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Feature Stories

Kevin Turner, Mike Ditka foundations hit concussions hard

Tom Laue, Executive Editor

Kevin Turner, Mike Ditka foundations hit concussions hard

Picture two truly tough former pro football players: Mike Ditka and Kevin Turner. Ditka was a hard-hitting Chicago Bears tight end before coaching the team to its 1985 Super Bowl victory. Kevin Turner's jarring NFL play with New England and Philadelphia earned him the Ed Block Courage Award when he played with the Eagles in 1996.

Now 73, Ditka seems untouched by concussions he endured. Turner, a mid-40s father of three, has Lou Gehrig's disease – untreatable and fatal. He blames it on the fierce hits that are unavoidable in the National Football League. He says his hands are nearly useless, his speech declining. ALS (amyotrophic lateral sclerosis) destroys messages between the brain and nervous system.

Distressed by one-time NFL colleagues "in dire medical need or sleeping in cars or unable to get insurance" Ditka helped set up "Gridiron Greats" in 2007 (gridirongreats.org). "We've helped over 500 players and their families. We do our best to keep up with the high demand from players needing assistance."

Turner established the "Kevin Turner Foundation" (kevinturnerfoundation.org) after his 2010 ALS diagnosis. It raises research funds, spreads awareness about ALS and other brain trauma, and seeks cures.

Their foundations now team up for some events. They're always asked at such events: What do you tell youth regarding the wisdom of playing the game you love so dearly in an era of increasing concern about football's long-term safety?

Kids: To play or not to play?

In emailed answers to "LifeTimes" questions, both wrestled with the issue. Turner says, "A few years ago, I was telling moms and dads that football is very safe. I coached football players age 6 to 12. Now, I feel full-contact football before 14 can quite possibly do more harm than good. You have no idea how much it hurts me to say that. There are so many positives that come from football.

"But not one is worth the risk that our children could be forever changed for the worse because of it." Turner said he would have skipped his entire pro football career if he knew what would happen to him.

Ditka has similar views. "I would tell a young person not to stay away from football. But I also say the risks are pretty great. They really are. So I think when you have a child, you have to say to them, 'Hey, football rewards are wonderful. But the risks are pretty great, too.'"

Each points to different possible reasons some players get more severe concussions than others. Turner believes certain positions are the likeliest culprit. "Players that I know of with ALS were all linebackers, safeties, fullbacks, and big hitters on special teams. Of course, I don't now for sure I'm right. One thing our foundation I hope can find out is if certain people are predisposed to these neurological conditions."

Ditka has long preached the folly of using heads as part of tackling. When he played, helmets were "plastic shells with foam inside. When two of those collided, you had a real problem. So we were taught to tackle with arms and shoulders. Now, helmets are so sophisticated and based on protection, when you put it on you will have no fear. You will strike with your head. It's a natural instinct.

"But I don't care how sophisticated the equipment is, that brain is rattling around. It's bruised. It bleeds. So bad things happen; that's where the biggest problem is today," he adds. "I don't advocate changing the helmet, but I do advocate people teach playing football intelligently and not allow using the helmet and head as a weapon."