Bob Probert played for the Chicago Blackhawks from the 1995-96 season through the 2001-02 campaign, retired thereafter and died last summer, on July 5, of a heart attack. Hunter Hillenmeyer played for the Chicago Bears from the 2003-04 season to the 2009-10 season we all just lived through. What do the two have in common? One died with Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy (CTE), the other lives in fear of it.
CTE is a degenerative neurological disorder believed to arise as a result of some type of head trauma. The disorder is characterized by the massive accumulation of so-called "tau" proteins, which grow upon brain tissue and kill cells associated with mood, emotion, judgement and other such functioning. Up until now, researchers have tied CTE mainly to football players. In fact, the number of former NFL players (more than 20) who died and were late discovered to have had CTE is at least partly what prompted the league to expand it penalties for helmet-to-helmet contact and urge teams to more closely monitor concussions and their after-effects.
With Probert's posthumous diagnosis, we can probably now expect the NHL to incur much closer scrutiny in how it monitors and manages the head traumas that occur during hockey games. Although many hockey fans believe fighting is a tolerable, if not enjoyable, part of the sport's tradition, repeated blows to the head are chief cause of CTE. The disorder's long-term effects -- memory loss, uncontrollable rage, drug addiction, dementia -- are devastating. And the athletes know it.
Last week, the Chicago Tribune's Brad Biggs wrote an article in which he widely quoted an e-mail he received from Hillenmeyer. In the intensely worded and evocatively written note, the linebacker's fear for his future well-being is vivid and remarkable. He writes:
The more we pull back the curtain on the long-term effects of head injury, the scarier it gets for players in my position, who have multiple diagnosed concussions and countless more 'dings' and headaches. On one hand, I feel lucky to have been relatively candid about my symptoms compared to some colleagues who do everything they can to conceal their struggles. ... On the other hand, any player who tells you they aren't affected by the tragic stories like Dave Duerson's, that seem to be popping up all too often, are lying.
His reference to former Bears defensive back Duerson, who died of a self-inflicted gunshot wound to the chest on Feb. 17, is telling. There may be a terrible truth rising in professional sports. And it's likely one already creeping into the consciousnesses of the athletes we root for. Duerson's now well-known last request was, after all, that his brain be donated to the NFL "brain bank" created to study the long-term after-effects of football's bruising play. He knew something was wrong. If only he could've told someone how severely he was afflicted and gotten the help he needed.
Among the most important points to keep in mind about CTE is that it isn't about only a single trauma to the head. In fact, research indicates that the "countless ... 'dings'" that Hillenmeyer referred to in his e-mail may be far more dangerous than a solitary blow. And this is why football is so dangerous. Players suffer (even if the pain isn't particularly acute) countless minor head traumas, not just during games, but during practice as well -- and this starts in high school, goes own through college and culminates in the ultracompetitve pro training camps.
Hockey is another matter. Some might say that Probert is an exception to the rule. He was involved in 246 fights during his NHL career. That's far more than the average player and perhaps more than the average enforcer. But there are still plenty of checks into the boards and falls to the ice to consider. The league has a problem it would best deal with sooner rather than later -- and without the hemming and hawing engaged in by the NFL.
What does the average fan need to know about CTE? That it's real, it has arrived ... and the issue is not going away. Not in football. Not in hockey. And not in other sports in which head traumas occur with regularity. This isn't about "manning up" and "taking the pain" -- it's about leaving athletes exposed to conditions that could eventually turn them into a danger to themselves and others and doom them to slow, agonizing declines and deaths. It appears Hunter Hillenmeyer gets this, and he's worried.