ON THE LAST play of Brett Favre's football career, he suffered a concussion. In the seven years since, the Hall of Fame quarterback has become increasingly honest regarding his concerns about the long-term consequences of the sport he loves.
There are times Favre will run into someone he knows on the Southern Miss campus whose name he just can't place, and he wonders if it's old age, forgetfulness or something else. He says he was speechless upon hearing the findings of a study published this summer in the Journal of the American Medical Association: The degenerative brain disease chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE) was discovered in 110 of the 111 brains of deceased NFL players that had been donated for research. Favre lives in Hattiesburg, Miss., and has three grandsons now. He says he'd much rather caddy for them than watch them play football.
"Playing 20 years and not missing a game in 19 of those is a great thing, but I can't believe that it did anything good for my long-term health," says Favre. "And there's not a day that goes by—of course, the news that I hear periodically doesn't help—but there's not a day that goes by I don't wonder."
That nagging fear has led Favre to invest his money and lend his name to the development of a drug to treat concussions.
Much has been learned over the last several years about the mechanics of concussions. Scientists describe a biochemical cascade, triggered by trauma to the brain, that can damage nerve cells and interfere with how they function. Researchers are homing in on ways to slow or stop this cascade, mitigating the short-term—and potentially long-term—effects of injury, and they believe a pharmaceutical option may be in the future.
Finding an effective treatment for concussions is a public health need, but it's also especially urgent in sports—so essential to the future of football that some of the game's biggest stars, like Favre, are backing research efforts. Favre says he has recently talked with the NFL's new chief medical officer, Allen Sills, about a drug being developed by a Florida-based pharmaceutical company, Prevacus, in which Favre is an investor.
"If we come up with a drug that will treat concussions, maybe guys get back on the field more quickly," says Favre, "but more importantly maybe we don't have these conversations about today's players 20 years down the road, like Tony Dorsett, and Junior Seau, and on and on."
A few years after he retired, Favre was introduced to Jake VanLandingham, a neuroscientist at Florida State who founded Prevacus to spearhead the development of a concussion drug. The drug, intended to be administered nasally within minutes after trauma, is a steroid designed to work at the cellular level to reduce inflammation and help brain cells function and survive. It has shown promising results in rats, but the next step will be clinical trials to test safety and efficacy in humans.
Favre helped recruit other NFL greats to Prevacus's sports advisory board, including Kurt Warner, Matt Hasselbeck, Steve Mariucci and Eddie DeBartolo Jr. Having the backing of big names says nothing of the drug's effectiveness, but it is a reflection of the urgency those in the game feel to address brain injuries. Other prominent NFLers have aligned with other potential treatments. For example, Seahawks cornerback Richard Sherman, who ruptured his right Achilles in last Thursday night's game against the Cardinals, is on the advisory board of Oxeia, a pharmaceutical company working on a synthetic molecule targeting the metabolic dysfunction in brain cells after concussion. Meanwhile, the University of Miami is undertaking a five-year study on the use of CBD, a cannabinoid, in combination with an anesthetic to treat concussions.
The idea that a concussion could be treated with medicine on the sideline, as if taking an antihistamine for an allergy attack, may be a fantasy for now, but the prospect is exciting. "If that's something that existed, there's no doubt it would be beneficial because there are concussions every week in this league," says Eagles receiver Torrey Smith, who finished last season on injured reserve with the 49ers after suffering a concussion in Week 14.
"For years the default position for concussion was watchful waiting," says Vernon Williams, sports neurologist at the Kerlan-Jobe Institute and a consulting team physician to the L.A. Rams. "If there was some hope and optimism related to the potential to treat symptoms in the short term, and prevent long-term effects, it would have a significant effect on elite athletes and, frankly, on some concerns parents have about letting their kids play."
Around the time he was introduced to VanLandingham and Prevacus, Favre was contacted by a different research group to see if he'd participate in experimental (and later debunked) testing he was told could check for permanent neurological damage. Favre declined, more interested in the future than the past. If there were a way to address brain injuries when they occur, perhaps the next generation would not have to wonder like Brett Favre does.
"Not missing a game in 19 [years] is a great thing," says Favre (opposite, 4), "but I can't believe it did anything good for my long-term health."
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