When the odds are stacked against you … baseball helps to ease the pain

Baseball is a game that overflows with numbers. No other sport has more statistics than baseball – there’s batting average, RBI’s, slugging percentage, OBP (on-base percentage), OPS (on-base percentage plus slugging percentage) – and those are strictly just a few offensive statistics. We could spend a whole day going through the pitching, defense, and base running statistics. Numbers help to describe the game; it’s like a science.

But there is more to baseball than just numbers. Baseball is also a game that overflows with passion. It’s a game that the odds are stacked up against you. Even the best players to ever step inside a batter’s box are destined to fail 70 percent of the time. Ted Williams – widely considered as the best hitter of all time – said it best, “Baseball is the only endeavor in which a man can fail seven out of 10 times and be considered a good performer.”

However, this is not a story about numbers. This is a story about how the odds can be stacked up against you in life, and the passion for baseball helps to ease the pain.

Cory Bukowski. photo from medaillesports.com

Cory Bukowski. photo from medaillesports.com

Cory Bukowski fell in love with the game of baseball at the age of five by picking up a ball in the backyard and playing catch with his father. Quickly, he became quite good at the game and began to play travel baseball at the age of seven. By the time he was 10 years old, his dream was to play college baseball.

“I love baseball because it’s a big game of chess,” said Bukowski. “You have to think about what the players are thinking, what the coaches are thinking, and what your coach wants you to do. Plus, making the impossible plays – the hardest thing to do is hit a 90 miles-per-hour fastball. It’s a challenging sport, but it’s fun to play. If you’re at a game and try to understand it, I think you fall in love with it.”

After graduating from Depew High School in 2009, his dream was realized as he was on the roster as a first baseman at NCAA Division II Gannon University in Erie, PA. One of the major driving forces as motivation to improve to become a college baseball player was his mother, Julie Bukowski.

At Gannon University, you need passion like how a cell phone needs a battery. Baseball begins at 5:30 in the morning, followed by a hitting workout at noon, and finishing with practice each night from 10 p.m. to midnight. “Those were long, long baseball days,” said Cory. “But it was fun.”

His mother had been to every baseball game since he started playing at age five. She was sitting on the bleachers, or in a lawn chair, as the scorekeeper for each game. In 2004, she even kept score each game for Cory’s travel team that played in a week-long tournament in Cooperstown, NY, the home of the Baseball Hall of Fame. He has a picture of the two of them standing at home plate in Cooperstown – him wearing his jersey, and her wearing a “Scorekeeper Mom” t-shirt.

Julie was a baseball enthusiast – a huge New York Yankees fan with a not-so-subtle love affair for Derek Jeter.

“I can go to every field I’ve ever played on and tell you where she would be sitting,” said Cory. “When I would swing at a pitch in the air or in the dirt she would yell at me and say ‘what the hell are you doing!’ or I would get a huge ‘Cory Walter!’ from the stands.”

However, during his only year at Gannon University, the odds were stacked up against Cory and the entire Bukowski family. His mother Julie was thought to have lymphoma. But at the beginning of the 2010 spring semester, she was diagnosed with stage four lung cancer.

With his older brother Steve finishing up his degree at Mercyhurst College, Cory decided to transfer to Erie Community College to be closer to his family. Cory continued his baseball career by playing fall ball with ECC, and still had his biggest fan in the stands. His mother’s illness did not stop her from watching Cory play the game they both loved dearly.

“She went to every baseball game in the fall even when she was really sick and in a wheelchair,” said Cory, who gave his mother a signed Derek Jeter baseball for her birthday while she was sick.

But right after the fall season at ECC was done, Julie’s fight with lung cancer was over. On November 16, 2010, Julie Bukowski passed away at the age of 45. Cory, then at the age of 19, went to baseball practice the very next day.

“Baseball keeps your mind off of it,” said Cory. “And doing something that my mom loved watching me do really helped to keep going.”

“She lit up a room definitely with her smile and her laugh too,” he added. “My mom would drop anything to help a person. She was definitely someone you can’t replace.”

This was obviously the most devastating and traumatic event that happened to Cory. However, even though his mother’s life had ended, Cory did not let his own life come to a halt. He continued to play baseball, and used the game he is most passionate about to help cope with the pain.

“Just because you lose someone you love, doesn’t mean you’re going to lose something else you love also,” said Cory. “So you have to hold onto it and never let it go. I thought about dropping baseball, but I knew that it wouldn’t help at all. My recovery process was to keep playing baseball. Some days I would just go sit out at the field and look out and think.”

His teammates at ECC, all of whom went to Julie’s wake, really helped Cory cope with the loss of his mother. And in the 2011 season, the team went on a magical run. Cory was the backup first baseman on the team and was able to earn spot duty as a designated hitter.

In his first at-bat for ECC after his mother’s death, Cory belted a homerun. Seemingly, a perfect script had already been written.

“I texted my dad right away and said that one was for mom,” said Cory.

That season, ECC won its region in playoffs and made the Junior College World Series in Tyler, TX where the players were treated as professionals by signing autographs and taking pictures with fans. Cory was able to play one inning in the field at first base, as the team finished fourth in the country. “It was an amazing opportunity,” he said.

One year later, Cory got a tattoo on his left arm in honor of his mother. It is a ribbon that says “mom” in it and there are angel wings on the ends, with the dates of when she was born and when she died. “I told her when she was sick that I was going to get something for her, and I told her my ideas and she liked that one the best so I got it for her.”

