Monday, December 28, 2015

Until It Happens to You!

Since I was diagnosed 25 years ago with Post Concussion Syndrome I have tried to be an open and honest voice for others who have had to deal with traumatic brain injury on some level whether the cause of the condition was sports related, as a result of an automobile accident or a simple slip and fall striking the head. I know first hand of the neurological challenges one can experience once the human brain is injured.

I'm not a doctor and I'm not a medical expert on the issue of traumatic brain injuries but I do know what I have experienced personally. Using my college education (with heavy emphasis in the human sciences) I've listened to my own body and have paid pretty close attention to others (especially those who have played contact sports like football) to see how concussions may have effected their lives after leaving their respective sport.  All that I've spoken of since sharing my own diagnosis a quarter century ago regarding concussions and the long term after effects has come to light and is on the minds of many with the National Football League offering a settlement worth over a billion dollars to many former players who brought lawsuits against the League. Documentaries such as League of Denial have aired to provide information of former athletes who wanted attention to be drawn to the case of head trauma and contact sports. Now a full length movie is hitting the big screen to document the discovery of CTE by Dr. Bennet Omalu.

I know Dr. Omalu personally and know his story first hand from a conversation we had over dinner several years ago.  His research was done and the discovery was made because others in similar positions failed to dig deeper to gain a better understanding of why former football players committed suicide thinking they might have been going crazy. Dr. Omalu is a mild mannered man who was naive enough to think that by going to the NFL to share his finding that he would be welcomed. Instead individuals associated with the League tried to discredit and marginalize him and his discovery. Now a movie will tell his story for all interested in hearing and learning more about CTE.

Unfortunately, knowing the sports culture of fans in this country much like the NFL,  many people will not want to listen or even care. Most of those who will be disinterested want and love their football no matter what the cost to those on the field will paid neurologically. The entertainment of watching their favorite team and players supersede the head trauma they might see in a game or witness in a movie. Most people don't and won't care about Dr. Omalu's findings. They won't care until it happens to them!

When I first started talking about my issues with Post Concussion Syndrome people thought I was crazy to even acknowledge my condition. There were even a couple of former players who laughed when they heard my story. "What's the big deal? We all played with "dings"! So? They laughed until they started experiencing the lingering effects of those "dings" they played through whether it was in high school, college or in their professional football days. Those players are now very much concerned about their own lives and futures and most of them were plaintiffs against the NFL in the lawsuit.

Over the years I've found that there is a stigma to acknowledge anything "brain injury" related. To many, the subject of traumatic brain injury means nothing until it happens to them or someone in their family. Most football fans think that players know or should have known that head injuries are a part of the game. Unfortunately I and many of my predecessors and contemporaries never got that "memo" of the possible long term effects of hits to the head.  I'm pretty sure we all knew we could get seriously hurt physically when we played but we, quite frankly, did not know that our brains could be injured long term playing football. Because of Dr. Omalu's research and findings we now know that there is a connection between hits to the head from contact sports and dementia, Alzheimer Disease and ALS.

Because of my advocacy on the TBI subject I've met many people in football and other contact sports who never thought about brain injury until it affected or happened to them or a family member.  Fortunately for many who play contacts a sprained ankle, strain ligament or even a broken bone can heal in a timely fashion, unfortunately we only have one brain and once it is injured there is no guarantee that it will heal immediately and there is certainly no guarantee of lingering long term effects in later years.

25 Years ago I never knew that with my Post Concussion diagnosis I would be speaking on a neurological issue that very few people had heard of. It was very real and was one that science had to catch up with almost 15 years ago.

If you are reading this I'm asking every parent who has a child and every grandparent who has a grandchild to make the time to view Dr. Omalu story not to be entertained but to gain a better understanding on the issue of sports related concussions that might not matter to you...... Until you are affected!

-Harry

Tuesday, September 1, 2015

Getting Educated On Concussions

I continue to thank Meridian Health for affording me the opportunity to share my thoughts on whatever I’d like that's health related.  If you've read my blogs over the past few years you will know that that I am passionate about maintaining good health but I also hold a very keen interest in concussion awareness. This month I would like to share my thoughts on that issue.  More precisely, I want to weigh in on the "push back" or criticism that former San Francisco 49ers linebacker Chris Borland has received on a decision he made.

