Life Without Football

Former San Francisco 49er defensive lineman George Visger after his most recent brain surgery. Photo courtesy George Visger.

Long before President Donald Trump started his present feud with the NFL, I was contemplating life without football. Originally, I was contemplating life without network television, after I unsubscribed from the satellite TV service six months ago. That turned out to be not so bad. Between Netflix and MotoGP, I’ve managed to keep myself entertained.

Until football season started this fall, and for the first time in decades, I realized I wasn’t going to be able to watch the games on Sundays, Mondays and Thursdays, unless I actually broke down and paid extra for it on the internet, which I have yet to do.

So as of this moment, I’m the NFL’s second biggest problem, the longtime viewer, who, thanks to today’s fractured media market, has fallen out of the professional football loop. For $150 a year, I can watch 18 weekends of the aforementioned MotoGP programming, and 15 hours of live grand prix motorcycle racing every weekend. I don’t really even have the time to watch football—and now I’m going have to pay extra for it?

The truth is, I will eventually figure out some way to watch the NFL on the cheap, especially come playoff time, because I love football. But that doesn’t negate the NFL’s No. 1 problem. No, I’m not talking about forcing all the players to stand at gunpoint during the national anthem at the beginning of games.

I’m talking about the concussion controversy that has dogged the NFL for more than a decade and has now spread to high school football. While the research is still in its early stages, it’s becoming increasingly clear that young players who suffer multiple concussions may risk developing chronic traumatic encephalopathy, CTE, a progressive degenerative brain disease similar to Alzheimer’s, at young ages previously unheard of.

I was first introduced to the NFL’s massive head trauma issue via former San Francisco 49er defensive lineman George Visger when I profiled him in the Sacramento News & Review eight years ago.

He’s stayed in touch over the years, erratically, as you might expect from someone with no short term memory due to the extensive brain damage he incurred playing football. He and his family now live in Sacramento, and I phoned him recently to find out how he’s coping with his injury, what he thinks about the NFL’s efforts to address the CTE issue and whether he let his son Jack, who was 10 when I met him eight years ago, play football in high school.

Now nearing 60, Visger began playing football at an early age. He experienced the first of hundreds of concussions at age 9, playing a game called “bull in the ring” during a peewee football league practice in Stockton.

On the opening day of the 49ers 1981 championship season, NFL rookie Visger was speared viciously in the side of the helmet–”ear-holed”–by an opposing player’s helmet and knocked unconscious. Smelling salts on the sidelines kept him in the game. He continued to play throughout the season, until suffering an internal brain hemorrhage and nearly bleeding to death mid-season. He earned a Super Bowl ring on the sidelines, but his NFL career was done.

The latest shunt in George’s brain. Photo courtesy of George Visger.

However, his battle with both brain damage and the NFL was just beginning. Since then, he’s had a dozen brain surgeries to relieve hydrocephalus (via a shunt imbedded deep in his brain) which have left him with no short term memory. He’s been in court as many times as he’s had surgeries since 1981, in order to force the 49ers’ insurance provider to pay for the cognitive treatment he requires to function in society.

“It’s getting pretty bad,” he informed me when I called, referring to his short term memory issues. He has yet another court date coming up soon. “I was doing a lot better when I was getting treatment.”

He gets treatment at the Centre for Neuro Skills in San Francisco, which offers a day program designed to prevent his cognitive and motor skills from deteriorating. It’s an uphill battle that’s grown increasingly steep.

He hasn’t watched an entire NFL game, live or on TV, in decades, but the glimpses he catches every now and then haven’t impressed him. While some viewers, including Trump, have complained that the game has been softened in response to the concussion controversy, Visger doesn’t see it.

“It’s a joke, they’re doing the bare minimum to look good,” he said. “Everybody knows the sport is killing people. I can give you 14.5 billion reasons why the NFL won’t be stepping up.”

Visger was referring to the league’s annual profit margin, which is continuing to take hits from former players who refused to buy into the NFL’s class action lawsuit settlement offered in 2015 to thousands of players with symptoms of CTE.

In the most recent study on football, concussions and CTE, published in the Journal of the American Medical Association earlier this year, researchers examined the brains of 202 deceased football players across all ages and found that 87 percent exhibited symptoms of CTE—which at this point can only be diagnosed by autopsy after death.