Cory is now a 21-year-old sports management major at Medaille – after transferring from ECC for the spring 2012 semester – playing in his first season with the baseball team. He has continued to play baseball during each summer since his mother passed away. Baseball is one of the best ways that Cory gets to keep a connection with her.

“My dad continues to help coach during the summer, so it keeps the whole family still there,” said Cory. “My grandma still comes to my games and my mom is always there too, just not physically.”

Before each at-bat, he touches the plate with his bat and looks up to the sky. Just like former Yankee Nick Swisher does every plate appearance. And after each time safely reaching base with a solid hit, he pays his respects to his mother.

Cory feels that he is a better overall baseball player and person in general, who does not take life for granted. His passion for baseball has not wavered, it has only grown stronger. “I realize that baseball is not given to us, we have to earn it. You have to earn the opportunity to be out there. It’s not a right, it’s a privilege to play.”

What does Cory remember most about his mother? “She kept pushing me to play baseball and be my best, and never let anything get me down,” he said. Without baseball, Cory admits that his ability to cope with the loss of a loved one would have been completely different. It certainly would have been a lot tougher.

So just like in baseball how the odds are stacked against you when you walk up to the plate, the odds were stacked high against Cory in life, and to continue to play the game he passionately loves.

“Everything that happened to me in a two-to-three year time span was odds stacking up against me and I felt like the odds just kept building up,” said Cory. “It got to where it wasn’t three-out-of 10 anymore; it was one-out-of 10, or .5-out-of 10. I guess I kind of beat those odds. It feels like an accomplishment to still be playing.”

“I feel like it’s going to be really hard for something to get me down, because now I have a different take on life in general. I feel like it’s really hard to get someone down that’s been through so much and overcame it already. I can take on almost anything now.”

As you can see, baseball can sure be quite the healer.

CTE — Story of Mike Webster “father of concussions”, and interview with Joe DeLamielleure

Mike Webster

Mike Webster

Mike Webster – the father of concussions

Mike Webster was an NFL Hall-of-Fame center who played 17 professional seasons from 1974-1990, mostly with the Pittsburgh Steelers. He is considered to be the “father of concussions” because he was one of the first players to successfully win a disability lawsuit against the NFL from suffering chronic brain damage as a professional football player. Webster, who died in 2002 at age 50, was also the first NFL player to be diagnosed with CTE.

In 1999, the NFL’s seven member retirement board – which is composed of three owner representatives, thee player representatives, and a non-voting representative of the NFL commissioner – awarded Webster disability payments in the amount of $8,000 per month in retirement and disability benefits, but denied him full compensation. The board determined that repeated blows to the head had left Webster “totally and permanently” disabled and also that his disability “arose while he was an active player”. The NFL retirement board hired five doctors, including Cleveland neurologist Dr. Edward L. Westbrook, to examine Webster to help determine how disabled he was. Westbrook said in an interview that Webster was “a sea in an open boat unless someone directed him” and that in his condition he would not have been able to pass grade school. Westbrook also said that he had no doubt Webster’s problems were caused by “multiple hits” related to football. Each of the other four doctors also blamed Webster’s career for his severe mental health problems.

Before Webster passed away, he became addicted to Ritalin which is a drug normally prescribed to treat attention deficit disorder. However, Webster said that he took the drug because it enabled him to function. Knowing now that Webster had suffered from CTE, this would help explain why he easily became addicted to the drug.

After Webster had won his initial case in 1999, the NFL retirement board was quietly awarding at least $2 million in disability benefits to other players due to chronic brain trauma. Therefore, the NFL retirement board had acknowledged the link that playing professional football leading to long lasting brain damage. However, the problem was that the NFL had been repeatedly denying that link for years. At the same time the NFL retirement board was awarding disability benefits, members of the NFL’s Mild Traumatic Brain Injury Committee wrote in a series of scientific papers that “no NFL player” had experienced chronic brain damage from repeated concussions. This organization was created by the NFL in 1994 and had always been publishing material to this effect. In December of 2005 this NFL organization wrote a paper in “Neurosurgery”, the official journal of the Congress of Neurological Scientists, and said that “professional football players do not sustain frequent repetitive blows to the brain on a regular basis”.

Then, after Webster passed away in 2002, his estate appealed to receive full compensation and in 2005 the court ruled in his estate’s favor, granting it $1.8 million. That same year, the NFL published the 10th installment in its series on concussions research in “Neurosurgery”, and wrote that chronic brain injury “has never been reported in American football players”. Three of the authors of this paper were members of the NFL’s Mild Traumatic Brian Injury Committee. One Pittsburgh area attorney who represents some of the first players to the NFL over concussion issues, Jason Luckasevic, called the NFL hypocrites for awarding disability benefits due to football-related brain damage and at the same time denying there is any link to the sport. Luckasevic said, “That’s completely fraudulent – you say these people have cognitive problems from playing football and award them benefits, and yet you lie and write studies telling the public that’s not the case.”

It was not until 2009, when Congress actually stepped in and began heavily questioning the NFL, that the commissioner’s office finally acknowledged the connection that repeated concussions can cause long lasting chronic brain damage and mental impairment. Now the NFL has changed many game play rules to help protect its players and spends $74 million annually to retired players as part of the Bert Bell/Pete Rozelle NFL Player Retirement Plan.

