A Brain Battered By Football The years of hard hits have left former NFL player George Visger with severe memory loss. His doctors warn his brain problems could get worse quickly. While he struggles with his short-term memory, his days as a star high school lineman are vivid and special.
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A Brain Battered By Football

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A Brain Battered By Football

A Brain Battered By Football

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It's ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Michele Norris.


And I'm Melissa Block.

One thing you can say about high school football, it is not an experience soon forgotten. Boys mostly, on the cusp of adulthood, enter a world of danger and camaraderie and competition. Now, as part of our series Friday Night Lives, the story of a man whose high school football experience happened decades ago but for him, it remains vivid and special, even though football has left a dark cloud over his life.

Our story comes from NPR's Tom Goldman.

TOM GOLDMAN: So, where are we now, George?

Mr. GEORGE VISGER (Football Player, San Francisco 49ers): Sacramento.

GOLDMAN: George Visger is on a journey. He's driving his silver Dodge pickup truck from home, Grass Valley, California to Stagg High School in Stockton. It's a trip two hours south and 35 years back to when Visger was a star lineman for the Stagg Delta Kings.

Mr. VISGER: I get goose bumps going down there every year.

GOLDMAN: Goose bumps, tears, laughter, it all pours out when George Visger makes the journey back, be it in his truck or in his mind. Here's a guy who played in a college bowl game, who was a member of a Super Bowl-winning NFL team, but it's the stories about Stagg High that Visger loves to tell with crystal clarity and passion. Especially, from his senior year 1975, the story that trumps all is when the father of starting running back Fred Douglas was murdered the week of one of the biggest games of the season. The whole team went to the funeral on a Thursday. No one expected Douglas to play Friday right up until the moment he appeared, minutes before kickoff.

Mr. VISGER: You know, I'll never forget. He comes in the locker room, and he's got his bag of gear over his shoulder and all he said was, I just thought you boys might need me tonight. I couldn't let you down. And I'm telling you, it's hard for me to - it's hard for me to even talk about it, you know, 35 years later without getting emotional. But there wasn't a dry eye in the locker room. I'm still...

(Soundbite of clearing throat)

GOLDMAN: Visger's eyes have dried by the time he gets to the Stagg High practice field to watch the 2009 Delta Kings. Not that it matters because the players aren't looking in his eyes anyway.

(Soundbite of crowd)

Unidentified Boy #1: Dang!

Unidentified Boy #2: Rocks...

Unidentified Boy #3: That's nice.

GOLDMAN: They're ogling the rings. On Visger's left hand, one from 1977 Orange Bowl, when he was a starting defensive tackle for the University of Colorado. And the main attraction on his right hand, the diamond-encrusted 1982 Super Bowl ring when he was a member of the champion San Francisco 49ers.

Mr. VISGER: That's got an ounce of gold in it.

GOLDMAN: Visger puts on the rings for occasions like this. He's been asked to speak to the team after practice. His speech is laced with vivid memories of decades-old high school glory. The irony - the cruel irony - is when you spend time talking to George Visger, you also get this.

Mr. VISGER: Today, when I was at the - I think it was today, right? When I was at the - when I was at the TV interview. (Laughing) I'm trying to remember when, it was today, right?

GOLDMAN: The interview.

Mr. VISGER: Yes, thank you.

GOLDMAN: Laughter is one coping mechanism for his dwindling short-term memory. The small yellow notebooks Visger steps in the back pocket of his Levi's are another.

Mr. VISGER: So this is - so here's - here's Monday. There's Monday, still. Monday...

GOLDMAN: The notebooks are George Visger's memory. A daily log of conversations that otherwise would be lost. It's just one of the symptoms of a brain battered by football. Visger's first concussion was at 13, pre-high school. His coach at the time had the players do a drill called bull in the ring. Two guys on opposite sides of a circle, a ball in the middle, first guy to the ball wins.

Mr. VISGER: We just put our heads down and ran at each other full speed from 25 yards, you know, top of head to top of head, which, you know, was crazy.

GOLDMAN: Young George Visger was knocked unconscious and hospitalized. By his estimate, he went on to have hundreds if not thousands of concussions during his 12 years playing football, most not as severe as the first, but they took a toll. In the early 1980s, Visger says team doctors for the San Francisco 49ers told him his episodes of pounding headaches, projectile vomiting, temporary loss of sight and hearing were due to high blood pressure. Reached this week, the 49ers said it wasn't proper to comment since they have no firsthand knowledge of Visger's medical history.

In fact, Visger had developed hydrocephalus, where excess fluid accumulates in and around the brain. It has led to nine brain surgeries. The first one prevented him from playing in that 1982 Super Bowl with the 49ers. But he still got a ring.

Hey, fellas, I don't mean to bring the party down, but have any of you ever had a concussion?

Unidentified Man: No, certainly...

GOLDMAN: We were back in George Visger's pickup. He's driving a few of the Stagg players to their homecoming parade. Visger listens as Stuart Belille, an offensive tackle, acknowledges some symptoms, but not in his mind a concussion.

Mr. STUART BELILLE (Football Player, Stagg High School): When you hit someone, like there's always like sparkly things, if you hit them hard enough. And that's a pretty good feeling because, you know, you got them.

Mr. VISGER: You know, those are mild forms of concussion, now. It's what they're considering concussions. Back when I played, it was you were either unconscious or stumbling around, you know.

GOLDMAN: Concussion education and treatment have improved since Visger's high school days. Stagg players say they know the risk, as much as teenage boys can know risk. Shawn Mayo is a senior defensive end.

Mr. SHAWN MAYO (Football Player, Stagg High School): You love football, and it doesn't really matter what happens. Just go after it.

GOLDMAN: Just go after it, man up, the kind of football attitudes that George Visger used over the years to shrug off his health problems. But lately, he's been worried. The symptoms have been getting worse: not just his memory, but he's getting more easily distracted. It's taking longer to finish the reports he prepares as a wildlife biologist. And Visger's biggest fear - flashes of anger that are taking their toll on his wife, Christy, a schoolteacher and his young children.

Mr. VISGER: My wife works her tail off at school. She'll be there until 10, 11 or midnight sometimes. My kids are staying there with her now sometimes, almost that late. Christy's telling me now, they're afraid to come home with me.

GOLDMAN: This week, George Visger was in Southern California for an extensive brain evaluation. The news was not good. The neuropsychiatrist who studied Visger, Dr. Daniel Amen, says Visger's brain is damaged to such an extent that he'll get dementia in the next five years if they don't try to reverse his condition. Visger says he is extremely enthused about Dr. Amen's treatment plan: a combination of improved sleep habits, better diet and the right medicine.

Still, he admits a sense of urgency in accomplishing things now, like raising awareness about hydrocephalus, promoting concussion education, speaking on behalf of other NFL retirees with long-term health problems. And, of course, loving Stagg High School football. Next month, he'll back in Stockton, cheering for some old teammates as they're inducted into the Stagg High Hall of Fame.

Tom Goldman, NPR News.

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