Last year (2014) Chris Borland was in his first season with the 49ers having graduated from the University of Wisconsin. After an outstanding rookie season he made the choice to retire due to fears of concussions he could have already sustained and the possible future brain damage he could be risking playing football. When Borland made his decision to end his football career, I personally applauded his decision because I knew he took his time and did his own research to educate himself on the possible links of concussions to future neurological problems. He did what he felt he needed to do for his family but more importantly he did what he thought was best for him! I applauded and admired his decision because unlike most football players he was not blinded by the millions of dollars he could have made playing in the National Football League. I applauded his decision because most football players especially young "naive" players do what they are told to do or just follow the crowd and do not necessarily question those who say that the game of football is safe to play. He made up his own mind to step away from professional football.

I could very much relate to Chris Borland as I realized after my career ended that I had experienced some "issues" during and after my football career ended that I found hard to describe. When I was diagnosed with Post Concussion Syndrome and then educated myself on the issues I realized then that if I was having neurological issues, there were probably many other former players dealing with similar neurological issues. Along my journey after football I came to the stark reality that what I knew about the lingering ramifications of concussion that if I had to do it all over again I would not have done it.  I made that decision many years ago but few people noticed or paid attention to my comments.  When I became a member of Pro Football Hall of Fame making the statement that I would not have played the game knowing what I know now about concussions did not sit well with many who thought it was sour grapes on my part to make the statement after playing and achieving the ultimate honor as a member of the Hall of Fame.

It's one thing for an older football player who is well over the age of 50 to say what I've gone on record of saying about not playing the game again.  It's another thing that Chris Borland a mere rookie, at the beginning of what could have been an outstanding career in the National Football League to make a decision to step away from the game. Many fans who love football have cast Borland as "a quitter" "soft", "self centered", "a traitor" and ultimately a dangerous voice that could negatively influence the game.  Rabid football fans love the game whether it's high school, college or professional football and consider their team to be "their team" and unfortunately they prefer their players on the field to just shut and just play. What Chris Borland did last spring by retiring goes against the grain of what 99% of the other professional football players would do. In my opinion what Chris Borland did for his own well being took courage, integrity and showed his intelligence to research, digest the information and come to his own conclusion.

Every football fan who never knew who Chris Borland was before should know who he is now. And for every parent who is indecisive as to whether they should allow their son to play football or not they should do what Chris Borland did. They should look at all of the information on the relationship between concussions and the long lasting associated effects of traumatic brain injuries before making a decision. I've never met Chris Borland but I feel we are on the same page. While it is not our intent to destroy the popularity of football, we think it is critically important for parents to have adequate information to educate themselves make the right or best decision for their own family members in regard to playing the game of football.

-Harry

Friday, June 12, 2015

Back to the issue of Concussions (Somewhat)!

I take great pride in sharing with people and various groups I speak to that I was trained to be an "Educator"!

When I went to college I graduated with a Bachelor of Science Degree in Education. Most people don't know that the game of football was something that I fell into on the side but I knew (at the time) that if I didn't make it professionally I was already certified to teach so there was no pressure on me to go on with my life after college.

Eventually after my 4 years of college football and 13 seasons playing for the New York Giants I realized that there was something going on with me neurologically but I could not put my finger on exactly what the problem was until being diagnosed with a mild form of Post Concussion Syndrome. When I had a name to go with what I was experiencing it was, quite honestly, a relief to know that I was not going crazy at the time because of the various issues I was experiencing but kept to myself. I set out to learn as much as I could through reading books and scanning the internet for information on the condition. Being aware and listening to my own body has been the best education for me to understand my own issues with Post Concussion Syndrome. By listening to my internal voice and what my body was experiencing I was in essence, conducting my own personal in-depth studies, no different from any other research source. Over the years I've had the opportunity to share my concussion experiences with groups and sources willing to listen. Some of those sources like the Brain Injury Association got on-board with issue of concussions in sports related activities while others have been in denial and continue to be. What is amazing to me is while I, as well as a small group of others who spoke up on the lingering effects of concussions many years ago, never believed that we would live to see the day when the National Football League or any other entity would acknowledge a connection between head injuries and ailments like dementia and Alzheimer's disease later in life. But that day has happened as the National Football League has settled a concussion lawsuit brought by former players.