Joe DeLamielleure

Joe DeLamielleure. photo from profootballhof.com.

Joe DeLamielleure. photo from profootballhof.com.

Joe DeLamielleure, or better known as Joe D, was a guard for the Buffalo Bills from 1973 – 1983 and again in 1985. He was elected to the NFL Hall-of-Fame in 2003 and is one of the former players who are on the list to donate their brain to the CSTE Brain Bank to be analyzed after death. I personally interviewed DeLamielleure over the phone, who emphatically believes that he is currently suffering from chronic brain damage as a result of his professional career.

DeLamielleure played in 185 consecutive regular season games, not to mention multiple Pro Bowls and playoff games as well. He told me that he previously spoke to a doctor who estimated that DeLamielleure roughly took 215,000 hits to the head throughout his professional career, which is more than double the average player. The very first thing that DeLamielleure mentioned to me was the story about Mike Webster and the difference between the NFL and its retirement board as previously just mentioned. He said that back when he played, nobody knew what a concussion was, including both the players and athletic trainers.

DeLamielleure, who has lost 60 percent of hearing in his left ear due to repeated head slaps to the ear hole of his helmet by opposing players, laid out what the problems were that led to concussions. First, he said there were bad rules, including the head slap which has since been removed from the game. Another bad rule, which was just taken out of the NFL last season, was the wedge on a kickoff. DeLamielleure said that this was the most dangerous play in football, where blockers run arm-in-arm to form a high speed shield causing the opposing players to throw their bodies and heads through it to break it up. “They used to call it the suicide squad,” said DeLamielleure. “How can they call it that and not think that there is anything wrong with it?” There was also bad equipment that the players wore, including the helmets. DeLamielleure said that worst thing which happened was when facemasks were put onto the helmets. These facemasks were supposed to be utilized as protection; however players were using the facemasked helmets as weapons against one another. “The feeling was that if you didn’t lead with your face, don’t even bother playing,” said DeLamielleure. Another major problem was that many fields he played on were concrete covered by astro turf, which you can imagine would hurt real bad when landing on it. Since then, fields have been upgraded to well kept natural grass and a much softer synthetic field instead of astro turf.

He also mentioned that the team would have training camp practices twice a day for six weeks and there would be full contact hitting in each practice. Tack on those hits to the ones he sustained during game play, and DeLamielleure said many times it would take him two to three plays to remember what had previously just happened. “I wore a mouth guard in 1974, and that was the only thing that stopped me from being killed,” said DeLamielleure. “It helped keep my body aligned.” He also said that many times his quarterback, Joe Ferguson, had to ask him what had happened after being hit because Ferguson simply couldn’t remember. DeLamielleure mentioned that he is glad that the NFL has been changing its rules to help protect the players, but reiterated that possibly “one hit and you’re done”.

However, DeLamielleure was very open and straightforward about his feelings towards the NFL. He said that “they don’t give a damn about the players” and that “they are just trying to cover their butt from all the lawsuits”. DeLamielleure also bellowed that he is “pissed off” at both the NFL and the NFL Players Union for “not taking care” of the players. “It’s not right to us,” said DeLamielleure. This is an example of a hall-of-fame player, who said himself that he feels used, and he sees other hall-of-famers that need to go to court in order to just get help.

Finally, DeLamielleure said that “there is no question in my mind that something happened to my brain. You can’t just take that many hits to the head.” I then asked him that knowing what he does now if he still would have played football or not. His response was quite interesting because he mentioned that he would like to go back and have gotten a “real job” with a pension, and that he does not want his grandsons playing football. “I love football, I was addicted to it. But that’s an unfair question,” said DeLamielleure. “It’s like asking a smoker if knowing what he knows now, would he still have smoked.”

Conclusion

I also spoke directly with a neurologist from the DENT Neurological Institute, Dr. Nicolas Saikali, MD, who said that DENT receives three to four concussion patients per day and about 15 per week. These numbers have increased continually through recent years according to Dr. Saikali, who mentioned the main reason he believes is due to the general public being more aware of concussions due to the media. This, along with the examples of Mike Webster and Joe DeLamielleure, show that the general public and professional athletes are more aware of the serious effects of concussions, repeated brain trauma, and chronic traumatic encephalopathy. There are plenty of examples which I have shown that professional leagues, especially the NFL, have taken major strides in further researching concussions and protecting its players as a result.

Return to play protocol is extremely important after sustaining a concussion. Dr. Saikali agreed that if an athlete returns too early, the danger is that the player is not 100 percent healed and not at full capacity. This allows the athlete to make mistakes easier, leaving them vulnerable and susceptible to another concussion, and that one concussion leads to the next.

Overall, athletes, athletic trainers, and all professional sports leagues are more aware of concussions because there is so much more knowledge about the serious effects of sustaining multiple concussions in a short time frame. Even though professional football was mainly used as an example in this paper, professional hockey, baseball, basketball, soccer, etc. have supplemented concussion protocols with respect to when an athlete can return to play. The NFL needs to be the leader however, because the majority of concussions occur in football, and there are more children playing youth football.

We will probably never be able to eliminate sports related concussions, however with advanced knowledge, advancements in research, continual growth of awareness, and proper rehabilitation, repeated concussions can be limited and the serious chronic brain damage found in retired players may be decreased.