As Forbes magazine points out, the fact that 99 percent of the NFL players examined had CTE made the headlines. But the study also examined 53 brains of players who only played up to the college level and found 91 percent had symptoms of CTE. Of the fourteen brains of high school level players examined, 21 percent had CTE.

These results are skewed because the players who donated their brains to the study had all experienced symptoms of degenerative brain disease, including extreme depression, violent outbursts and suicidal behavior, before their deaths. Considering the number of people who play football at every level, the study’s sample size is too small to render a definitive judgment on the entire sport. Nevertheless, CTE appears to be far more prevalent throughout all levels of football than previously thought.

One brain examined in the study belonged to former New England Patriots star and convicted violent felon Aaron Hernandez, who after being sentenced to life without parole for murder, committed suicide in his cell earlier this year. He had stage 3 (out of 4) CTE. He was just 27 years old.

As far as allowing his son Jack to play football, Visger said that it was a non-starter from the get-go.

“No, he did not play football,” Visger said. “He’s a senior in high school now and he does volleyball, basketball and cross country.”

It appears that many parents are making the same decision, at least in part because of the fear of concussions, as the number of students turning out to play high school football has declined nationwide in recent years, although Bleacher Report notes that football remains overwhelmingly the nation’s most popular high school sport.

That really is the NFL’s No. 1 problem. Can the players of tomorrow practice on the fields of today without risking what appears to be at the professional level virtually guaranteed brain damage?

As far as the NFL’s second biggest problem, people like me, who’ve sort of inadvertently tuned out because of the fractured media market, the league need not worry too much. If my team, the San Francisco 49ers, made an effort to jumpstart the offense by resigning Colin Kaepernick, who took the Niners to the Super Bowl just a few short seasons ago, I’d gladly sign on for the ride.

R.V. Scheide
R.V. Scheide has been a northern California journalist for more than 20 years. He appreciates your comments and story ideas.
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37 Responses

  1. cheyenne says:

    Years ago I would be at the TV watching the pre game shows religiously as soon as they started. Then all day watching football no matter who played. The rare person that I would talk to in normal life that didn’t watch football I wondered how they survived. Now I know, as I only watch the Broncos. Though Kansas City has my attention, mainly because Alex Smith went to Utah as I did. I just am not that interested in pro sports anymore. I do like college football, volleyball and some basketball.

    • R.V. Scheide says:

      I’m sure wishing I could have watched Green Bay beat Dallas last night. Turns out the guy who caught the winning touchdown had a concussion recently and probably shouldn’t have been playing.

  2. Randall Smith says:

    Appreciate this update very much. It seems our fascination with human suffering rivals the Coliseum. Only now the gruesome and painful inflictions last a lifetime and the fans seldom witness the horror except M. Ali, O.J. and a few others. This denial and the media frenzy surrounding our Flag cost this prior fan. Thanks again and please keep sending more information.

    • R.V. Scheide Jr. says:

      I wonder if OJ will donate his brain to science. I admit, I do feel somewhat guilty watching such a violent sport.

  3. Beverly Stafford says:

    For years I have thought of football as second only to boxing as the most injurious “sport” going. Then the interview with Dr. Bennet Omalu and the movie “Concussion” were further proof.

    • R.V. Scheide Jr. says:

      I’m beginning to wonder if football isn’t worse than boxing, just because they play way more games than boxers fight matches.

  4. trek says:

    For a lot of parents it starts with the pop warner pee wee football program. It amazes me how parents let their kids play the game with equipment that doesn’t correctly fit, especially helmets. Most kids look like bobble head dolls on the field and then there are always the kids in the same age weight class that are more skilled that can still lay on a good hit even at that age. Coaches use equipment that they are provided with, whether it fits properly or not. Parents, if you must have your child playing football the least you can do is buy the best helmet you can for your child.

    • Beverly Stafford says:

      I again come back to the interview with Dr. Omalu: helmets protect the skull but not the brain. With every slam, the brain bounces around in the skull like a ball in a jar. Doesn’t take many of those hits until a player becomes like Ali.

    • R.V. Scheide Jr. says:

      I think proper-fitting protection gear is a must for kids. But it’s expensive, that’s for certain, especially cause the kid’s gonna grow out of it every year.

