Concussed NFL alumni seek awareness, amends

Former Green Bay Packers running back Dorsey Levens, one of four former players suing the league for post-football impairment issues stemming from brain injuries, has produced a powerful, 24-minute documentary titled, “Bell-Rung.”

  • Former Green Bay Packers running back Dorsey Levens, shown here during a game against the Dolphins in 2000, is one of several former players suing the NFL for head-related injuries.Tony Gutierrez, AP

    Former Green Bay Packers running back Dorsey Levens, shown here during a game against the Dolphins in 2000, is one of several former players suing the NFL for head-related injuries.

Tony Gutierrez, AP

Former Green Bay Packers running back Dorsey Levens, shown here during a game against the Dolphins in 2000, is one of several former players suing the NFL for head-related injuries.

The yet-to-be-aired documentary spotlights the haunting number of concussions suffered by several former players, including the career-ending toll on ex-Baltimore Ravens and Cleveland Browns running back Jamal Lewis.

In the documentary’s first draft viewed by USA TODAY, Levens interviews 10 Atlanta-area NFL players, focusing heavily on Lewis and former Philadelphia Eagles kick returner Ellis Hobbs. The latter’s career ended after a thunderclap, Nov., 2010 hit against the New York Giants left Hobbs lying temporarily paralyzed.

Levens, 41, Lewis, 32, former Detroit Lions safety Ryan Stewart, 38, and former linebacker Fulton Kuykendall, 58, filed their lawsuit against the league and NFL Properties Dec. 22 in U.S. District Court in Atlanta. It is one of a half dozen suits this month brought by former players accusing the league of concealing the harmful effects of concussions until last year. The four ex-players are seeking a jury trial and unspecified damages.

League vice president of communications Greg Aiello vehemently denied the claims made by the Atlanta four and other player lawsuits.

“The NFL has long made player safety a priority and continues to do so,” Aiello said in an e-mail to USA TODAY. “Any allegation that the NFL intentionally sought to mislead players has no merit. It stands in contrast to the league’s actions to better protect and advance the science and medical understanding of the management and treatment of concussions.”

Narrated by NFL Network analyst Jamie Dukes, “Bell-Rung” reveals Lewis sustained “eight to nine” concussions during his 10-season career. Current San Diego Chargers 14-year veteran linebacker Takeo Spikes said he suffered “close to 15 to 20.” “It’s so deep it really makes you wonder, ‘If I had a son, do I really want him to play this game?”‘ said Spikes.

Levens, whose primary post-football issue is sleeplessness, hopes to warn about the need for further safeguards against the insidious side effect of playing America’s most popular sport.

“The lawsuit is more about raising awareness on concussions and trying to light a fire under the NFL to help these guys who are struggling,” said Levens, a Comcast Southeast NFL analyst. “I found there’s a great need for guys, especially with health care.

“You envision playing pro football for however many years; making some good money; retiring and enjoying life. And the quality of life is not what it needs to be for a lot of these guys.

“I’m just trying to get them the medical help they need — sooner than later.”

Lewis claimed he suffered a Week 1, 2009 concussion with the Browns and said in “Bell-Rung,” “I played 10 more games after that initial hit” until he was diagnosed after a Nov. 29 loss against Cincinnati, “With post-concussion syndrome. But this came from Week 1.”

Lewis, who rushed for 2,066 yards with the 2003 Ravens, was released by Cleveland Feb. 17, 2010.

“When I actually came to… the doctors asked me just regular questions, ‘Where are we? What’s the date? Who are we playing?’ Honestly, I couldn’t answer the first question he asked me. It was just so simple,” Lewis said in the documentary.

Lewis said he suffered his last concussion in a 2009, season-opening loss to Minnesota, but was re-inserted though he couldn’t answer the medical staff’s initial question.

“I’m like, ‘I don’t know. Let’s go. I’m ready to go,”‘ Lewis said.

“He (the team doctor) put me back out in the game. After I couldn’t answer any more questions, it was more of, ‘Hey, we’ve got to go. We don’t have another running back.’

“I’ve got a concussion. It’s an unseen injury. It’s something you really can’t see and diagnose right now on the sideline… So they put me back out there.”

The Browns declined comment, deferring to league spokesman Greg Aiello’s earier response to last Thursday’s lawsuit.

“Jamal is suffering more headaches than anything else,” Levens said.

“There are other guys who don’t want to be named who have serious issues with depression, irritability and need help.”

Hobbs and wife, Monique are still awaiting workman’s compensation benefits for surgery to stabilize a disc injury suffered from a Nov. 21, 2010 hit on a kick return.

“They keep delaying these rulings,” Monique Hobbs said.

Fast forward to last week. Independent certified athletic trainers were mandated to be in press boxes and have direct sideline communication to better protect players against team training staffs missing concussions as occurred at least twice this season.

Levens advocates having an independent neurologist on the sideline to ensure players don’t return to games with concussions as happened with Browns quarterback Colt McCoy and San Diego Chargers guard Kris Dielman.

“That’s eventually where it is going to go where the league has an independent neurologist on the sideline because that’s what’s needed,” said SIRIUS XM NFL Radio analyst Jim Miller, a former NFL quarterback.

NFLPA president Kevin Mawae said a mandated independent neurologist is under discussion:

“The NFLPA will continue to be in favor of putting into practice measures that will protect the short and long-term health of our players. Concussions will always be a concern in the game of football because of the nature of the game.

“The return-to-play protocol is an evolving process that in some cases needs to be looked at with greater scrutiny, all in an effort to protect the men who play.”

Browns president Mike Holmgren revealed McCoy wasn’t checked for a concussion suffered on a vicious, Dec. 8 helmet-to-helmet hit by Pittsburgh Steelers linebacker James Harrison. Because Browns trainers and doctors were tending to other players when the hit occurred and because McCoy exhibited no immediate concussion symptoms when he had his injured hand checked on the sideline, McCoy’s return two plays later prompted the independent trainer oversight.

McCoy hasn’t been able to play since.

Miller suggests using the more advanced helmet and mouthpiece technology that can alert to possible head injuries.

“Riddell has these new helmets and mouthpieces, the Riddell G-Shock series,” Miller said. “I had their guy on during the offseason and some college teams use them.

“The helmets have computer chips and mouthpieces with sensors that register G-forces. It would send a signal to the sideline where the medical staff knows this player has just taken a 5-G hit — an indicator that this player has just taken a significant blow to the head.”

Doctor Kevin Guskiewicz of the league’s head, neck and spine committee said, “Less than 10% of all concussions involve loss of consciousness.”

“Mike Holmgren doesn’t hold a press conference every day,” CBS analyst Rich Gannon said. “Clearly, this is a big deal.

“A lot of these players are not going to tell you they’re having a hard time remembering… because they don’t want to come out of the game.”

According to Levens, too many ex-players are showing the ravages of too many concussions and must be better protected from their core instinct.

“I know I have post-concussion syndrome,” said former Washington Redskins quarterback Joe Theismann. “I have a memory issue. And as I grow older, it seems to become a little more challenging.

“There were times when I walked out there and really wasn’t sure what was going on.

“Who knows how many concussions I had?”