Mav’s men’s soccer — The road to reclaiming the AMCC title

The Mavs might have lost the chance to have home field advantage in the upcoming AMCC championship, but that might be a blessing in disguise.

The last two years, the team on the road has won the conference championship, with Penn State-Behrend winning at All High Stadium last season.

On Oct. 3, the Mavs travelled to Erie, PA to square off against Penn State-Behrend and held a 1-0 lead at halftime with a goal from senior striker John Taggart. The lead would then increase to two goals as junior striker Pablo Ordonez netted a free kick. However with nine minutes to play, the wheels started to come off the track and Behrend scored twice to tie the game and send it to overtime. As time expired in the first overtime, Behrend scored on a cross through the box, therefore seemingly wrapping up the top overall seed in the conference tournament. The loss dropped the Mavs to 10-2 on the season and 3-1 in conference play.

“We still expect to win the conference,” said senior goalkeeper Nick Kurtz. “We handled Behrend and were up by two, but then we got complacent. We are a team that learns from our mistakes and I don’t think it will happen again. So we hope the curse of home field advantage continues and the win will be more enjoyable on the road as revenge.”

Even though losing is never preferred, sometimes a loss can propel a team forward and provide extra motivation. That is what the Mavs believe will result from the Behrend loss.

“It motivates us more especially the way the game went,” said senior defender Jacob Conde. “The game shouldn’t have even gone to overtime, but it shows that we can beat them next time.”

The team bounced back after the loss with three straight victories, including a hard fought 2-1 win against La Roche College, which should secure Medaille the second seed in the AMCC playoffs.

The story of great balance on the team has continued throughout conference play. Currently, there are 17 different players who have scored a goal this season, which is more than half of the active roster. Senior striker George Tor leads the team with 13 goals and 30 points, and both are good for second in the AMCC.

“We’ve had a solid lineup in conference play, and George took off as we all expected, but we still have a lot of guys that can score,” said Kurtz, who leads the AMCC with a .59 goals against average and seven shutouts. “It seems like each game we have someone new step up and become the hero. We always have consistent players, but there has been that one guy who ignites the team.”

“This year we are unselfish and you don’t know who is going to show up,” said Conde.

“Whoever scores, it doesn’t matter as long as we get the win.”

For the first time since 2008, the men’s soccer team entered the season not as defending conference champions.

The road to reclaiming the conference title begins on Oct. 27.

A stampede all across the pitch

President Obama would really love this year’s men’s soccer team because they do nothing but spread the wealth. Even Nik Wallenda would be jealous of the balance this squad produces each game.

It is pretty much unprecedented the amount of balance shown from a Medaille soccer team this year. In recent years, there have been one or two guys scoring the majority of goals throughout the entire season. The field just grew exponentially this season for opponents, because the Mavs have 13 players with at least one goal, and there are 15 with at least one point. There are only four players who have registered more than one goal this season through seven games. That’s no criticism, that’s a headache for opponents. Instead of defenses only having to key in on two or three guys, now it’s a whole Maverick stampede.

We have good team unity, great depth, and great team chemistry this year,” said head coach Dan Krzyzanowicz.

Senior striker George Tor leads the Mavs this season with seven goals, three assists, and 17 points. Tor was just recently named the AMCC Offensive Player of the Week with five goals in three games.

The Mavs also had the AMCC Defensive Player of the Week to sweep the honors as senior goalkeeper Nick Kurtz was earned the designation. Kurtz posted a couple of shutouts in the week against Brockport State and Thiel College. It was the program’s first ever win against Brockport, and Kurtz made a diving stop on a penalty kick to secure the victory.

We have such great team depth this year, we’ve used the most subs since I can remember,” said Kurtz. “This is the best team chemistry we’ve had in my four years. We have a complete team first attitude.”

The benefits of great team chemistry, depth, and balance came to fruition as the Mavs got off to a hot start on the season. The first five games of the season were against tough SUNYAC opponents and the Mavs came away unbeaten, with the highlight win coming against Oneonta State. Oneonta, ranked eighth in the country at the time, was a final four team last season and returned the majority of its lineup. Medaille was down 3-1 at the half, but rallied back to win 4-3.

Our work ethic in the second half was excellent,” said senior striker John Taggart. “We pressured them quite a bit and they were in cruise control.”

The victory against Oneonta State snapped a 26 game home win streak for the Red Dragons which dated back to 2009.

We have so much talented depth, it’s not just one guy chipping in, it’s more of a team game this year,” said Taggart.

It’s not just the offense that has been balanced however; the defense has kept up its end of the bargain as well. Medaille has only given up five goals all season long thus far.

We are defending as a unit, instead of it just being the back line,” said senior defender Kevin Dhillon. “It makes for a more pressured defense.”

The defense in front of Kurtz has made his job much less stressful. “It’s a very organized defense in front of me and the communication has been key, they work well together,” said Kurtz.

This year’s motto for the team is “The Road to Amazing”. So far the Mavs sit at 6-1 on the season with the conference schedule set to begin.

CTE: brain trauma caused by contact sports – something all athletes should be aware of

 
CTE triggers progressive degeneration of the brain tissue, including the build-up of an abnormal protein called tau. The bottom left photo is a control brain with no tau. In the other photos, the tau can be seen clearly as the dark brown color. photos from the Boston University Center for the Study of Traumatic Encephalopathy website.