I say all of that to make this point. I was recently asked to offer the convocation speech for New York University School of Professional Studies and the commencement address for the graduates of Fairleigh Dickinson University class of 2015. I was honored to have been asked by two institutions I hold in very high regard to offer addresses. At the Fairleigh Dickinson Graduation that took place at MetLife Stadium I was honored with an honorary doctorate degree. Over the years I've gotten many awards and honors that were primarily based on my body of work as a football player. What makes this honor so special and gratifying is the recognition for what I've done primarily since leaving the game.  Advocating on behalf of others who have no voice on the issues of concussions, advocating on behalf of minority coaches and my fellow former NFL brethern to get better benefits and pensions and how (in general) I've lived my life giving back to the community was gratifying to hear during the presentation of the degree.

As I stood on the stage in the stadium and received the honorary doctorate I first thought of how ironic it was that I would be recognized in an athletic facility by an academic institution. Then, I thought of being that singular voice (at times) going against the grain of what is the most popular sport on the planet talking about the long term hazards of playing the sport. I thought of all those people, including many former football players who thought I was crazy to even talk about the subject of concussions publicly. But then, in a way, I felt that for the past 25 years I used what I was trained for as that "Educator" to teach others and help bring to the attention of the world an awareness of the effects of head trauma later in life. I admit that I cherish that honorary doctorate degree because while I did not put in the actual physical classroom time, I was aware of every minute experiencing the effects of Post Concussion Syndrome. In reality I feel that I attended a one person school, learning substance I could only know by experiencing symptoms and data through first hand experience.  After receiving the honor and making my speech I finally felt a sense of vindication, that all I've experienced neurologically and any backlash I've felt as a result of being so vocal on the concussion issue was well worth it.

It was important to share the experience of receiving the doctorate with my family but I really wanted my grandchildren to see their "Pop Pop's" recognition to know and understand that if you stand on what you think is the truth, no matter what anyone else says or feel, good things can happen no matter how long it takes!

-Harry

Tuesday, May 5, 2015

Winter is behind us and Spring has finally sprung!

Winter is behind us and spring has finally sprung! This is my favorite time of the year. To see flowers blooming, grass getting greener and kids playing outside makes me feel tranquil deed down inside. This is the time of the year with mild temperatures that make me look forward to getting outside with my sleeves rolled up, working in my yard doing all that I can to help restore and maintain it’s beauty. I have to admit that I live in a very beautiful area where very few homeowners personally get out and get their hands dirty or break a sweat. Most homeowners defer that job to landscaping professionals. But every spring I want to do that work myself. I look forward to working and totally enjoying every minute of it because the experience puts me in touch with my property, with the soil, grass, trees and my home. I am originally from South Carolina and to an extent my youthful experiences included yard work, so that kind of work has been engrained in me for a long time. I like knowing what needs to done to improve the quality of my home. And I feel that because I am so emotionally invested in my property no one can do a better job of maintaining it especially the small intricate things that make my house “my home” better than me. (At least I would like to believe that in my mind.) I take great pride in making sure that my home and property looks as good or even better than most homes in my neighborhood. The work of maintaining all that needs to be done I have to admit, sometimes is hard work. But I love it! Let me explain.

