Decades Later, Long-Term Effects Of Brain Trauma Felt By Retired NFL Football Players

By Matthew Casey
Published: Wednesday, August 23, 2017 - 10:52am
Updated: Thursday, August 24, 2017 - 9:50am

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(Photo by Jackie Hai - KJZZ)
Carl Barisich works on projects around his home in Goodyear.

This is Part I of a two-part series about football and brain injury. Read Part II here.

A monsoon storm knocked over a plastic shed in the backyard of Carl Barisich’s Goodyear home. Before putting it back together, he used a sledgehammer to finish taking it apart. Barisich played in the National Football League during the 1970s and early 80s.

“See I can’t swing this cause my shoulder won’t let me,” he said. “(It) doesn’t give me any strength.”

The 66-year-old Goodyear resident has a degree in civil engineering from Princeton University. He also has metal in both knees, one hip and the shoulder that bothered him.

“Actually, the joints that have been replaced, in many ways feel better than the real ones I have left,” Barisich said.

In the 1970s, pro football replaced baseball as the national pastime. But some now say the long-term effects of head injuries have put the game in an existential crisis. Barisich played when the NFL may have been the most violent. Blows to the head were perfectly legal, and usually celebrated.  

“When I was playing, I liked competing and I liked hitting people,” he said.

Barisich won’t let joint pain disrupt retirement with his wife of almost 50 years. They have big plans to travel, see old friends and spend time with grandchildren. But the head shots Barisich took in football could interfere with their plans down the road.

“I don’t know whether the things that I experience in my life are a sort of natural aging process, or my natural aging process has been accelerated by this brain trauma,” he said.

Barisich doesn’t worry if he’ll get Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy, or CTE, which is a brain disease linked to football. Experts found CTE in 110 of 111 former NFL players, according to a study recently published in the Journal of the American Medical Association. Knowing about CTE probably would not have changed Barisich’s decision to play.

“I’d figure, just like everybody does, I’m the guy that’s going to beat the odds,” he said. “And I still am the guy that’s going to beat the odds. My buddy Tom, well, he didn’t quite beat them.”

Tom DeLeone played 13 seasons in the NFL. He died last year and doctors found signs of advanced CTE in his brain. Barisich held his best friend’s hand as he passed away. 

“It was very moving, and he knew I was with him, and so that makes me feel good,” Barisich said.

(Photo courtesy of Carl Barisich)
Tom DeLeone (left) and Carl Barisich played together in the National Football League. When DeLeone died, doctors found he had Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy, or CTE.

DeLeone and Barisich used to ride to practice together. Later on, they shared their families as much as football. But it all started when they played for different teams. The violence of football brought them together.

“Out of nowhere, (DeLeone) blindsided me,” Barisich said. “He lifted me up off my feet and I came down, I landed on my feet. But I wasn’t quite sure where I was.”

Barisich doesn’t know how many concussions he had while playing. Brain trauma was diagnosed differently 40 years ago, said Dr. Javier Cardenas, director of the Barrow Concussion and Brain Injury Center at Barrow Neurological Institute.

“Anything less than getting knocked out was not a concussion,” Cardenas said. “We know now that’s not the case.”

Doctors want to know the effect of hits that don’t produce concussion symptoms, said Cardenas, who’s also a NFL consultant and chair of the medical advisory committee for the Arizona Interscholastic Association.

“The big question, the big concern is, are these also damaging to the brain? At this time we simply don’t know,” Cardenas said.

As a defensive lineman, Barisich got hit on the head during every game and every practice.

In the 1970s, most pro football players had side jobs because pay was much lower, which increased pressure to be on the field, said Kevin Cook, author of the book, “The Last Headbangers.”

“You were definitely not tough if you sat out,” Cook said.

The rules were different then too. Head-to-head hits were glorified, and players used their helmets as weapons to hurt the opponent.

“There is no doubt that men are today senile at 50, are dying earlier, are suicidal, solely because they played football,” Cook said. “And not just NFL players. There’s a lot of high school and college players who are suffering as well I think.”

Retirement will give Barisich and his wife the chance spend a lot more time with their grandchildren. On a recent afternoon, Barisich helped the two who live across the street do jigsaw puzzles, which can help keep the brain limber. 

“I feel good,” he said. “I interact with my family well. And I don’t ever even think about if I’m losing it.”

Barisich has undergone tests so doctors can better understand the impact football has on the brain. They’re double-blind studies though, and he’ll never know the results. But even if he did, doctors can only diagnose CTE post-mortem. Barisich has already agreed to donate his brain to science after he dies.

“I’m physically still fairly capable and I go any place I want to go," he said. "I climb mountains. I do what I have to do to have fun and to live life.”

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