Contact sports such as football, hockey and boxing have blows to the head which are part of the game. In football, every single play athletes at the line of scrimmage are butting heads. Running backs lean forward with their head down to gain an extra yard. In hockey, players often engage in a fight and are being checked into the boards repeatedly. There are also many occurrences of an open ice hit with a players head down and them possibly hitting their head on the ice following the hit. In boxing, blows to the head are the sport. It’s purposely trying to knockout your opponent before you hit the canvas. These sports have large sums of money attached to them, but they also have a cost that is lifelong.

 
Chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE) is the result of repeated blows to the head for an athlete. Recently there has been much news about CTE, because it is believed to have caused several athletes to enter depression and some have even committed suicide.
 
At Boston University, a brain bank was established in 2008 to collect and evaluate donated post-mortem brains to better understand the effects of trauma on the human nervous system (McKee, Cantu & Nowinski, 2009). According to Boston University’s Center for the Study of Traumatic Encephalopathy website, CTE is “a progressive degenerative disease of the brain found in athletes (and others) with a history of repetitive brain trauma, including symptomatic concussions as well as asymptomatic subconcussive hits to the head.” (McKee, Cantu & Nowinski, 2009).

BOXING

CTE had been known to effect boxers since the late 1920’s. Dr. Harrison Martland was the first person to cite the results of repeated blows to the head. He called in the ‘punch drunk’ syndrome (McCrory, Zazryn & Cameron, 2007, pg. 468). However, with more research into the topic, CTE has been confirmed in retired football players, and athletes in other sports that cause brain trauma (McKee, Cantu & Nowinski, 2009). According to Boston University’s CTE website, “This trauma triggers progressive degeneration of the brain tissue, including the build-up of an abnormal protein called tau. These changes in the brain can begin months, years, or even decades after the last brain trauma or end of active athletic involvement.  The brain degeneration is associated with memory loss, confusion, impaired judgment, impulse control problems, aggression, depression, and, eventually, progressive dementia.” (McKee, Cantu & Nowinski, 2009).

Seventeen percent of British boxers whose careers were in the 1930s-1950s, were shown to have clinical evidence of CTE (McCrory, Zazryn & Cameron, 2007, pg. 467). In boxing, clinical features of CTE have been shown to transpire after a single fight in which localized midbrain injury occurred (McCrory, Zazryn & Cameron, 2007, pg. 469.). Approximately, one-third of all cases of CTE are believed to be progressive in nature (McCrory, Zazryn & Cameron, 2007, pg. 468). Studies of current and former boxers have shown that the ones who are believed to have CTE have been found to have difficulty remembering things, slower finger tapping speed, difficulty processing information, lack of attention and concentration, poor judgment and organization, reduced learning ability and slower reaction times (McCrory, Zazryn & Cameron, 2007, pg. 469). There are also other difficulties associated with a progressing case of CTE. There is difficulty with impulse control, higher aggression, suspiciousness and childishness, being more irritable, inappropriateness and explosive outbursts of aggression and paranoia (McCrory, Zazryn & Cameron, 2007, pg. 470).

FOOTBALL

Many families of retired football players have wondered whether there was a link between football and some psychological, behavioral and physical problems with the former player. Dr. Ann McKee, an associate professor of neurology and pathology at Boston University, has been studying the donated brains that have been sent to the brain bank at the school. Throughout the past three years, she received the brains of 16 former NFL players, some suffered from dementia, ALS or severe depression (King, 2010, pgs. 34-40). Dr. McKee thoroughly tested 14 of the brains, and 13 were diagnosed with CTE (King, 2010, pgs. 34-40). In a Sports Illustrated article, Dr. McKee said, “I can say confidently that this is a distinctive disorder that you don’t develop in the general population. In fact, I have never seen this disease in any person who doesn’t have the kind of repetitive head trauma that football players would have.” (King, 2010, pgs. 34-40).  

This photo is the blown up version of the control brain tissue. There is no build up of tau, therefore this person did not have CTE. photo from the Boston University Center for the Study of Traumatic Encephalopathy website.

Football has more serious brain injuries per year in America than any other contact sport. Roughly 43,000 to 67,000 high school players suffer concussions each year. However, this may be a conservative number as it is suspected that more than 50% of concussed athletes fail to report their symptoms. The top reasons why high school athletes do not report concussions are because they did not think it was serious enough (66%), did not want to leave the game (41%), did not know it was a concussion (36%) and did not want to let down their teammates (22%) (Gregory, 2010, The Problem With Football, pgs. 36-43). In a study done by the NFL, it was found that former players over the age of 50 are five times more likely to have a memory-related-disease than the general population. While players ages 30-49 are 19 times as likely to become debilitated (Gregory, 2010, The Problem With Football, pgs. 36-43).

There are a few problems with the way the NFL game is played which cause players to receive countless number of blows to the head. First, there are only 53 spots on each NFL roster. That means that an athlete must have extreme talent, but also be able to play through pain, such as a twisted ankle, broken bones or a bruised brain (Gregory, 2010, The Problem With Football, pgs. 36-43). Each NFL player tries desperately to make an active roster and then will try even harder and possibly do anything to not lose his spot on the roster. In a Time Magazine article, Hall of Fame linebacker Harry Carson (who struggles with post concussion symptoms like headaches) said, “Guys don’t think about life down the road. They want the car. They want the bling. They want to have a nice life.” (Gregory, 2010, The Problem With Football, pgs. 36-43).

