Categorized | NFL Concussions

Totaling up the Cost of an NFL Career

by Elizabeth Murray

Harris Cheyunski

Jim Cheyunski (50) has the daunting task of tackling Pittsburgh Steelers running back Franco Harris (32). (Photo: AP)

Starting a new job in a new town, Jim Cheyunski was building a new chapter of his life in the summer of 1998. He was the new athletic director charged with building an entirely new football program at a small Catholic high school in Jacksonville, Fla. A successful middle linebacker who played 10 years in the NFL, from 1968 to 1977, Cheyunski was starting a job that allowed him to mentor others and continue his passion for a sport in which he competed at the highest level.

What many people around Cheyunski didn’t realize, however, was that it was also the most difficult time in Cheyunski’s life. One day, only an hour before his 20-minute commute from his waterfront property to work in central Jacksonville, Cheyunski said he didn’t want to get out of bed and didn’t know how he was going to make it through the day. A deep depression settled over him, making him feel more alone than ever. Cheyunski said there were times when he didn’t care if he woke up the next morning, or even if he was alive. “You start to feel like everyone would be better off if you pull the plug,” Cheyunski said in a telephone interview.

Cheyunski’s wife, Patricia, said she watched as her husband lost joy in things he used to love, particularly football. His excitement for coaching that he had in North Carolina was slipping away. She said she focused on accompanying her husband for weekend activities, particularly church. The services comforted him, she said. But it took a year before Cheyunski began to come out of the depression. “It’s an absolute miracle that I was able to function every day,” he said.

Cheyunski’s depression could have been the result of pressures from a new job. It could have been the result of stress of moving to Florida from North Carolina, or a response to getting older. But quite possibly, according to scientific studies, his depression was part of a larger problem: the lingering effects of his 10-year career as a middle linebacker in the NFL, during which time Cheyunski sustained three or four concussions. The relationship between football concussions and depression in professional players was documented as early as 2005 and for collegiate players as early as 1999 in studies by Kevin Guskewicz at the University of North Carolina Center, along with Stephen W. Marshall and Michael McCrea. The studies, published in the Journal of American Medical Association, revealed a link between football concussions and depression. In 2007 the Guskiewicz research team published a study revealing that about 20 percent of professional football players that played for over four years with at least three concussions had severe depression.

The depression, combined with a lengthy list of injuries and surgeries, motivated Cheyunski, 67, and his wife Patricia to join more than 4,000 plaintiffs in a class-action lawsuit against the NFL in federal court in Philadelphia. In his complaint filed against the NFL, Cheyunski said that he “suffered multiple concussions during his NFL career that were improperly diagnosed and treated” and as a result, “has suffered severe depression and currently suffers memory loss and difficulty with concentration.”

Cheyunski played at a time when the NFL was far from the powerful revenue and public relations machine that it is today. He was drafted by the Boston Patriots in 1968 after playing at Syracuse University with current Giants coach Tom Coughlin. Cheyunski said he signed a contract worth $13,000. The average American salary in 1968, according to the U.S. census was $8,632. For away games, he was given a per diem of $2 for breakfast, $2.50 for lunch and $6.50 for dinner. He received $5,000 of medical coverage per year, none of which could be utilized after retirement, according to the 1968 players agreement that Cheyunski signed. It was submitted as evidence as a part of the current lawsuit.

A few months into the 1968/69 season, the Patriots’ leading linebacker and future Hall-of-Famer, Nick Buoniconti, sustained a knee injury that sidelined him for the season. Cheyunski filled in and played every minute of every game for the remainder of that season. The next spring, Buoniconti was traded to the Miami Dolphins, and Cheyunski put on 25 pounds to become the Patriots’ starting middle linebacker.

And then the injuries started. Throughout the course of the next 10 years, as Cheyunski played for the Boston Patriots, Buffalo Bills, Baltimore Colts and Green Bay Packers, he would sustain torn knee ligaments, a broken hand, a broken wrist, a cracked vertebrae from playing with the Colts, and he would also suffer three or four concussions, according to documents submitted in the case and newspaper articles from the games.

