Chris Henry: Will His Death Open Doors for NFL Health Care?

The untimely death of Chris Henry was hard to get over for a lot of fans. I'm sure his close friends and family will never quite get over it. It was a tragedy for family, friends and fans alike. However, I've always been a believer in the fact that things happen for a reason and that when a door is closed, a window is opened. Henry's death, while tragic, may be the straw that breaks the NFL health care debates back.

NFL health care is a weird topic to discuss. On one hand, you think that these players are getting paid millions and millions to play a game and they should set aside a portion of their ridiculous salaries in case they need it when they retire. It's a sound argument. There is another side of the argument, though, that makes just as much sense. Some players who make the league minimum for just a few years, may not have the necessary cash to pay for certain procedures needed. At the same time, players who retired after playing their careers in the '70's and '80's and earlier who played with inferior equipment and smaller salaries are in the same boat.

Many players have been fighting for better NFL health care for retired players for some time now.

Thirteen Hall of Famers interviewed by The Observer expressed concern that the NFL and the league players association, headed by Upshaw, don't do enough to help former players, especially pioneers of the game suffering crippling health and financial difficulties. "It's the deep, dark secret nobody wants to talk about," said Howie Long, a former Raiders defensive lineman who's now a studio analyst for Fox Sports.

Long, Joe Montana, John Elway, Ronnie Lott, Marcus Allen, Joe DeLamielleure, Randy White and Deacon Jones were among the Hall of Famers who expressed varying degrees of dissatisfaction with the NFL's pension and healthcare benefits. They said they were speaking on behalf of all retirees, not just themselves.

My dads favorite player when he was growing up was Earl Campbell, the running back for the Houston Oilers who are now the Tennessee Titans. He ran with a combination of brute power and speed that you don't see very often, even in the NFL. He was a perfect touchdown scoring machine. Now he's confined to a walker and wheelchair.

Wearing a burnt orange, Texas golf shirt, white knee-length shorts and new Nikes with a Longhorn logo, Campbell used a walker to inch down a window-lined hallway overlooking one of his favorite golf courses.

He took roughly six minutes to cover 40 yards – a distance he used to breeze through in less than five seconds as a punishing running back at Texas and during an eight-year, Hall of Fame career in the NFL, mostly with the Houston Oilers. Still wearing his trademark beard, now gray, he stands at a 45-degree angle, unable to straighten at his lower back. He can no longer straighten his knees, either.

When the walker becomes too much work, he uses a wheelchair that he travels with at all times. During a 40-minute interview with a few reporters on Friday, Campbell was totally lucid one second and struggling to recall names and prominent dates the next.

Fortunately for Campbell, he has a good job as a special assistant to the athletic director at University of Texas, where he won his Heisman Trophy in 1977. Other ex-NFL players haven't been as lucky.

The subject of Campbell's health became a topic of discussion among the former NFL players gathered in Austin this weekend because of testimony before Congress on Tuesday by aging NFL retirees.

Those retirees told horror stories of endless surgery, dementia and even homelessness while fighting with the NFL for better pensions and health insurance. Retired NFL players receive health insurance for the first five years after their playing career and then are on their own, when insurance is often unaffordable.

Henry's death was tragic news, not only for the Bengals but for the NFL as a whole and the recent news that Henry suffered from Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy (CTE) could serve as a wake up call to the NFL and its players. The co-director of the Brain Injury Research Institute at West Virginia University, Neurosurgeon Julian Bailes, said that the NFL needs to work to make football safer for players.

Bailes, team doctor for the Mountaineers and a former Pittsburgh Steelers physician, said it's easy to distinguish those acute traumatic injuries from the underlying condition he and Omalu found when staining tiny slices of Henry's brain.

 

Bailes and fellow researchers believe chronic traumatic encephalopathy, or CTE, is caused by multiple head impacts, regardless of whether those blows result in a concussion diagnosis. A number of studies, including one commissioned by the NFL, have found that retired professional football players may have a higher rate than normal of Alzheimer's disease and other memory problems.

Who knows if Henry's death will turn some heads and open some eyes but it seams clear that some of the pioneers of our favorite sport need some help and the NFL seams to need some help in providing it. Maybe Henry can provide that help. Maybe when the door was closed on Henry, a window was opened for everybody who comes after him.

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