Another problem is that many helmet-to-helmet hits are perfectly legal. As stated before, every single play in football starts with a snap and players at the line of scrimmage thrust themselves at one another from a three-point stance, knocking heads. Also, there are other times during a game where it is within the rules to hit a ball carrier in the open field in the helmet under certain circumstances (King, 2010, pgs. 34-40). In the same Sports Illustrated article, Baltimore Ravens linebacker Jarret Johnson, “totally” agreed that two-thirds of his collisions with offensive players involved using the helmet. “That’s all it is, helmet-to-helmet … And it’s constant. Every play, every play, every play. All game long,” said Johnson (King, 2010, pgs. 34-40). However, the NFL is well aware that little can be done concerning rule changes for helmet contact between lineman and on running plays that would not drastically alter and possibly diminish the game (King, 2010, pgs. 34-40).

A third problem is how fast the game is played. Many defenders around the NFL strongly believe that the game is too fast and they are being unjustly scrutinized for some of the hits they deliver on opposing players. Defensive players say that because the game is so fast, it is extremely difficult to avoid imposing a helmet-to-helmet hit. They continue by saying even when they aim at a ball carriers chest, many times the offensive player will duck to miss the contact and therefore resulting in a helmet-to-helmet hit. Defensive players also argue that many offensive players should be blamed for helmet-to-helmet hits because they are the ones running upfield aggressively and lowering the head to initiate contact (King, 2010, pgs. 34-40).

Here is a photo of the brain of Lou Creekmur, a former Detroit Lions lineman, eight-time Pro Bowler and a hall-of-famer. Creekmur died in 2009 of dementia and his brain shows substantial evidence of tau and therefore CTE. photo from the Boston University Center for the Study of Traumatic Encephalopathy website.

With all of the helmet-to-helmet hits, the NFL responded by fining players, mostly defensive ones, for blows to the head. Players hate the fact that the league office is forcing them to change their style of aggressive play during a game. Ray Anderson, who is in charge of discipline for the NFL, said that a defensive player is responsible for where he hits an opposing player, even if the offensive player ducks (King, 2010, pgs. 34-40). Last season, a week after Pittsburgh Steelers linebacker James Harrison was fined by the league for a helmet-to-helmet hit, there were no illegal helmet hits and no defenseless-receiver penalties in the NFL at all (King, 2010, pgs. 34-40). In the Sports Illustrated article, Carl Johnson, vice-president of officiating, said, “I’ve seen a change in behavior in one week. It’s what we kept hearing players couldn’t adjust to, but they did.” (King, 2010, pgs. 34-40).

HOCKEY

During the first season of the NHL in 1918, there was a headline in the Toronto Star newspaper that read, “Two NHL Players Under Arrest in Charge of Fighting, Fighting Players Remanded for Sentencing.” (Gregory, 2011, Blood on the Ice, pgs. 56-58). Ever since the inaugural season on the NHL, contact has been ingrained into the sport. Enforcers in hockey take and deliver the majority of hits, therefore being more susceptible to CTE.

One NHL enforcer, Jim Thomson, whose job it was to protect Wayne Gretzky, said that he suffered six documented concussions but neglected to report dozens of others. He also said that he is “convinced that these blows to the head, received in dozens of fights, contributed to his anxiety, depression and addiction,” (Gregory, 2011, Blood on the Ice, pgs. 56-58). At one point he was strung out on drugs and alcohol, and thought about committing suicide (Gregory, 2011, Blood on the Ice, pgs. 56-58).

The recent deaths of three NHL enforcers, Derek Boogaard, Rick Rypien and Wade Bielak, show connections with blows to the head and mental illness. Boogaard, 28, had his 2010-11 season ended by a concussion. He had a documented history of concussions as well prior to this last one. Boogaard also had a history of substance-abuse problems. In May, Boogaard died of an accidental overdose of painkillers and alcohol (Gregory, 2011, Blood on the Ice, pgs. 56-58). Rypien had issues with depression that were well known and in August, he killed himself after a 10-year battle with depression. He was known as one of the NHL’s most effective fighters (Gregory, 2011, Blood on the Ice, pgs. 56-58). Two weeks after Rypien died, Bielak hanged himself. Bielak’s parents described the death as an accident, however over a 14-year career; he got into 125 regular season fights. Boogaard, Rypien and Bielak were involved in over 400 professional hockey fights combined (Gregory, 2011, Blood on the Ice, pgs. 56-58).

The same as in football, many NHL players refuse to report concussions because they are afraid of losing their playing time, and possibly losing their job (Gregory, 2011, Blood on the Ice, pgs. 56-58).

Dr. Robert Cantu, a co-director of the Boston University concussion lab, said that the claim that fighting causes about eight percent of hockey concussions is “horsebleep” because the research only measures diagnosed concussions. He has examined multiple enforcers and judging by that he said hockey fighters suffer concussion symptoms “about once every four fights.” (Gregory, 2011, Blood on the Ice, pgs. 56-58).

CONCLUSION

There have been many former athletes across several contact sports that have been diagnosed with CTE after passing away. One such player was Buffalo Bills superstar of the 1960s, running back Cookie Gilchrist. Another player was defensive back Dave Duerson who won two SuperBowls. He had complained about his deteriorating mental state during the final months of his life. Duerson suspected that he had CTE, and prior to shooting himself in the chest, he wrote a note asking his family to donate his brain to the Boston University brain bank to be studied. It was confirmed that he indeed did have CTE.