As much as we live in a more technologically advanced era with so many things created to make our lives easier, nothing takes the place of being outside enjoying nature, breathing fresh air, feeling the warmth of the sun, actively moving and exercising muscles I forgot I had. To me it’s the same as maintaining my own body. While I could (if I wanted to) hire someone to maintain my home, I cannot outsource my body to someone else to take care. Many of us (especially those of us who) didn’t get the opportunity to travel to warm spots during winter have been forced to stay inside during the cold and snowy months. As a result, many may have been sitting around doing as little as possible. With that “sedentary” lifestyle brought on by “Old Man Winter” it’s time to get up and get out and use those muscles that are seldom used. Go for a run, a bike ride or a long walk with family and friends, take a dance class or do what I’ve done. As well as going to the gym 3-4 times a week, I’ve started taking a Yoga class once a week. It is true what they say “you’re never too old to begin new experiences”.

It’s interesting that you can see a beautiful home built in any neighborhood. And after a few years with little or no maintenance performed you can readily see that property begin to deteriorate and the value of the property decrease. The same comparison can be made with our bodies. We come into the world with one body, complete with a heart, lungs, kidneys and other organs but if we mistreat or neglect those organs with drugs, alcohol, smoking, eating all of the wrong stuff and with little or no exercise we have no one to blame but ourselves if the quality of our lives is not what we imagined it would be when neglect of self became a habit. I don't want to sound morbid but the reality is, we have a finite or limited time to live our lives here. Looking back I know so many of my friends and acquaintances who are no longer here to enjoy another spring because of conditions like stroke, diabetes and heart related diseases that possibly could have been avoided with proper management.  

I love Spring! For me it is the best, not too hot and not too cold. Bird chirping early in the morning and other animals coming out to play. Flowers filling the air with beautiful scents. It’s a time of renewal. Don’t neglect the opportunity take care of you. Make and take the time to renew your spirit, your mind and your body. It’s the only one you have.

-Harry

Monday, February 23, 2015

Be Good to Your Body!

If you are an individual who has followed my writing in this blog post for the past couple of years, you should know that my themes are usually two fold. One is a focus on health in general and the other is on head injuries or concussions more specifically.  I’m extremely fortunate that Meridian has afforded me the opportunity to have this forum to share my personal thoughts on two topics that I feel very strongly about. I received my college degree in Education and while I spent several decades after graduating from college playing or reporting on the game of football the thoughts of what I was trained in college to do are never too far away from where my passions reside.

I consider myself to be an "observer of life”! When I say that I mean that I live in the present and try to pay attention to the many situations I encounter on an hourly or daily basis. I also tend to learn from my own personal experiences especially mistakes but perhaps more importantly I try to learn from the major mistakes others have made to avoid heartache and pain. I believe this is one of those qualities I probably acquired as a professional football player studying my opponent in preparation for my next game.

I say all of this to develop a point. I travel quite a bit here and around the United States and I come in contact with many segments of the population of this country. Some might say I should "stay in my lane and mind my own business” but I have to speak on what I am observing.  While I see so many men and women heading to work each day trading the moments of their lives in exchange for the financial resources to house their families, purchase the automobiles they drive or feed and clothes their children, I also see so many people who neglect their own health and well-being by being obese and failing to exercise. I totally understand that to many the priority is sustaining a quality of life for their families. But what good comes out of us not taking care of ourselves and at some point down the road we are diagnosed with diabetes, hypertension, a heart ailment or a premature death?  Being an observer of life I’ve seen many of my friends from high school, college and from my professional football life work their tails off to only to either be diagnosed with an ailment or pass away prematurely. There has to be a "healthy balance” (work and exercise) put in place for everyone to get some kind of physical activity to combat the stress of work or burn the calories of the foods we ingest.

I feel that I can speak on this topic because I was one of those people who worked in corporate America years ago. At some point I realized that my days were filled with commuting to work, meetings, fulfilling my work obligations and coming home with little time to take care of me at the end of the day.  While my head (and the former football player in me) would tell myself to get some exercise, my body would tell me that it was tired and needed rest. There were times when my head won the battle to exercise while there were other times when my body won out and I had to get that rest. When I realized that as years went by my waistline got bigger as well as my blood pressure rose I eventually knew that I had to make some changes in my personal life to live a better quality of life incorporating wellness and exercise. Now I make some type of physical or cardio activity a priority almost everyday around my work. If it means getting up earlier in the morning, blocking out time mid-day to get an hour bike ride or take a power walk, then so be it.

