Harry Carson spent a good three hours last weekend listening to professors, doctors and academics speak at Duke Law School, which hosted a panel discussion about concussions, brain injuries and football, and what the future of the sport might hold given that its dangers are coming more into focus.
Finally, it was Carson’s turn to speak.
Carson, 64, spent 13 seasons in the NFL, all with the New York Giants, and when he retired in 1988 he was considered one of the greatest linebackers who ever played. An enshrinement in the Pro Football Hall of Fame awaited. So did a diagnosis, which he received in 1990, of post-concussion syndrome.
“I literally thought I was going crazy,” said Carson, who was among Duke’s invited speakers. “And I played for a good 10 years understanding that something was going on with my body and I didn’t understand what it was. ... I was depressed, and (had) sensitivity to bright lights, loud noise, and having problems processing information. I’m the captain of the Giants and I couldn’t really complete the thoughts that I wanted to make without saying, ‘um,’ ‘you know,’ ‘um.’”
Carson spoke clearly on Saturday during the discussion, which was called “Head Trauma in Football: Implications for Medicine, Law and Policy.” He considers himself one of the fortunate ones — a retired professional football player who is still able to function, cognitively, at a high level. And yet more than once on Saturday, Carson spoke of being “conflicted,” as he put it — torn between his appreciation of the game and the cruel, neurocognitive harm it can dispense.
Carson appeared at Duke in part to honor the memory of Lamar Leachman, an assistant coach with the New York Giants during Carson’s years on the team. Leachman, who played football in college at Tennessee, died in 2012 and was subsequently diagnosed with chronic traumatic encephalopathy, the degenerative brain disease that has been found in a growing number of former football players. Leachman’s daughter, Lori Leachman, is an economics professor at Duke, and she was among the organizers of the discussion on Saturday, which brought together leaders in medicine and science.
At one point Carson addressed Lori Leachman, and her father’s neurological struggle in his final years.
“I’m looking at all of this carnage going on around me,” Carson said, “and God has allowed me to be stable for the last 28 years. What I do, is I talk about what I know. I don’t have to read it. I lived it.”
Carson has become an outspoken advocate for educating young football players, and their parents, about the inherent risks associated with the sport. He said that, two years ago, he petitioned the surgeon general and the Centers for Disease Control and urged them “to issue a warning” about football, Carson said, “much like on the side of a cigarette pack, to warn parents of the danger of playing the game.”
“I believe in informed consent,” Carson said. “I’m not saying don’t play the game, but I think if you’re to play, understand what you are getting yourselves into.”
Carson has two sons. One, he said, grew up to become a doctor, and the other recently completed five years of service with the Marines. Neither one followed their father into football. Carson said his 8-year-old grandson, meanwhile, has expressed interest in playing the sport, though Carson said he won’t allow it.
He first verbalized that decision six years ago, when his grandson was 2.
“I told my daughter, he will not play football,” Carson said. “I’m the tyrant of my family, and I freely admit that. And I know he wants to play. And he’s not.”
Before his years in the NFL, Carson became a professional prospect at South Carolina State in the late 1970s. Little was known then, at least publicly, about the possible long-term neurological effects of playing football, and the effects of regular head trauma that comes with it.
When he began playing football, Carson said, he assumed the risk that he might be hurt physically — that he could break a leg or tear knee ligaments. He still wears the scars of having a shoulder muscle removed early into his tenure with the Giants.
“It’s a physical injury, and I assumed that risk,” Carson said. “... But with the brain, you’ve only got one. I am not willing to risk the future of my grandson, plain and simple. So I have a side. And I do see things from a different view.”
Carson said he has been told that he was involved in 30,000 physical collisions during his 13-year NFL career. Researchers haven’t proven that a certain number of sustained hits makes it more or less likely to suffer from neurocognitive impairment, including CTE, but those who sustain at least three concussions face an increased risk of suffering from moderate or severe depression, which is one of the symptoms of CTE.
Junior Seau, a prominent San Diego Chargers linebacker throughout the 1990s, was found to have CTE after he committed suicide in 2012. Dave Duerson, a well-known safety during the 1980s and 1990s, was also found to have CTE after his suicide in 2011. Both Seau and Duerson died from self-inflicted gunshots to the chest, their final acts in life meant, in part, to preserve their brains so that they could be studied.
Carson, meanwhile, is appreciative of the emerging science that is establishing a link between football and brain damage, but he is wary of those who claim that more research is needed to better understand the dangers of football. He recalled a recent speaking engagement in which he appeared alongside some researchers who, as Carson remembers it, said they needed “more data to justify” the growing concerns surrounding football.
“I’m data,” Carson said. “I’m data, because I’ve played. I know what it’s all about.”
He said he is not interested in donating his brain to science.
“If anything happens to me, don’t call my wife and ask her for my brain,” Carson said. “If you want to know something, ask me right now, and I can tell you. Me and my brain being like the 125th brain on the shelf doesn’t do any good. You need to talk to me right now. I can tell you all kinds of stuff.”
One thing he’ll tell you is that he sees “so many people around me dealing with serious neurological issues,” he said. “And many of these players are afraid to speak, because they are afraid of what other people are going to think of them.”
Another thing Carson will tell you: He’d do things much differently if he had to do them over again. The sport brought him fame and recognition, and he recounted winning the Super Bowl as one of the greatest moments of his life. And yet Carson posed the question to himself on Saturday and didn’t need much time to answer.
“I played the game. I enjoyed playing,” he said. “If I had to do it all over again, nope — I wouldn’t do it all over again. There are other things I could have done, or would have done. ... I just wanted to get that off my chest.”
Andrew Carter: 919-829-8944, @_andrewcarter