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Corey Widmer, Montana high school football star, All-American at Montana State University and eight-year middle linebacker for the New York Giants, has a powerful message for mothers: Don’t let your kids play tackle football, at least until high school.

Widmer knows too well the brain injuries that often result from the sport he retired from in 1998. Jeff Welsch, 406mtsports.com editor, told Widmer’s story in Sunday’s Gazette — the same day the newspaper reported on the Montana Football Hall of Fame inducting eight new honorees at a celebration in Billings. Widmer also was chosen for Hall of Fame induction Saturday, but declined the honor.

“When I refused entry I had to give an explanation, and my explanation is concussions,” Widmer told Welsch. The retired linebacker estimates he sustained 400 to 500 football-related injuries to the head. A third-degree concussion suffered in 1998 changed his life. Back then, he considered his angry, risky behavior to be the NFL Syndrome. He broke up with the girlfriend he had lived with for three years, gave away his dog, and traveled the world pursuing daredevil stunts for years — until he broke his back and other bones paragliding in Chile. During a lengthy recovery, he started thinking about how his behavior might be related to his football head injuries.

Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy was first identified a century ago as a condition resulting from repeated head injuries. But only in recent years had CTE been definitively linked to NFL player injuries. According to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, CTE is a degenerative condition that can cause difficulties with thinking, physical problems, emotions and other behaviors. It had only been diagnosed after death (for example, by studying brains of deceased NFL players) until last fall when the first living patient was conclusively identified.

To prevent CTE, head injuries must be prevented, particularly repeated head injuries in a short period of time before the brain has recovered from a previous injury.

About 75 percent of traumatic brain injuries are concussions or other mild forms of TBI, according to the CDC, which reports: “Repeated mild TBIs occurring over an extended period of time can result in cumulative neurological and cognitive deficits. Repeated mild TBIs occurring within a short period of time (i.e. hours, days or weeks) can be catastrophic or fatal.”

A TBI can cause epilepsy and increase risk for Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s and other brain disorders, according to the CDC, which provides specific information on head injury prevention in children and teens online at cdc.gov.

Widmer decided to speak publicly about his decision to forego the Hall of Fame honor after he saw a recent newpaper story about a young man who suffered a paralyzing concussion while playing football at Belt High School in 2014 when he was 16 years old. The Belt athlete’s story was back in Montana news this month because a lawsuit stemming from his injuries went to a jury trial.

After reading about the Belt High School player, Widmer contacted Welsch to tell the rest of his football story. We applaud Widmer’s candor and courage. We hope that his cautions about CTE in tackle football are taken to heart. Parents, coaches and youth sports organizers must use the best scientific information to reduce risk of injuries and focus on prevention of repeated head injuries.

Parents should be aware of the risks to young brains and that even helmets don’t protect young brains from concussions. That’s what medical science tells us in 2018; that’s what Widmer learned years after his NFL retirement.

— The Billings Gazette

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