Concussions Killed Lou Gehrig, Killing NFL Players

The drumbeat to address concussions in football just grew a little louder, with a new study that links brain trauma to a very ALS-like disease. Lou Gehrig himself may have contracted his namesake disease that very way.

The study, being published tomorrow in the Journal of Neuropathology & Experimental Neurology comes from a team of Boston researchers including former WWE wrestler and crusader for concussion safety Chris Nowinski. Their findings, announced tonight on HBO's Real Sports, stem from a curious statistic: NFL players are eight times more likely to contract ALS than the average person.

Similar rates are found among CFL players, boxers and Italian soccer players.

The link: repeated head trauma, which produces toxic proteins that migrate to the spinal cord. The result: a disease that for all the world looks like ALS.

The damage is made worse when players don't rest after receiving a concussion. So it's intriguing that Real Sports discovered six different instance of Gehrig himself being concussed or knocked unconscious during a game. Of course, he never took a day off.

The NFL, which rarely moves swiftly on anything, has reacted admirably on this. Confronted with the new study, they've agreed to add ex-players suffering from ALS to their 88 Plan, which pays the costs of care for former players with dementia or other conditions that resulted from brain trauma during their careers.

But the players themselves need to understand the risks. A poster in the locker room isn't going to cut it.

Just this weekend, Packers RB Ryan Grant regretted that he collapsed on his way back to the sidelines after a big hit, forcing doctors to check him out. Diagnosed with a concussion, he was removed from the game until he could be checked out by a neurologist. Grant says he wishes he had kept it a secret, so he could have continued playing.

That's a preseason game.

Maybe things will change? Maybe players will see former Raider Steve Smith wasting away from the disease, his muscles shutting down one by one. Maybe they'll see the widow of Wally Hilgenberg, who passed away two years ago.

Maybe not. Athletes are stubborn, and young men in general think they're indestructible. But maybe they'll realize that concussions can lead to something worse than dizziness, something worse than even dementia or Alzheimer's.

Maybe.