Skip to main content

Former NFL players gather at forum to discuss head injuries

When Eric Hipple was on the wrong end of bone-crushing hits during his NFL career, he wore it like a badge of courage.

Hipple knows better now. After a post-NFL life marked by pain, depression and personal tragedy, the former Detroit Lions quarterback is speaking out.

The 53-year-old was one of about 20 former players who shared their stories during an NFL-sponsored forum Wednesday at the Hyatt Regency Hotel in Detroit. "NFL Community Huddle: Taking a goal line stand for your mind & body" addressed head injuries and mental disorders such as Alzheimer's and dementia.

The risk of memory-related diseases for former players, including Alzheimer's, is 19 times the normal rate for men ages 30 through 49, according to an NFL-commissioned study in 2009.

"Took a lickin' and kept on tickin'," Hipple told *The Detroit News*, referencing the nickname that he earned during a playing career that lasted from 1980 to 1989. "I actually took pride in that name."

Hipple's body is a walking cautionary tale of the realities of an extended career in professional football. He underwent seven surgeries in his 10 seasons and battled severe depression after his career was done. He was in denial about his head injuries for years, and he dealt with the suicide of his 15-year-old son in 2000.

"Even the best health care in the world doesn't do you any good if you don't use it," Hipple said. "That's the problem with stigma. It stops people from getting the services they need."

The forum featured panelists Dr. David Satcher, a former U.S. surgeon general, former Buffalo Bills safety Mark Kelso, and Sylvia Mackey, wife of Hall of Fame tight end John Mackey.

Sylvia Mackey belives her 69-year-old husband wouldn't have developed dementia had he been better protected during a 10-year career in which the Colts great missed only one game.

Mackey's story prompted the NFL and NFL Player's Association to create the "88 Plan" in 2007 to help support players with dementia and their families. More than $7 million has been distributed through the initiative.

One of the forum's goals is to erase the "tough guy" thinking that leads to long-term issues for pro football players.

"There was a saying, 'You can't make the club if you're in the tub' and you're hurt," former Lions linebacker George Jamison said. "I always tried to get back out there and play."

Satcher believes there has to be a new way of thinking when it comes to protecting the players.

"People take protection of the brain for granted," he said. "Hopefully that will change."

This article has been reproduced in a new format and may be missing content or contain faulty links. Please use the Contact Us link in our site footer to report an issue.