By Ian Graham
When it comes to head injuries and the damage they can cause, few people know on a more intimate level than professional football players, who in some cases are literally going head-to-head with 300-pound behemoths daily. But among those few are servicemembers, who also run a daily risk of severe head injury in combat.
Not surprisingly, the scientists and doctors who work with the Department of Defense and those who work with the National Football League have been collaborating on the best ways to protect their soldiers – whether on the battlefield or playing field.
Helmet technology has advanced exponentially since the NFL used padded leather caps and the military used the equivalent of a metal hardhat with some canvas straps, thanks to their joint efforts. At a conference in Washington, D.C., representatives from each service, the scientific community and all 32 NFL teams came together to discuss the newest developments in brain injury study.
“We’re working with [the DoD] to see what we can do to share whatever our learning’s are as it relates to concussions and head injuries so we can not only make our players safer but our troops,” said NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell. “It’s interesting, there are some strong correlations between return to play and return to battle.”
Returning to action is another injury-related issue that the NFL and the military both face. In football, it’s the drive and desire to overcome the odds and prove your strength. In military service, it’s the same.
But having “heart” and proving ones toughness by battling despite injury is something that needs to be removed from military culture, said Dr. Richard Ellenbogen, a neurologist and former U.S. Army lieutenant colonel.
He said the elite troops – the airborne soldiers, special operations troops, the Navy SEALs – are similar to elite athletes, in that returning from an injury is a matter of ethics and morale.
“They want to be with their partners, they way to be with their comrades, colleagues, I get that,” he said. “That’s one of the hardest things; they don’t want to get left behind, but sometimes it’s better to sit it out so that you can heal and fully recover.”
Former Chicago Bears running back Merril Hoge knows the dark side of coming back to the game too soon. In 1994, he retired from professional football after nearly dying from repeated concussions. He said athletes and servicemembers need to listen to their bodies, and take time to heal before rushing back into action.
“You’re never going to change that mindset … that passion is what makes you successful,” he said. “You don’t want to diminish that passion, you just want to have an educated passion.”