Many of you know that I had a blood clot health crisis last year. It was the first time that I was under a doctor’s care for more than a week. I was on blood thinning medication for 6 months.  Again, being that “observer” one thing that I took from that experience is, it is very expenses to get sick! Hospital visits, doctor(s) consultations & diagnoses visits, testing procedures, medication, etc. It is a very expensive proposition to neglect your own health so I feel it is best to practice preventive maintenance to avoid hospital and doctor visits. The best preventive maintenance I can recommend to anyone is a term one of my college football coaches would say as we went through sprints at the conclusion of football practice. “Be good to your body!” is a term I heard countless times and became a motivational term to inspire me and my teammates as we battled through hot and very humid August days in South Carolina getting ready for the beginning of the football season. “Be good to your body” is the best message I can share and leave with you this month. If you are a high school student or athlete, do your best in the classroom and on the field of competition. If you are a man or woman supporting your family, work your tail off and provide for the needs of your loved ones. But everyday (if at all possible) find that balance of work and exercise and “Be good to your body” and your body will be good to you!

-Harry

Friday, January 2, 2015

Celebrating My Life

I would like to take this opportunity to wish everyone a very Happy New Year!

And, I would also like to acknowledge another year working with the good folks at Meridian sharing my experiences with the citizens of Monmouth and Ocean Counties. I look forward to sharing more personal stories to help encourage all of you to engage in positive proactive health practices.

I just turned the page on another birthday. Sometimes members of my family get a little frustrated with me because when it comes to giving me a gift for either my birthday or for Christmas they always ask what I would like and I always come back with “I’m good, I don’t need anything.”  During my life I feel very fortunate to have been able to live the quality of life I’ve lived. (This has nothing to do with my football life but just being a man.)  At some point (perhaps during my late 40s or at 50) I realized that the best gifts I could ever have can’t be purchased with dollars. The absolute best gifts I have are priceless and are inside of me. Good health in spite of the wear and tear of a long football career makes me one of the lucky guys who played football for as many as 21 years from high school through professional football.  But I am very blessed to be able to maintain my will, focus and determination when I decide to do something or go in a certain direction. Such was the case several months ago when I made a decision to "totally focus" my attention on my own well being and health.

In early September I decided to re-dedicate myself to work out in the gym at least 4 - 5 days a week and eat a more balanced Mediterranean type diet. With that diet I basically eliminated sugar (except in my morning latte), I ate more baked/broiled items like fish and chicken, I ate more fruits and vegetables with olive oil playing a more prominent role in my diet instead of butter. And of course no sodas or sugary drinks but more water as my drink of choice. As a result of the re-focused commitment between September and November I’ve lost approximately 18 - 20 pounds. While I felt good before the re-dedication, I really feel great after the weight loss.

I always schedule my yearly physical around my birthday. That was the case this past year as it was scheduled to take place two day before my birth date. What stands out for me with my annual visit with my doctor was the realization that with the weight reduction, my blood pressure reading was the lowest it has ever been in all of my 30 plus years going to my personal physician.

I am a fan of the musical group The Isley Brothers and their song “Harvest for the World.” In the lyrics of the song a line goes “celebrate your life, give thanks for your children.” With my birthday in mind, I realized that the results of the weight/cardio training and the diet was the best gift I could have given myself to celebrate my own life, to give thanks for my children and grand-children and hopefully live a longer and more productive life.

I see so many infomercials on television promoting rapid weight loss programs or some kind of diet looking to lure people who are overweight or need to get in better physical shape.  I share this personal story in hopes that if you need some inspiration to get off the couch or just to get moving to lose some pounds, reduce your blood pressure and just feel better overall my story will help to encourage or inspire you. My 20 pounds weight loss was not hard but it does take a mind-set of being focused, determined and disciplined to not give in and give up. If I can do this I’m certain that you can do it as well.

By the way, the one and only negative might be that most of my pants no longer fit because my waist line has gotten smaller.  My wife says it’s a good problem to have. LOL….. I agree!

-Harry