Herschel Walker, Brain Damage and Football


Posted on 16th April 2008 by Gordon Johnson in Uncategorized

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Too many hits? It is an old sports term, used to describe the running back who suddenly went from a Hall of Fame credentials, to ordinary, to out of football. It seems like half of the greatest running backs of all time went thru it.

If you are old enough to remember Earl Campbell, you would argue that no modern running back could carry his helmet. Yet, he went from absolutely amazing to positively mediocre, almost overnight. In 1983, he gained 1301 yards. In 1984, he had only 468. Even playing for his beloved coach Bum Phillips in New Orleans in 1985, he could only muster 643 yards, and then he was gone. http://www.profootballhof.com/hof/member.jsp?player_id=40

The younger readers may have only heard of Earl because of his relationship to the scandal of the way the NFL treats its veterans and their medical needs. http://www.cyclonefanatic.com/forum/pro-sports/18098-earl-campell-texas-legend.html

Others have their explanations for his disability. Mine: It all starts in the brain. We know that boxers ultimately become demented because of too many hits, but think of the force that a running back absorbs on nearly every carry. Is it a surprise that the cumulative impact of that force on the microscopic connective wires within the brain – the axons, ultimately effects thought, the nervous system and the way in which the brain and nervous system control the body?

There are three incomparable running backs in my adult years: Earl Campbell, Walter Payton and Emmitt Smith. Payton is the exception, I have no head injury theories with respect to him. But I remember the Cowboy Emmitt Smith in a way that only a Packer fan can. He just found a way to beat you. Not the fastest, not the biggest, not perhaps even the most elusive. He just had a knack. Big difference between Emmitt and Earl was that while Emmitt could run over people, he preferred to make them miss. Earl just ran over you for the sport of it. Well, Emmitt didn’t have that sudden career collapse that Earl did. He played successfully his last years in the game although the Cowboys did give up on him.

In my theories, the big change in Emmitt wasn’t because of the cumulative total of a lot of hits. His change seemed to occur all at once. On a Monday night game, against the Bears, Emmitt jumped over a pile and landed straight on his head. The way I remember it, it was a touchdown. It was the neck injury that got everyone excited. But I don’t believe Emmitt ever had quite the same knack after that play. His Cowboys never knocked the Packers out of the Playoffs again.

Why is Subtle Brain Injury© so disabling to a running back? A Subtle Brain Injury first effects the processing speed potentials of the brain because it disrupts white matter, the axons. While men in general are not as white matter dependent as women (a topic for another blog) athletes, especially those who must have instantaneous responses, are.

Assume that a running back needs 2 billion axons (to pick an entirely artificial number) to be able to react quickly enough to all of the different stimuli, applied memory and decision making of carrying the football. This pre-injury capacity gives the great runner the ability to know to cut left instead of right, situationally depending on whether it is All Pro Jimmy Linebacker who is trying to crush him versus Johnny Lineman. For more on diffuse axonal injury, click here.

Well, let’s also assume that our hypothetical running back started his career with 2.5 billion axons, but every hit robs him of a few and all of the blindsided ones, millions. Well when suddenly his reserves drop below 2 billion, he can’t react quickly enough to avoid the All Pros, but can still make the average defensive player miss. But now when Mr. All Pro hits him hundreds of millions of axons are lost, and it only takes a few more games until he can’t avoid even Mr. Average anymore. His strength is the same, his speed is the same, but his instincts are gone. Pretty soon the speed will go too because of the cumulative total of all those hits on his muscles and joints.

Well, this week’s news has another story of a legendary running back who went from All World, to worst trade in history in a short span, Herschel Walker. Walker went from 1514 yards in 1988 to 915 yards in 1989. While there are those who will say that this had to do with the way in which he was used after he left the Cowboys for Minnesota, true football fans will know that he just never had the same special quality after leaving the Cowboys. Like Earl Campbell, Walker used his amazing strength and power to punish defenders.

Now, Herschel Walker is newsworthy because of mental illness. See http://www.philly.com/philly/sports/eagles/20080415_NFL___Herschel_Walker_talks_of_mental_illness.html OK, that is possibly the explanation, but I am not convinced. Too many hits equals too much brain damage, which adds up to potential for serious neurobehavioral disorders.

If you think I am seeing brain injury under every rock, perhaps I am. But would someone please explain to me why the Poster Child for brain injury in sport – Mike Tyson, was never disqualified from boxing because of brain injury? If his complete inability to not bite Evander Holyfield’s ears is not a symptom of brain injury, then the world is flat. (For someone who shares my belief about Mike Tyson and brain injury, click here.)

I am not an expert in football or boxing although my first career was as a sport writer. I am not a medical doctor, so technically I am not an expert in brain injury either. But I do know both sports and brain injury and I know enough to recognize the patterns that point to brain damage. Is there enough force, is there evidence of injury and is there a change in the person? Emmitt I am suspicious about, especially the short term effect of the season he landed on his head. Of Earl, Herschel and Mike Tyson, I have no doubt.