I recently met with our study’s principal investigator, Dr. Robert Stern of Boston University School of Medicine. We discussed at length the study’s potential to identify the overall medical condition of our group of former college football players, including the risks of long-term brain injury, and the clinical spectrum and pattern of that injury. The uniqueness of our study is that it involves a distinct group of men of a certain age known to be at risk for the consequences of repetitive body and head trauma. As the only longitudinal medical study of a group of living former college players, the study’s findings are likely to enlighten the medical and football communities throughout this country. In short this is an unprecedented, much needed, and timely study.
The medical impact of playing American football has not been well studied. Studies to date are largely of former NFL players and are of limited scope and often inconclusive with respect to the potential risks involved. The fact is there is little good research on which to base assessments of the long term medical risks of playing tackle football. https://www.nytimes.com/topic/subject/head-injuries-in-football
There are now well over 60 million former college and high school football players in this country. These aging former players are also the first generation of Pee Wee players to have begun their playing days with hard plastic helmets, and many were taught to make strategic use of their helmet as a weapon. Also, the force of impacts on the playing field has continued to grow with the increasing size, strength, and speed of the players. The football we watch on fall weekends is light years beyond the sport of our fathers and grandfathers.
In addition to other medical and neurological issues, the shadow of CTE disease is now cast over all levels of the sport. Proposals are presented to major universities, as well as local school districts, to simply abolish football as a sponsored sport. We don’t wish to join that debate. We’d like to go down a path where there may be some potential answers. If research indicates some cause for concern, then the need for exploration of a number of ideas and issues will arise, and those issues will have to be better addressed in the future by everyone involved – players, universities, and governing organizations.
This “Independent Notre Dame Footballers Medical Research Study” is intended by the players as an important first step in that process. There are about 500 ND players from the seventeen seasons (1964-1980) under coaches Ara Parseghian and Dan Devine. About 100 players are deceased or missing. Information about deceased players is being gathered from families where possible. As might be expected, some players will choose not to participate or be unable to participate because of mental impairments. We are hoping that the longitudinal nature of this study will make up for some of this lost ground. All in all, we expect about 300 players to participate. Of note, even before our study began, a number of players on these teams were autopsy-confirmed as having CTE. No doubt, though, we are likely to lose the data of many of our players already stricken with CTE. With continuing player involvement, though, our data base hopefully will grow as the study moves forward in the years ahead..
We have been informed by the National Institutes of Health (NIH), that following our study later this year, the NIH will be initiating a new million dollar medical grant program for researching traumatic brain injury (TBI), chronic mental impairment, and dementia, including that caused by chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE). This new NIH research program is an exceptional fit as a subsequent complement to our independent ND players study. https://grants.nih.gov/grants/guide/rfa-files/RFA-NS-19-026.html.
We are getting closer to being able to diagnose CTE in living persons. https://www.futurity.org/cte-pet-scans-tau-proteins-2037102/ If this becomes possible, it may in the future enable development of potential treatment or prevention options. Our research project will likely be followed by NIH-funded research at Boston University School of Medicine, as well as medical centers at University of California, San Francisco, the Mayo Clinic, Cleveland Clinic, Harvard University, and other major academic medical centers. Since our study is itself a longitudinal study that we will update as our players age, translational benefits of this research are possible for the former ND players in our study as well as for all the younger players and their families who follow in our footsteps.
When asked about this study by others in the medical community, I confess that it makes me prouder than I’ve ever been to be a Notre Dame man. This study is designed to learn from the medical condition of these former Notre Dame football players. The real “pot of gold” at the end of this rainbow is the potential to benefit medical research in this field and for the possible translational benefits for our own ND players, as well as future players and their families at all levels of the sport.
Robert Driscoll, MD, ND’77, Member 1975 ND Orange Bowl Champions, Chief of Trauma, South Shore Health Systems, Faculty Member, Harvard University Medical School, Consultant, Players Steering Committee, Independent ND Footballers