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"It hit me like a ton of bricks."
For former Dallas Cowboys and Denver Broncos running back Tony Dorsett, the results of a UCLA brain study confirming that he and two other NFL veterans were suffering from the effects of chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE) came as a revelation. Although he had been battling memory loss and depression for years, the brain testing that he ha undergone along with seven other NFL players provides the first clear evidence that he suffers from the same brain trauma experienced by other veterans. Previouly known as dementia pugilistica (or punch-drunk syndrome) CTE was first identified in professional boxers but is being increasingly recognized in athletes from other sports including professional wrestling and football.
Although typically only diagnosed after death, advances in brain imaging provides better diagnosis for people with a history of repeated head injuries and enables them to receive the needed treatment while still living. With imaging, brain researchers are able to identify a buildup of tau protein. Abundant in the neurons of the central nervous system, defective tau proteins have been identified in other dementias including Alzheimer's disease. High tau levels in the cerebrospinal fluid surrounding the brain have also been identified with poor outcomes after head injuries.
While professional organizations such as the NFL have downplayed the potential for long-term brain damage in players, a rash of CTE diagnoses has led to a class action suit launched by more than 4,500 former players, including Dorsett, against the NFL. Plaintiff attorneys and the NFL announced a $765 million settlement although details remain to be finalized.
According to a recent ESPN Outside the Lines report, players participating in the UCLA study who have been confirmed to have CTE include Dorsett, Hall of Fame offensive lineman Joe DeLamielleure and former All-Pro defensive lineman Leonard Marshall. Other athletes who have been tested are still awaiting their results.
While there is no known cure for CTE, Dorsett has been placed on a new nutrition regime and researchers are hoping that cases such as his can lead to new treatments in time. In the meantime, Tony Dorsett is prone to lapses in memory including forgetting driving routes he traveled for years and often losing his train of thought in conversations.
But there is nothing wrong with his memory of the gruelling performance that was expected of him and other players by NFL teams. "I knew something was going on," he said in a recent interview. "It takes me back to the fact that we (as players) were treated (after head injuries) and still put back out there in harm's way, when from my understanding management knew what they were doing to us. They were still subjecting us to that kind of physical abuse without the proper treatment. It really hurts. My quality of life (long pause) deteriorates a little bit just about every day."
"But I'm not being inactive," he added. "I'm being proactive. I'm trying to cut it off at the pass, slow it down, do whatever I can to fight this thing. But it's tough, man, it's frustrating as hell at times."
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