Barry Sanders remembers a time when concussions were so lightly regarded that the decision of when to return to the field was up to the players themselves, not team doctors.
Sanders responded to the news this week that legendary running back Tony Dorsett has expressed signs of chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE), a condition brought on by severe and prolonged head trauma.
The news prompted Barry Sanders to recall his younger days, following Dorsett’s career at the University of Pittsburgh.
“I hope the best for Tony, he’s a guy I looked up to,” Sanders said. “I remember his senior year at the University of Pittsburgh, he was one of the guys I was looking up to.”
Dorsett was one of three former players to be diagnosed with signs of CTE in the past week. Former Miami Dolphins wide receiver Mark Duper, defensive lineman Leonard Marshall, and Hall of Famer Joe DeLamielleure were also diagnosed.
The disease is linked to dementia and depression, though it can not be formally diagnosed until the patient has died.
“Make a diagnosis while they’re living–we hope this kind of testing can be a game-changer,” said Dr. Julian Bailes, a former team physician for West Virginia University and for the Pittsburgh Steelers, adding, “The biggest thing is, if we can diagnose CTE, I think they’re better off knowing they have it. Most of them don’t die from CTE. Many die from suicide. If you can find out you have it, you can manage the symptoms. Getting a good psychiatrist and good professional care can give you insight and help you in how to treat depression.”
Barry Sanders remembered his own playing days, when players would often knowingly return to games after suffering a concussion.
“How do you feel today? Are you getting any better?” Sanders said, recalling the questions team doctors would ask players. “God forbid, it’s a guy who’s fighting for a job, who wants to prove he’s a tough guy and he just wants to get back onto the field. It’s a tough situation.”
Sanders said he is glad that medical advancements have come a long way since then.
“I’d always hear about guys that had trouble later on in life and no one at that point had really pinpointed, ‘OK what exactly is going on here.’ At least now we have professionals, experts involved in this. I played in the ’90s and back then, yeah, we kind of understood what a concussion was, but pretty much everything was left up to the player.”
Barry Sanders cut his own NFL career short, retiring after only 10 seasons. He recently appeared in a commercial for Pepsi mocking his unexpected retirement.