Dr. Scott Rosa flushed the fluids in Jim McMahon’s brain, “just like a toilet bowl,” the former Chicago Bears QB and Super Bowl Champion says. He’s relaxed against the cushioned driver’s seat in a golf cart out front of the Pelham Country Club, just north of Manhattan. His trademark coal-black sunglasses are on his face, a perspiring beer is in his hand.
As a cadre of former professional athletes arrive – like former Yankee David Wells and retired Olympic skier Bode Miller – McMahon will smile, give them a slap on the back, laugh with them.
That’s quite a difference from three years ago, when McMahon would leave to grab groceries and end up at the airport. He told Dr. Rosa then that it felt like two ice picks were piercing the sides of his bald head. He briefly contemplated suicide.
This is the story of an ex-NFL player with a battered brain. Except instead of ending in death – like it did with McMahon’s former teammate Dave Duerson in 2011 – it ends with action.
McMahon’s turning point came when he received a non-invasive procedure from Dr. Rosa. A machine gently tapped the small Atlas bone, located just where McMahon’s skull and neck meet. Years of crushing tackles jostled the bone out of alignment, which created a blockage of fluid in his brain. With it realigned, the fluid could drain out of his head. He felt the fog lift. He felt the ice picks disappear.
At 54, McMahon is still a cautionary tale. He’s been diagnosed with early onset dementia and still needs to receive the procedure every few months. But now with a clearer head, he’s decided to officially add his voice to the concussion debate currently raging within professional and youth sports leagues around the country.
On October 6, with a round of golf and a dinner reception, McMahon along with his old friend and ex-NHL star Jeremy Roenick, launched Players Against Concussions (PAC). The new organization joins many others fighting for proper concussion awareness, prevention, and treatment, but it institutionalizes a critical voice in the debate; the athletes themselves.
“It’s a big epidemic nowadays in sports,” Roenick says. “ We decided we should use our firepower and the sports guys we know to start a cause that says, ‘listen, the players are behind this.’”
The kickoff event brought together a group of ex-athletes across multiple sports. Some had their own head-bashing stories like McMahon and Roenick – who accumulated 16 diagnosed concussions during his career. Others like David Wells – famous for throwing a perfect game in 1998 – never got a concussion, but wanted to offer up their own support.
At the moment, PAC is focused on raising funds and gathering support from more current and former athletes across all sports, but their message is very clear; they don’t want to change the way the game –any game – is played.
“We don’t want to change the sport,” McMahon says. “What made the game great is the violence – but we want to get these guys properly treated after the violence. That’s the problem – they don’t take care of the guys when they’re finished.”
Roenick adds that they don’t want to “take the competitiveness and the sheer grit out of a sport.”
What they do want is to institute a system of MRI screenings for youth and professional athletes before and during the season. Dr. Rosa, who treats McMahon along with many other athletes across all sports, says screening with an MRI is critical because it reveals if there are any problems with the neck.
Dr. Rosa says a concussion is not just a brain injury; it almost certainly injures the neck as well. When that happens, fluids traveling in and out of the brain are blocked; a problem he and his team believe not only led to McMahon’s troubles, but can also lead to dementia, Alzheimer’s, and other degenerative brain diseases.
“Left untreated, it can start to create these neurotoxins that settle into the brain tissue that ultimately can adversely affect the brain,” he says. MRI screening would detect if players have healthy enough necks to return.
That’s become all the more apparent during the week before PAC launched, when three high school football players died from head injuries suffered on the field. This was acknowledged by Bill White, the author of the new book Winning the War Against Concussions in Youth Sports, who opened the evening reception with a speech.
“Do we really need another advocacy group?” White said. “No, we need a great one.”
In a dining room full of ex-athletes, all touched in some way by sports-induced head injuries, he looked first at McMahon, then at Roenick. “We need Jeremy and Jim to be great one more time.”