Hours before their first training camp practice Wednesday, Carolina Panthers players were still absorbing a staggering new study that found CTE in 99 percent of deceased NFL players’ brains that had been donated for scientific research.
Veteran linebacker Thomas Davis – in his most candid comments about concussions and brain injuries – called the numbers “alarming,” and said the results of the Boston University study prompted discussion among Panthers players after they reported to Wofford on Tuesday for the start of camp.
The study, led by neuropathologist Ann McKee, examined the donated brains of 111 ex-NFL players and found 110 had chronic traumatic encephalopathy, a degenerative disease linked to repeated head trauma.
“We definitely talked about it. That’s something that’s definitely – it’s alarming. I will say it’s something we’re really paying close attention to as players,” Davis said. “I would be lying to you if I (said) that I didn’t get nervous seeing that stat. That’s a very alarming stat.”
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The issue of brain injuries hits close to home with the Panthers.
Pro Bowl middle linebacker Luke Kuechly missed nine games over the past two seasons following concussions. Quarterback Cam Newton, the league MVP in 2015, sustained the first known concussion of his NFL career last season and sat out a game.
Then there’s the case of former Panthers offensive tackle Michael Oher, who was cut last week after failing a physical 10 months after first reporting post-concussion symptoms.
Oher, who had vision and balance issues in the immediate aftermath of his concussion, indicated in a social media post last week that he’s still being evaluated at a renowned concussion clinic in Pittsburgh.
But at least one Panthers player, recently acquired wide receiver Russell Shepard, said players understand the long-term health risks inherent in playing in the NFL. And Shepard said he’s willing to risk possible head injuries in order to provide for his family.
“At the end of the day this job provides me an opportunity to not only change my life (but) change my family’s life,” Shepard said. “I’m grateful for the game of football. It’s just something that comes with the game. If I wanted to do something different I could’ve played another sport. I could’ve chosen another profession. But I love this game. ...
“At the end of the day, the money you make, the people you meet, the experience you get from playing this game, I’ll take it against CTE. It just comes with it and it doesn’t scare me at all.”
Not all the players whose brains were studied were getting that financial benefit, though.
The Boston University also found evidence of CTE in 48 of 53 college football players, and three of 14 high school players. CTE’s symptoms include memory loss, depression and dementia.
Davis, 34, said the presence of CTE in several high school athletes got his attention.
“I think that’s very eye-opening,” Davis said.
Davis and his wife, Kelly, have two sons – ages 9 and 13 – who play tackle football.
Organizations such as USA Football have launched programs aimed at teaching safer tackling techniques among young players, and Davis says he’s comfortable with the instruction his boys are receiving.
“I go out to their practices and I’m watching what the coaches are teaching them,” Davis said. “And I think right now the coaches at the levels that they’re playing at are doing a really, really good job of teaching the guys how to tackle.
“Teaching them how to keep their heads up. I think that’s important. I feel confident in letting them play, knowing that they’re teaching it the right way.”