Categorized | NFL Concussions

A Hall of Famer Who Saw Stars on and off the Field

by Stephen Jiwanmall

(Photo: AP)

Buffalo’s Joe DeLamielleure (68) opens a hole for O.J. Simpson (32). (Photo: AP)

Joe DeLamielleure looks like he could still play in the NFL. The 6-foot-3 Hall of Fame guard has a brick wall for a chest, tree trunks for legs, and arms bulging with muscle. He’s in great shape at 62, reminding fans of the days when he blocked for O.J. Simpson on the offensive line of the Buffalo Bills. Though his days on the field are long gone, the effects of playing such a physical sport remain. He said he’s lost 60 percent of hearing in his left ear, due to opponents slapping his helmet over and over again. Since he retired from the NFL in 1985, DeLamielleure said he’s struggled with depression, short-term memory loss, a significant lack of sleep, and a quick temper.

DeLamielleure is one of more than 4,000 former NFL players who have filed lawsuits against the league for allegedly concealing information about the dangers and long-term effects of concussions. The suits have been consolidated into one, which is being heard in U.S. District Court in Philadelphia. The NFL has moved to dismiss the suit and denied the allegations.

While DeLamielleure and his wife Gerri are listed as plaintiffs in the case, DeLamielleure said his reason for getting involved in the suit is to remember his former colleagues who died from symptoms relating to head trauma. In a phone interview, DeLamielleure cited Mike Webster, a Hall of Fame center for the Pittsburgh Steelers who played in several Pro Bowls with him. Webster died in 2002 and was diagnosed with chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE), a neurodegenerative disease that was detected after Webster’s death. The disease is often found in people who have suffered from repeated brain trauma. The Boston University School of Medicine Center for the Study of Traumatic Encephalopathy (CSTE) has analyzed the brains of 34 former NFL players including Webster and detected CTE in all but one player.

(Photo: AP)

DeLamielleure received well-earned plaudits after he retired. (Photo: AP)

DeLamielleure said his current symptoms resemble those of players who have had CTE, and he wants to donate his brain to the center once he dies. In fact, he signed a card on August 4, 2009, that he carries in his wallet that explains just that: “I, Joe DeLamielleure, am a participant in the contact study and have agreed to donate my brain and spinal cord upon my death to the CSTE at the Boston University School of Medicine.” He said he’s not sure what’s going to happen to him physically, and that’s what worries his family. “As long as I can remember, my dad has been very emotional and prone to emotional highs and lows,” said his son Todd, in an e-mail. Gerri, Joe’s wife of 41 years, could not be reached for comment for this story, but she has voiced her concern over her husband’s health before. “He’s pretty good, but I don’t know what’s coming tomorrow,” she told the Sporting News in January 2013. “Am I missing something now? He’s got a shorter fuse than he’s ever had. Is that a point I should be concerned about?”

The two have known each other since they were in first grade. They married before Joe played college football at Michigan State. Joe said the level of competition in the Big Ten conference prepared him to enter the NFL, and it wasn’t until he turned pro when the injuries started to take effect. “It’s a terrible way to live,” Gerri, 61, said in the Sporting News piece. “You’re thinking, ‘I’ve got a train headed in my direction. I just don’t know when it’s coming.’”

When the Bills selected DeLamielleure in the first round of the 1973 NFL Draft, he said he knew what the team had in mind for him. “Their expectations were for me to start,” DeLamielleure said. “If you’re their number one pick, they expect you to play. I did right away. Day One.” Not only was he expected to play, but DeLamielleure started in his first NFL game. His rookie season went remarkably well. That year, Simpson became the first player in league history to rush for more than 2,000 yards in a season. DeLamielleure earned All-Rookie honors that season and continued his success over the years. “Joe D,” as he was often called, was a six-time first team All-Pro selection, went to six Pro Bowls, and was named to the NFL’s 1970s All-Decade Team. He was inducted in the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 2003, nearly 20 years after he retired from the league.

During the course of his career, DeLamielleure started every game in his eight years with the Bills. He was traded to the Cleveland Browns in 1980 and also played in every game for the Browns for five consecutive years. There were only three games during his career when he wasn’t a starter. Overall, DeLamielleure played in 185 straight games in his 13 seasons in the league. “The hits were brutal,” he said. “They were devastating. They were hard hits. You saw stars, you know. Your head was spinning.”