Throughout the past four years, there have been many advances and a heightened awareness about brain trauma in contact sports and the effects with it. There are many sad stories about players who in retirement are devastated with depression, anxiety and addiction. It does make sense that these problems arise from their brains being injured due to blows to the head.

Both the NFL and NHL have cracked down on hits to the head during games to help the safety of their players as much as possible. But one can only hope that youth athletes are learning the correct techniques on how to deliver contact in their respective sports so as to help eliminate early brain damage in athletes.

The mental aspect of professional hockey

Yankees hall of fame catcher Yogi Berra once said, “Baseball is 90 percent mental. The other half is physical.” While this may just be another “Yogi-ism”, there certainly is a lot of truth in what he said. Obviously, athletics are highly physical; otherwise it wouldn’t be called a sport. However, the mental aspect of athletics is just as important as the physical skills needed to play. Arguably, as how Yogi Berra said it, the mental aspect is more important than the physical skills.

I interviewed a coach for the Rochester Americans, the American Hockey League affiliate for the Buffalo Sabres (to make it easy he will just go unnamed for now)  and therefore I considered him to be the prime candidate to interview about the psychology of sports performance.

The coach informed me that the organization actually has a mental skills coach who works with both the Sabres and Amerks. Therefore, he had a vast knowledge about the mental aspects of professional hockey. In addition to highlighting the physical grind for the athletes, he also covered many different mental aspects including visualization, motivation, stress management and peak performance.

Tyler Myers working with assistant coach Teppo Numminen. photo from sabres.nhl.com

One of the questions I asked was how seriously do the athletes take the mental strength aspect of hockey? His response was that it is a mixture because focusing on the psychological aspect of hockey is relatively new. “Some take it very seriously, some don’t take it seriously at all.  It is relatively new and different for most athletes, so for the most part the ‘different’ approach can be tough at the beginning for guys to accept.”  The breakdown of how much time is spent by an athlete each week both physically and mentally for hockey is interesting. He said generally physical skills are worked on three to four times a week in a 45 to 90 minute practice, and that off ice workouts are 30-60 minutes per week. However, “mental skills are worked on a daily basis, with shorter periods of higher intensity. Mental skills work can be very taxing on a player as it involves a lot of difficult activities including self evaluation, and numerous exercises in regards to preparation.” 

I was given some specific tasks the athletes engage in to physically, mentally and emotionally perform their best. Physically, the athletes working out, stretch, use cold tubs, massages and flush rides; mentally, the athletes perform visualization; and emotionally, many athletes keep a diary where they record foods eaten, rest the night before, pregame routine, etc. in order to find the best possible routines, meals, etc. “The amount of stress on the mind and body is HUGE in professional sports,” he said.  “It truly is a 24/7 job. Another great tool we use to keep the guys able to perform at their best is day/days off. Many times decreases in performance are due to lack of recovery, not a decline in conditioning/skills/etc.”

Another question I asked was, how does the mental skills coach teach how to deal with adversity both during a game and after a game? His response heavily emphasized an athlete being able to deal with only what is controllable and having the ability to regain mental control after uncontrollable events. “There are numerous strategies that the skills coach uses, since each player is different,” he said. “During the game the biggest thing that is stressed is to focus on the moment and control the controllables. Just like in everyday life, controlling what you can control makes life 100 times better. Spending (wasting) time on things that you can’t control anyways will cause exhaustion quickly.”

One of the things I posed was that at the professional level, everybody has the physical skills; otherwise they would not be playing at that level. Therefore, is it fair to say that what sets an athlete apart from the rest is their mental strength? He said that it would be fair to say that in a broad sense, as each player can do the basic fundamentals at a similar level. However, fine motor patterns such as stick handling and saucer passes can vary from player to player and those skills are noticed. Therefore, he highly emphasized the importance of a player understanding his role on the team. “This is why it is so important for a player to have a role on a team, for example you wouldn’t see the ‘fighter’ trying to stickhandle through players and vice versa,” he said. “Just as important is the player UNDERSTANDING that role. Often times a player’s role may change from day to day, practice to practice, and game to game. The player understanding that role is just as important as their being a role defined period.”

The coach had an interesting take on an athlete reaching peak performance. He said that their philosophy is that there is no such thing as a peak, and that they strongly believe in kaizen, continually improving a little bit each day. “Continually growing,” he said. “We don’t totally believe in a ‘peak’ as in ‘the athlete can no longer get better’. The athletes that typically respond the best to mental, physical, skill training are those that want to get better, and therefore strive to do so. Just like someone on a weight loss plan, or in a classroom, the people that do the best are the ones that WANT to do the best, and work to do so.”

But overall what I found to be most interesting is what he said at the end of the interview. He went on to explain why currently mental training is underrated and why he thinks there will be much more emphasis placed on it in the near future. It will be easiest to just fully quote what he said:

“Think of it like this: an athlete wants to peak, right? So if he makes gains in the weight room, chances are he’ll get better by 10 percent (arbitrary number). Now, if he doesn’t like the weight room, and just eats a healthier diet, he’ll get better by 10 percent (arbitrary number). Now, if he doesn’t like the weight room, and doesn’t like to eat healthy, but improves his mental abilities and abilities to deal with stress etc, he’ll get better by 10 percent (arbitrary number). NOW, imagine the athlete that works hard in the weight room, eats a healthier diet, and improves his mental abilities, he’ll get better by 30, 40, 50 percent, possibly more. The possibilities are really endless when you piggy back one aspect on top of the other, on top of the other, on top of the other. Eating healthier will help make improvements in the weight room, being stronger in the weight room will help with the player’s confidence, confidence will improve on the ice. Everything is truly related, one aspect helps the other, helps the other.”