As a result, Cheyunski said he has had 14 major surgeries in his life: eight knee operations, two full knee replacements, one wrist surgery, one operation to fix a broken hand and two back fusion surgeries, one in 2006 and one in 2009, neither of which were successful. “I’ll be the bionic man pretty quick,” he said.

At 6 feet 1 inch tall and 225 pounds, Cheyunski was small for a middle linebacker. Teammates such as offensive lineman Joe Delamielleure, who played with Cheyunski on the Buffalo Bills, said that Cheyunski excelled at quickly angling his body to get around offensive players to make a tackle. “He wasn’t a big play guy,” Delamielleure said. “So he had to play with his brain. He was an instinctual player. He was a survivor.”

But Cheyunski, who made 11 tackles in one game with a broken right hand while playing for the Buffalo Bills in 1973, a game that earned him the AP defensive player of the week, said that the scariest moments on the field were when he sustained concussions. Three or four times, Cheyunski said concussions made him black out on the sideline for a few minutes. Trying to read defensive signals being called from the sideline, Cheyunski said suddenly the defensive coaches would become blurry. It was at that moment he knew he had to walk off the field. “If we could walk off, we would walk off,” he said. “If we could crawl off, we would crawl off.”

There also were times when he would black out. Sometimes, a trainer on the sidelines would use smelling salts, chemical compounds designed to smell like ammonia, to wake players up and send them back in the game. These blackouts, he said, were never spoken about other than in phrases like “you really got your bell rung,” or “you were pretty doozy.”

Many times, he would take the hit and feel dizzy. Everything he saw would become distorted. There also were times when he would recover from a blackout and the score would be different when he woke up again. “I just thought, ‘how in the world did they score?’” Cheyunski said. “It’s just one of the worst feelings a human can have because you feel like you lost minutes of your life. It’s a horrible, lonely, helpless feeling.”

Cheyunski, like many other players from his era, said he didn’t understand the relationship those hits had on his mental health until years later. “We were the guinea pig society,” said Delamielleure. “They did everything to us that people said don’t do now.”

When he began coaching youth and high school football in Florida in the late 1990s, Cheyunski’s view of the sport began to change. He became responsible for younger athletes when literature about the potential brain injuries resulting from concussions started to trickle out. As the 1990s moved to the early 2000s, more data, reports and journalism on the issue made its way to Cheyunski and his staff at Episcopal High School. In turn, brainwave scans of high school players and safer coaching methods made their way to the Episcopal High School field. Cheyunski said it was different to have the safety of young men in his hands.

On Oct. 8, 2004, however, at a Friday night football game, Cheyunski became more concerned with safety than ever. The team’s defensive captain, a strong safety named J.T. Townsend, a junior, was on a safety blitz, trying to break through the offensive line. Cheyunski watched as Townsend collided with an offensive player and fell to the ground. Townsend couldn’t get up. Cheyunski and the coaching staff ran to the field. “I can’t move,” said Townsend, his breath becoming slower and slower. “I can’t move.”

As the staff tried to figure out what was wrong, Townsend’s breathing slowed even more. And he lost consciousness. He woke up in the hospital, a quadriplegic. A spinal cord injury left him paralyzed from the waist down, and Cheyunski began to truly question the safety of the sport he dedicated his life to. For months, Cheyunski visited Townsend in the hospital every other day and scoured game tape, trying to figure out what went wrong. “You could see it in his eyes and how much he said he loved me, and how much he said I was in his prayers that he was really hurt by my injury,” Townsend said in a phone interview from his home. “I think it was pretty hard on him.”

“It was nothing we could have prevented,” Cheyunski said. “It wasn’t even a bad hit.” After the injury, Cheyunski said that he began to change his outlook about the sport. As more literature and scientific research on football injuries and long-term brain damage emerged, he started to vocalize his concerns to others. He told his own children to read up on concussion damage and sports injuries before allowing his grandchildren to play football. And at work, though he was an athletic director and football coach, Cheyunski did something he never thought he would do: tell parents, “If your son is good at any other sport, maybe that is what he should pursue.”

“The human body,” Cheyunski said, “ is not designed for this sport.”

 

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