Categorized | NFL Concussions

Using His Head for a Different Reason

by Mustafa Hameed

(Photo: AP)

Miami’s Bob Kuechenberg (middle) blocking against the Vikings. (Photo: AP)

 “After a big hit in practice, I got up and saw, I think it was Kim Bokamper, in the upper right quadrant of my eyes. And there were two of him.”

                                                          — Bob Kuechenberg, former NFL lineman

The year was 1982, and Kuechenberg, an All-Pro offensive lineman for the Miami Dolphins, was suffering from double vision after a blow to his head. At the time, doctors at the Bascom Palmer Eye Institute at the University of Miami, one of the leading eye care institutions in the country, said they could solve the problem for him. “They said, we can fix it,” Kuechenberg said. “And I said, good, great. But then they said if they fixed it, I wouldn’t be able to play again. So I said, kiss my ass and goodbye.”

Now, almost three decades after his retirement from 14 seasons in the league, Kuechenberg, 65, is the lead plaintiff in Kuechenberg v. NFL, one of a series of lawsuits being combined in a class action suit in U.S. District Court in Philadelphia. More than 4,000 former players accuse the NFL of misguiding them regarding the long-term effects of head traumas and concussions. The NFL denied claims that the league intentionally misled players on any safety issues.

Kuechenberg is claiming damages based on injury to himself as well as economic loss. He said in affidavits that after sustaining “repetitive, traumatic sub-concussive and/or concussive head impacts” during his career, he now suffers from symptoms of brain injuries. These include memory loss, headaches, anxiety, and vision problems.

“The top three-fourths of my vision is still double vision,” Kuechenberg said.

“I know we sure did a lot of hitting,” said Ed Newman, 61, a former teammate of Kuechenberg’s on Miami’s offensive line from 1973 to 1984. “We put our heads in the way of a lot of trouble.”

Don Mosebar, 51, played for the Los Angeles (and later Oakland) Raiders of the NFL for 12 seasons as a left tackle on the Raiders’ offensive line. “When you’re playing, you’re pretty much always injured,” he said. “You’re always dealing with something. But unless it’s a big deal, unless I’m your trainer, I’m not going to know about it. People don’t talk about their injuries.”

“You do what you’re supposed to do,” Mosebar added. “If you talk about it, you’re showing weakness. That needs to be addressed.”

For Kuechenberg, that attitude of stoicism and determination to play through injuries was a part of his identity. His father was a successful boxer and circus entertainer in the 1940s who performed the human cannonball regularly as part of his act. Other family members also participated as circus performers before Kuechenberg was born.

But such determination to ignore pain and his mounting vision problems may have cost Kuechenberg. He began suffering from the effects of nerve and muscle damage three years before he retired in 1985 but continued to start on the Dolphins’ offensive line. He missed only five regular season games in his 14-year career.

“He knew how to tough things out,” Newman said. “He played through all kinds of injuries. It wouldn’t surprise me at all if he played through multiple concussions during his career.”

Kuechenberg said he would hold his head at different angles to make up for the vision problems. “If I had had the problem fixed back then, maybe I would’ve been in better shape later,” Kuechenberg said. “But I didn’t. I played with increasing double vision for the rest of my career.”

Finally, in 1984, Kuechenberg decided to take the year off to deal with his double vision. He never played again in the NFL.

Newman, who became an attorney after retirement and now serves as a judge in Miami, remembers Kuechenberg as a leader in the Dolphins locker room. “He was very tough, very strong, very much liked,” Newman said. “He was the one who’d give the pep talk. We’d get into the AFC championship game, possibly getting ready for a Super Bowl, and Bob would have us over to his house for dinner.”

But in their most recent interactions, said Newman, something seemed different. “There’s definitely a decline in Bob’s being vocal and present at the reunions,” said Newman. “He doesn’t show sometimes now when he usually used to.”

Bob Kuechenberg, Bob Heinz

Kuechenberg (67) was honored by the Dolphins in 2007. (Photo: AP)

“Football was my life, my passion. Any time you have to give that up, there’s a lot of depression involved,” Kuechenberg said. “But finally I just had to stop.”

There is a growing sensitivity around the league about depression as a symptom of chronic head injuries, especially in light of the premature deaths of former players like Mike Webster, Junior Seau, Ray Easterling and Dave Duerson, many of whom suffered from depression in their final years. Kuechenberg has had two DUIs since his retirement, the most recent in 2011, and Newman said he hopes it isn’t a sign of something more serious.

“I’m a judge, and DUIs are a big part of what I deal with. They’re like bread and butter for me,” said Newman. “Some are isolated cases: someone has a few too many on New Year’s before getting behind the wheel, or someone will get popped leaving a bar a little too late. But then there are other cases where people drink to self-medicate depression. And depression can be caused by those head injuries and concussions.”

Newman remembers another former teammate when thinking of depression and problems with alcohol. Eric Laakso, another offensive lineman for the Dolphins, died in 2010 at age 54. Laakso had dealt with heart problems during his later years, and obituaries said that he died of natural causes. But Newman said he noticed Laakso having issues with alcohol in the years before he died. “My dear friend Laakso was profoundly depressed, and he used alcohol to a point where it was a problem,” Newman said. “And I wish we had done more about it. It’s one of my great regrets.”

Quarterback David Woodley and running back Andra Franklin, two other members of that Dolphins offense in the late 1970s and early 1980s, also died premature deaths. Franklin died of heart failure in 2006 at age 47. Woodley died in 2003 at age 44 of liver failure after battling alcoholism for many years.

In the concussion lawsuit, Kuechenberg said he experienced memory loss, sleep problems and other symptoms of long-term head trauma injuries. “We were taught to use our heads as battering rams and to go for the numbers,” he said. “If you hit the number on the jersey square, you’d get a little buzz in your head. It felt good. It meant you did your job. It wasn’t until years later that we learned that that buzz in your head was a minor concussion.”

Newman said, “You see little twinkly stars after a big hit. That happens.”

Newman is not a plaintiff in the lawsuit, but he said that he believes litigation such as the ongoing class action suit can be an agent of positive change.

“You have these disagreements, these complaints,” Newman said. “The result is a good old American lawsuit. It made a difference for tobacco, Ford Pintos, bad medicines. Those people do not change unless you sue the crap out of them.”

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