  5. name says:

    I watched the movie Concussion on a flight earlier this year. It was a true story, and a sad one. It is amazing the level of denial still practiced by the NFL and NCAA bosses. I still watch the sport, but I am nowhere near as interested in it as I used to be.

    • R.V. Scheide Jr. says:

      George is apparently right, there’s still a lot of head-to-head contact that’s not being called by the referees. I don’t feel that the changes that have been made noticeably damper my enjoyment of the game. They at least follow the concussion protocol when it’s obvious someone has rung their bell. Of course, by then it’s too late!

  6. name2 says:

    Football has no place in a public educational system. The evidence is going to bear that out over the next 10 years as the disease is likely going to be more diagnosed in living patients.

    • R.V. Scheide Jr. says:

      I’m afraid you may be correct. It seems that so far, the men who have the most damage are pros who started incurring concussions at very young ages. I don’t think most parents would knowingly place their kid in that kind of danger.

  7. Richard Christoph says:

    Dad would not allow me to play football in high school, which upset me mightily. But now more than 50 years later, I awake each morning with no aches, pains, or memory loss, and have been thanking him for decades.

  8. Steve Towers Steve Towers says:

    George worked for me for a couple of years following his football career—his degree from University of Colorado was in conservation biology. I had a contract to do spotted owl, marbled murrelet and northern goshawk surveys on the Siskiyou National Forest, and he was one of the crew of 21 biologists. George and I are the same age, and we were about a decade older than the college-aged kids who made up most of the crew. If you look up his 49ers picture, you’ll see why he was popular with the gals on the crew.

    George used to tell his fellow crew members that if he passed out in the field, it was likely because the shunt tube running from his brain to his gut was obstructed. His instructions (as I best recall them) were that he carried a sharp knife in his pocket, and they would need to cut into the back of his neck, find the tube, sever it, and if it didn’t start draining, suck the obstruction out. I was never 100% clear on whether he was serious, or if he was just trying to freak them out—he always said it with a laugh.

    I’m grateful to my late father for discouraging me from playing football. He had a 50-year career as a college coach, but by the time I got to junior high school he was done with football. This was back when concussions were called “getting your bell rung” and after some smelling salts you were back in the game. CTE wasn’t his concern. It was instead the toll the game took on body parts—he saw firsthand the effects of the game, turning young and middle-aged men into cripples. Other than wrestling—which he coached for another 20 years and which I did through college—he steered me toward lifetime sports (skiing, tennis, etc.).

    I’ve stopped turning on football games because of CTE. But I’ll admit that if the Broncos are on at a brewpub that I happen to be at, I have a hard time not watching.

    • R.V. Scheide Jr. says:

      I was wondering if George had worked with you Steve, I knew he was in the same field. Readers who’d like to get a look at the device the doctor rigged up so George could stick himself in the brain if he had a seizure in the field can go to the link on the profile I did on him that’s in the above story.

      I got sucked into a 49ers game on the radio the other day. They played like crap for 3 quarters, tied it up in the fourth, then lost in overtime, to go 0-5. Ouch.

      • Steve Towers Steve Towers says:

        I believe that emergency portal behind his ear, along with the tool kit, were later iterations of the shunt system—it was a much cruder fix early on. At least, if you believe George—he’s kind of a leg-puller. On another project, he introduced sushi to Jim—my college buddy and work colleague—telling Jim that he was really going to love the avocado sauce, and to use lots of it. That was Jim’s introduction to wasabi.

        So strangely coincidental that I posted a link to George’s Wikipedia page plus commentary on my FB page on October 5, just four days before your article posted.

        • R.V. Scheide Jr. says:

          George contacted me recently on FB, so I gave him a call. I think his birthday just happened. He has many tall tales, and many of them are true.

  9. Ted Janusz says:

    R.V., thank you for doing the research for your in-depth article and for sharing your valuable insights. And for keeping the Northern California community informed.

    Here are three additional resources on the topic you might find interesting:

    What is it like to live with a former NFL player who has CTE? An interview with Cyndy Feasel, author of After the Cheering Stops

    What happens inside the helmet of a ten-year-old football player?

    What will we tell our kids (and grandkids) about football as it existed in 2017?

    Keep up your GREAT work!

