Former players to donate brains for study of concussions

BOSTON -- Former NFL linebacker Isaiah Kacyvenski quickly agreed when his ex-teammate at Harvard asked if he would donate his brain after death for research into concussions.

"It's a noble cause," he said Wednesday. "It's something close to my heart. I've had several concussions."

Kacyvenski, 30, is one of 16 pro athletes, including six former NFL players, who have agreed to donate their brains to the new Center for the Study of Traumatic Encephalopathy, a joint program between the Boston University School of Medicine and Sports Legacy Institute.

SLI founder Chris Nowinski played with Kacyvenski at Harvard in the late 1970s before becoming a pro wrestler, and is seeking athletes willing to donate their brains.

"Our goal is for people to start taking concussions seriously," Nowinski said. "That means getting off the field when they receive them and finding ways to prevent them."

Other former NFL players who have agreed to donate their brains after their deaths are Ted Johnson, Frank Wycheck, Ben Lynch, Bernie Parrish and Bruce Laird, said Nowinski, who also agreed to donate his brain.

Among other athletes participating are former U.S. Olympic swimmer Jenny Thompson; hockey player Noah Welch, who played last year for the Florida Panthers; and former U.S. national soccer team player Cindy Parlow.

"I'm not being vindictive. I'm not trying to reach up from the grave and get the NFL," Johnson, a former New England Patriots linebacker, told the New York Times for a story first published Tuesday night on its Web site. "But any doctor who doesn't connect concussions with long-term effects should be ashamed of themselves."

The 35-year-old's neurologist has pointed to Johnson's multiple concussions between 2002 and 2005 as a cause of his permanent and degenerative problems with memory and depression, the Times reported.

Kacyvenski, who played for Seattle from 2000 until joining St. Louis early in 2006, his final NFL season, said the study is not an indication that the NFL is at fault.

"There might be a connotation that this is a witch hunt, point the finger at the NFL," he said. "It's just not like that."

The NFL is overseeing a study of retired players on the effects of concussions, which should be completed by 2010, spokesman Greg Aiello said.

"We support all research that would further the scientific and medical understanding of this injury, which affects thousands of people, athletes and non-athletes alike, every year," he said. "Hundreds of thousands of people have played football and other sports without experiencing any problem of this type and there continues to be considerable debate within the medical community on the precise long-term effects of concussions and how they relate to other risk factors."

The BU School of Medicine has studied the brain of John Grimsley, a former linebacker for the Houston Oilers, who died last February at age 45 after being shot in his suburban Houston home in what authorities said was an accident.

His brain showed similarities to that of an 80-year-old boxer who had dementia for 20 years, said Dr. Robert Stern, co-director of the BU School of Medicine Alzheimer's Disease Clinical and Research Program.

"The donations will allow us to understand the long-term effects of concussion in terms of degenerative brain disease," Stern said. "We'll also hopefully understand what puts people at greater risk for developing it."

Nowinski has seen greater awareness to dangers from concussions.

"Whereas three years ago I tried to speak on this issue and coaches were able to keep me out of their schools because they didn't want their kids to be scared," he said, "Now, for example, we just ran all New Hampshire Pop Warner head coaches through an educational program. They're now holding kids out much more often because they can recognize the concussions better."

He said he suffered "nearly constant" headaches for four years when he continued wrestling after getting kicked in the chin and suffering a concussion during a bout.

For some, the decision to donate their brains is difficult.

"People have to face their own mortality when they make that decision," Nowinski said.

Most of the people who have agreed to donate their brains are fairly young, he said.

"We definitely will be increasing the number of older athletes as we go along so that hopefully none of the 30-year-olds will ever have to donate their brains" because enough progress in research will have been made by the time of their deaths, Nowinski said.