When DeLamielleure filed for workers’ compensation last year, he said that attorney Mel Owens, from the California law firm Namanny Byrne & Owens, summoned a group of doctors who calculated a rough estimate of the number of times DeLamielleure was hit over his career. By multiplying the number of times hit per practice with the number of practices per week (and doing the same for games), the doctors used that ratio to estimate that he was hit at least 225,000 times. “That’s a conservative number,” DeLamielleure said, adding that he played twice as long as an average player and started nearly every game he played. But that streak wasn’t one he necessarily wanted to keep. He had no choice but to play every game. “You’ve got to be dependable to play,” he said. “There are only so many players. You can’t come off the field. You had to play. If you didn’t play, they would release you. It’s simple. There’s not backups or anything like that. If you couldn’t play, you were gone. They’d tell you that, too. They’d say, ‘Hey, you can’t play? You’re outta here.’”

So DeLamielleure and his teammates played through pain and had to deal with it. “You’d get hit all the time,” he said. “I asked a doctor after I stopped playing, ‘Is a concussion when you see stars?’ He said, ‘That’s basically what you see.’ I said, ‘Oh, my God. I saw stars every day almost.’ But you didn’t think about it. You took aspirin or whatever. You lived on Bayer aspirin or headache reliever.

(Photo: AP)

DeLamielleure (64) also starred for the Cleveland Browns. (Photo: AP)

“… You got ‘dinged.’ That’s what they called it. You ‘got your bell rung.’ Now, if that happens, you’d be out of the game. I mean, it’s a totally different game.”

Todd DeLamielleure, 34, said he was too young to understand how his dad played through pain. He said, however, that he remembers how his dad would bring home coolers of ice every day to put his legs in for about 20-minute periods. Todd said his experience with playing football has shown him how difficult it is to play through pain. Todd played football at Duke and Hofstra before trying to go pro. After he injured his shoulder at the Indianapolis Colts’ training camp in 2002, his career was short-lived. He played briefly in NFL Europe, but after he had surgery on his shoulder, he retired when he was 29. “The game hasn’t changed all that much,” Todd said. “I can’t count how many times I have used the term ‘I got my bell rung’ or heard a trainer or coach use that phrase to describe what essentially is a concussion,” Todd said.

Joe DeLamielleure said the NFL acted too late to bring needed changes to protect players like him who didn’t have the benefit of these new rules. “It’s just gross,” he said. “We were the guinea pigs for this current league. They had AstroTurf. They tore that up. The helmets are way better than when we played. There are all kinds of rule changes: no head slap, no wedge. It’s for the safety of these players. Now, they have all these guys out there, 50-something or 40-something, with all these injuries that they didn’t respond to.”

Though he said he receives a monthly pension from the NFL – $1,247 before taxes – DeLamielleure added it’s not enough to cover his medical needs. He’s still reeling from losing $248,000 in 1991 after he and some friends, including Bills teammate Jim Cheyunski, were scammed in a business deal. (USA Today reported in 1992 that DeLamielleure worked with the FBI to ultimately catch the conman.) To make up for the loss, both he and Gerri still work. Now living in Charlotte, NC, Joe runs his own business, Hall of Fame Fitness & Flexibility, which runs under the name “Joe D Bands.” He and Todd market and sell a variety of resistance bands for physical fitness and training. Gerri works as a pediatric nurse, and Joe says he wishes his wife didn’t have to work to help pay for his medical care. “Never in our wildest dreams when we signed with the Buffalo Bills did she think, ‘Oh, yeah. When you’re in your 60s, you’re going to be working for your husband’s health insurance.’ That’s ridiculous and sick. It makes me want to puke.”

Going forward, DeLamielleure says he doesn’t expect much of anything to come out of the lawsuit. “I can hope whatever I want, but what’s going to become of it is that the lawyers are going to become richer, and we’re going to get peanuts,” he said. “We’re not going to get anything.” Ideally, he says he wants the league to pay for players’ medical insurance until they turn 65, when Medicare takes care of them. “You shouldn’t have wives working for their husbands’ benefits,” he said. “The NFL knew there was a problem. They knew what was happening, but they denied it. They delay, they hope you die.”

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