’re trying to find ways to protect ourselves in the long run and protect ourselves while we’re playing. That’s what we all should do. We should spread our knowledge around and try to help each other out.”

In the future, it’s likely a current player will go to UCLA for the same brain scan that was administered to Dorsett, DeLamielleure and the others. If a current player is diagnosed with signs of CTE, it sets off a whole new set of questions in NFL locker rooms.

“At the end of the day, this is just a game,” Johnson said. “My life is bigger than this. I’d definitely take the right precautionary measures to do what I had to do. If that’s not playing, then I would go ahead and do that.”


Ray Fittipaldo: rfittipaldo@post-gazette.com and Twitter @rayfitt1.

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