Lou Gehrig lives in life and legend as a classic Achilles figure. He achieved great glory and died young, too young. One of the greatest baseball players of all time, known as the Iron Horse for his relentless play and record setting game streak, he amassed records and respect as the driver of the Yankee dynasty.
Yet at the age of 36 at the height of his career, he was struck with a disease many believed amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, ALS. It never made any sense. The disease, which slowly shuts down the organs of the body and still remains largely a mystery, generally strikes people much older and is a death sentence. He died in two years.
Bryant Gumbel did us all a service with a special report detailing the possible relation between early onset Lou Gehrig's disease and head trauma. Technically Gehrig's disease mimics ALS amyotrophic lateral sclerosis. The disease involves a progressive shut down of all the body's organs until you die of suffocation. The only organ left untouched is the brain. A person watches in silent horror as his or her body disintegrates piece by piece leaving them with only a mind presiding over a decaying death sentence.
The disease follows an inexorable fatal and painful course. It's etiology, besides a clear hereditary component, has eluded scientists, especially the early opportunistic ALS. Now the research highlighted by Gumbel's team suggests that the same mechanisms that do brain damage to athletes from repetitive head injury may contribute to ALS formation.
Suddenly Gehrig's tragic demise makes sense. In a world without batting helmets, he had suffered 6 traumatic head injuries, several of which knocked him out for up to five minutes. Worse, the Iron Horse returned to play the next day after being knocked unconscious. We now know that brain trauma demands total rest of all mental activity and playing on only aggravates all the neurological damage caused by the accumulation of toxic proteins generated by the concussive blows.
The history of contested data upon concussions and the long term and short term impacts on players is still unfolding. After decades of resistance, the football establishment has acknowledged the issue is real, not before hundreds of ex-college and pro football players suffered in silence and penury with early dementia, depression, Alzheimer and other illnesses brought on by consistent concussive actions or accumulated head trauma -- what is known as chronic traumatic encephalography CTE. It took congressional testimony, intrepid reporting by the Washington Post and a host of other factors.
Gumbel's team detailed the efforts of Dr. Ann McKee, a neurology professor at Boston University, to connect head trauma to this less evident but horrible fate. It turns out that one of the clear effects of concussive trauma upon athletes' brains is the existence of toxic proteins in the brain that later infect and impair neural functioning in a wide variety of ways.
Dr. McKee discovered that in rare cases the toxic proteins slip through the brain membranes and enter the spinal chord, the controlling channels for all organ functions. The causal trail is a long ways away, but for the first time in twenty years of looking, science points towards another horrifying consequence of continuous assault upon the brain. Her team has asked permission to examine the brains and now spinal chords of players who died from ALS. The normal onset of ALS is mid sixties, but European soccer players, American Football players and boxers are struck in their thirties and forties and at rate 10-23 times the normal population.
As I gasped in horror at this story, Gumbel's team interviewed several players and wives who faced progressive degeneration from the disease. You could see the stark difference between the player such as Steve Smith, Oakland running back, and what his disease had reduced him to: on a ventilator and speaking through a computer driven by the movement of his eyes.
The story also pointed out how the same statistics and early onset of progressive organ degeneration may be related to CTE in European football or soccer. There, players regularly whip their heads into balls careening above 60 miles per hour.
The science continues to accumulate and the roster of horrors visited upon football players, American and European, rises. Achilles revenge will strike and the football powers fend off the knowledge by focusing upon concussions as the culprit, when we know it goes far beyond.
The problem will not go away, it is woven into the fabric of the sports as seriously as destroying brains is woven into boxing.