  10. I am working with a project that may change the outlook on this subject. There is more hope than you know!

  11. Bob Rannigan says:

    RV, great article and vital guidance for a wandering male subculture…………. small edit, football’s biggest problem is that the game is based on fear of fear, men believing they need to prove themselves worthy and capable and courageous to be influential. No one plays the game who isn’t sitting in the stands watching themselves, probably through their dad’s approving eyes

    • R.V. Scheide Jr. says:

      It’s beginning to look like the fear of being brain damaged at an early age is overcoming the fear of not being manly, slowly but surely.

  12. Adrienne says:

    Sometimes I wonder if cultures centuries hence will look at our current sports the way we look back at the games of the gladiators..

  13. The Old Pretender says:

    Barbarism at its worst. Hard contact “sports” should be outlawed by modern society. Whoever allowed the whole MMA thing to start found the goldmine of people willing to pay to watch bloodlust beatings. Boxing, football, etc should be banned in schools. Kids learn more about strategy in the chess club, and it keeps them from being indoctrinated into the “might makes right” ideology that fuels everything from bullying to eventual mercenary duty for oil companies.

    • R.V. Scheide Jr. says:

      The MMA thing was once the underground illegal fighting. Now they’ve been trying to mainstream bare knuckle brawling, the last underground fighting sport. I suppose there could be two NFLs in the future: One without helmets, one with.

      • Steve Towers Steve Towers says:

        I have to admit that when MMA first came out I liked it, primarily when it was sans-gloves and the wrestlers (freestyle, jui-jitsu, judo, sombo) almost always beat the strikers by taking them down and submitting them. Once it went to the ground, it was over.

        Then they made gloves on the contestants mandatory, and it got far more difficult to grapple. It became more of a contest to see who could land the first fist-or-foot haymaker. I lost interest.

  14. Larry Winter says:

    I played Pop Warner in Redding and had to quit football in my Junior year at Enterprise due to my second concussion in two years, thanks to Pat McGuire ( I don’t remember the hit). My youngest son played high school football also and he loved it. They’re teaching kids how to tackle differently now than how I was taught.

    And I should add that there are many occupations that cause harm. I’ve known people who have died, broken their backs, broken legs and I have a few dents on my hard hat as well, just for a paycheck in order to make a living.

    So, maybe we just need to make playing football a patriotic endeavor like our current Administration is attempting to do. Look at the honors we give those that get injured because they are fighting in a foreign land while wearing the American flag on their uniform, not to mention the collateral damage that is inflicted with our firepower. Do we try to educate young kids of the dangers of going to a war zone or do we incentivize them?

    If we can get the NFL players to promote joining the Armed Forces like the NFL is already doing through advertisements, maybe this whole “concussion” think will go away? Just a sacrifice for God and Country?

  15. Pam says:

    Thanks R.V. I always enjoy your journalism!

  16. Carla says:

    I always enjoy reading whatever you write about, even when it was Donald Trump. Thanks!

  17. Joanne Lobeski Snyder says:

    Great article R.V.

  18. conservative says:

    The helmet hides the player’s head and creates the illusion of protection.

    In the 1950’s, Friday Night Fights, sponsored by Gillette, was a popular TV show with a memorable theme song. There was no hiding the fact that the boxer’s heads were being injured. Boxing has certainly declined in popular culture.

    Many movies and TV glorify football and cheerleading. Superbowl Sunday has become a national gluttony day when people sit on the couch and overeat and drink.

    Hope we are seeing the tipping point where schools and popular culture switch to healthier sports for young people. Shasta county high schools and the junior college spend a small fortune on football programs. The argument is made that students would drop out if there were no football program.

  19. Steve Murray says:

    I used to be a huge 49ers fan. I haven’t watched a pro football game in years now. The owners just make me sick … and sad for the fans, cities, counties that are jerked around endlessly by them. Sweetheart tax deals, public financing of stadiums so owners can make billions. I simply refuse to participate in this upfront corruption and emotional abuse.
    My low opinion of the owners has only been strengthened this year by their treatment of Colin K. What a bunch of cowardly lowlifes they are, every single one of them. This industry deserves to disappear, and it would be to our children’s health benefit.
    People, if you want to watch highly skilled athletes perform incredible acts of daring and bravery beyond comprehension watch MotoGP like RV and I do. It is ballet on wheels. You’d be amazed.

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