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Kids, Head Injuries and the NFL

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It was a 1950's version of Friday Night Lights. A Texas high school football game. As a skinny end, it was my job on defense to stop "power sweeps." Offense -- blocking and pass catching -- were my strong suits, if I had any. But this team was eating us up with their end sweeps. The coach hauled me off the bench and said between clenched teeth a version of, "Get in there and knock down their blocking convoys so our defensive backs can tackle the ball carrier!"

Next play, here they came. A big pulling guard running full-tilt lowered his head as I lowered mine and we crashed into each other helmet-to-helmet. It felt like I'd been hit by a locomotive. Stars danced around in my head, jackhammer-like pain throbbed and I couldn't focus my eyes for a bit. The big guard didn't seem to be in very good shape either.

Time out was called. The water boys and a couple of student trainers came on the field.
"You okay?" and "Yup" was about all that was said. Time in, next play and the game ground on.

That was then, this is now. Some of the equipment, rules and medical awareness have changed. But the ethos of football has not.

All of this came to mind recently while working another in a series of investigative reports about concussions in sports. Not just in football, but in baseball, basketball, soccer, hockey, volleyball, gymnastics and cheerleading. And not just among men and boys, but increasing among girls and women.

The National Institutes of Health has declared that we are in the midst of a "national epidemic" of concussions and other head injuries, especially among the young.

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With football, where so many concussions -- many of them undiagnosed and untreated -- occur, the professional National Football League has a heavy responsibility. Coaches and young players look to the league and its players as role models. The "trickle down" effect of what the NFL does and does not do is tremendous, everything from the style of play to the way injuries are and are not treated.

As we get ready to kick off another season, two of the most important people involved with the National Football League this season won't play a single down. Doctors Richard Ellenbogen and Hunt Batjer are preeminent neurosurgeons specializing in concussions. The NFL appointed them to chair the league's Head, Neck and Spine Committee. And unlike doctors who've worked with the league in the past, they strongly believe in the long-term consequences of concussions.

Roger Goodell, the commissioner of the NFL, knows he has a problem. It's becoming apparent that concussions to professional football players could become a threat to the game. That's a strong statement but there is growing evidence about the long-term effects of head injuries to football players -- both past and present -- and a growing recognition that something has to be done -- soon. The NFL's own studies indicate that memory-related diseases are much higher in former football players than in the general population. Last year the NFL instituted new guidelines for when a player could re-enter a game after a concussion. That move was applauded as necessary and overdue. This year the league has produced a poster for locker rooms that says it in black and white. Concussions can lead to "the early onset of dementia."

But then there was the Mild Traumatic Brain Injury Committee, which included the NFL's doctor at the time who didn't agree there was a link between playing football and long-term dementia. After being blasted by Congress, out went the old committee and the NFL's doctor. In came the Head, Neck and Spine Committee, headed by the new Doctors Ellenbogen and Batjer.

I had a chance to sit down with the doctors for their first extensive interview on our weekly program, Dan Rather Reports on HDNet. The NFL asked them not to talk, but they insisted, saying the latest information and research on concussions needs to be out there and the public made aware of the risks

"I'll tell you one thing: Hunt and I have day jobs. We wouldn't be doing this if we didn't believe this," said Dr. Ellenbogen. "We're in this not only for the 2,000 NFL players, but for the 30 million kids who play active sports."

And those kids, it is becoming clear, are increasingly at risk, girls as well as boys. "We have to realize that this cuts across both genders and all sports," said Dr. Ellenbogen.

Both doctors told me they are lining up the best minds they can find to help them with research, from scientists at MIT to the National Institutes of Health and the Department of Defense, which is doing extensive research on soldiers, bomb blasts and concussions.

They have several goals, such as better equipment (like helmets with sensors) to establishing a massive database on anyone playing football in the NFL, to tracking retired NFL players and educating the public about head trauma. These doctors, with 60 years of combined experience in treating head injuries, say education is the key. And their best advice for any coach or player who suspects a concussion? Get out of the game, immediately. Concussions can be crippling, even deadly. Especially multiple concussions. As Dr. Ellenbogen told me, "When in doubt, sit it out."

"Dan Rather Reports" airs Tuesdays at 8pm ET on HDNet. It will also be available on iTunes on Wednesday.

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