West Seneca native to return home after four months in ECMC: Benefit planned June 30 for injured police officer

After sustaining a large tear in the aorta, enduring the removal of a ruptured spleen, three life saving surgeries and a month in intensive care, Buffalo Police Officer Gary Sengbusch is scheduled to be released from the Erie County Medical Center on Friday, June 17.

“It feels pretty good,” said Sengbusch immediately.

Officer Gary Sengbusch. Photo from westsenecabee.com

Sengbusch, a native of West Seneca, was critically injured in the early morning hours on Feb. 25 while off-duty — he was leaving his part time job as security at a bar on Main Street and was struck by an alleged drunk driver at Ferry Street. He was on his way to pick up his girlfriend, Julie Bradigan, on Elmwood Avenue.

The extent of his injuries did not allow Sengbusch to remember anything the night of the accident.

“All I know is I woke up in the hospital and tried to put two-and-two together,” he said. “It didn’t really help.”

Sengbusch, who joined the Buffalo Police Department in 2008, has been at ECMC since the night of his accident. He did not have any feeling in his left leg for some time; however, he kept a strong positive attitude because “it’s the only way to get through it,” he said.

“Then one day I woke up and started doing this,” said Sengbusch as he lifted his leg off the hospital bed.

Sengbusch said he often wondered why such a horrific accident had to happen to him. However, his strong positive attitude showed its strength and turned that thought into inspiration.

“Then I started to realize it was probably me because I am strong enough to get through it,” he said.

Sengbusch has been in the extensive rehabilitation phase of his recovery. For two hours each day, he does exercises to strengthen predominately the left side of his body, especially his left leg and shoulder. He sustained no injuries to the right side of his body.

After being released from the hospital, Sengbusch will live with his parents off of East and West Road in West Seneca and said he “can’t get enough of West Seneca.”

Sengbusch graduated from Orchard Park High School after attending grammar school at Queen of Heaven, where he was an altar boy and played baseball.

“It’s a little quieter than the city,” said Sengbusch. “You can actually hang out in the backyard and hang out with your neighbors.”

While at home, he will have to go to rehab therapy at least three to four times per week. Sengbusch said one of the first things he wants to do at home, however, is get into his parents’ hot tub and enjoy a savory piece of steak.

Throughout his time at ECMC, Sengbusch found inspiration from the unlimited amount of support from his family, friends and people he has never met. One wall in his hospital room is decorated with cards. There have been enough cards sent to him that the ones not on the wall are stored in a trunk.

“Someone is here every day,” said Sengbusch. “A lot of younger kids and schools have gotten together and sent cards which are inspirational. It’s good to see they still have respect for police officers because a lot of people grow up and start to lose it.”

His greatest inspiration has been his girlfriend — Bradigan has slept on a cot next to his hospital bed almost every night since the incident. She only goes home in the afternoon to shower, take a nap, do laundry and get Sengbusch something to eat.

“It’s exhausting. We’ve had our ups and downs, but together we make it better,” said Bradigan of the recovery process. “It’s hard to keep a positive attitude when you’re in the hospital this long, but we do it.”

Sengbusch has also found motivation in not letting down the ones who have helped him along the way.

“I don’t want to disappoint all of the people who have helped me,” he said.

A teary-eyed Bradigan whispered to him that he would not.

Because Sengbusch was off-duty when the accident occurred, he does not receive a full paycheck from the City of Buffalo.

Photo from westsenecabee.com

In order to help cover for his lost wages and medical bills, Buffalo Charities stepped up and has planned a benefit in conjunction with a Bisons game at 7:05 p.m. Thursday, June 30, at Coca-Cola Field.

There will be a pregame tent party from 5 to 7 p.m. which will include live music by the Strictly Hip, food and beverages. Multiple prizes will be raffled off during the game, including a television autographed by Jay Leno and autographed jerseys by Derek Jeter, Carl Yastrzemski and C.J. Spiller.

After the game there will be a fireworks display and a post game party at Pearl Street Grill & Brewery — all donated. Tickets are $10 and can be purchased online at www.teamgary.org.

“It’s pretty awesome,” said Sengbusch. “Definitely gives you something to look forward to. I think I am going to start giving back more to charity.”

When asked about any specific charity, Sengbusch said, “Buffalo Charities,” as he pointed to his longtime friend and director of Buffalo Charities, Paul Roorda.

Sengbusch not only hopes to successfully throw out the first pitch at the Bisons game, which he’s been preparing for in rehab, but also to return to a sense of normalcy.

“That’s kind of my big goal,” said Sengbusch. “Just go back to my apartment and be able to walk without a cane.”

As a police officer, Sengbusch protects the public against many different hazards, including his attempts to prohibit people from drunk driving — an ironic twist of fate that he is subject to his condition because of an alleged drunk driver.

“It only takes a minute or two and a few dollars to call a taxi when you’re drunk,” said Sengbusch. “Or call a family member. Or even call the police department, they will pick you up.”