George Visger in His Own Words: A Career of Concussions

Jan 12, 2012

Football damaged my brain and it didn’t have to happen

GEORGE VISGER, a former 49er, tells his story
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Due to the size and speed of today’s football players, the kinetic energy they generate during hits can have long-term consequences. Here’s my story:
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My football career began at age 11 in 1970 when I suited up for the West Stockton Bear Cubs, the first Pee Wee Pop Warner team fielded in Stockton, Calif. Of the 29 kids on the team, three went on to sign NFL contracts in 1980 (myself — sixth round, New York Jets; Jack Cosgrove — eighth round, Seattle Seahawks; Pat Bowe — free agent, Green Bay Packers).
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During my third year of Pop Warner, I was hospitalized when I knocked myself unconscious during a tackling drill. The exercise was a needless bull-in-the-ring drill that was more of a gladiator competition for the coaches’ amusement than a means of teaching useful techniques to young players.
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The coaches had us form a big circle about 25 yards across and numbered the 40 of us 1 to 20 on each side. When your number was called, you and the player on the other side with the same number sprinted directly at each other and hit head-to-head.
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Concussions followed throughout my high school career, though I never missed a game or practice. In my senior year, we went 11-0 and ranked No. 3 in California. I was selected to the All-America Top 100 Team.
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I entered the University of Colorado on a football scholarship in 1976 as a 6-foot, 5-inch 235-pound defensive tackle, majoring in biology. I was a starter for three years and suffered a number of minor concussions, but I never missed a play except after leg injuries.
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Turning pro

In 1980, I was drafted into the NFL by the New York Jets at 259 pounds. The Jets had me beef up to 275 pounds. I was cut at the end of preseason but was picked up by the San Francisco 49ers early in the regular season.
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On my first play with the 49ers in the first quarter against Dallas, I suffered a major concussion but played the entire game. The trainers told me afterward I went through 25 to 30 smelling salts on the sidelines. They would give me a handful each time I came out, I’d pop a couple, clear the cobwebs and go back in. We laughed about it as I watched the game films the next day and didn’t remember a single play. Still, I never missed a practice.
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Early in my second season with the 49ers, a few weeks after my first knee surgery, I developed hydrocephalus (water on the brain) and underwent emergency surgery to put a shunt in my brain that would drain trapped spinal fluid. I turned 23 lying in intensive care at Stanford Hospital.
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Four months after we won Super Bowl XVI my shunt failed while on a fishing trip to Mexico with my brother Mel. He brought me back to the states in a coma. I had back-to-back emergency brain surgeries 10 hours apart and was given last rites the next day. I also was given the hospital bills and ended up suing the 49ers for workers compensation.
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Life after football

For nearly five years I fought off creditors for the massive hospital bills while undergoing two more knee surgeries, including an experimental GoreTex ACL transplant. The workers comp case was settled in 1986, so at least my medical bills finally were covered.
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That year I also returned to school at Sacramento State University to complete my biology degree. In 1987, while taking a full course load, I survived four more brain surgeries and several gran mal seizures, including a 55-minute seizure while sitting in organic chemistry class.
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In 1990 I graduated at age 32 with a degree in biological conservation and have since been working as a wildlife biologist and environmental consultant.
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Now 52, I suffer major short-term memory problems and have survived nine football-related emergency brain surgeries and multiple gran mal seizures. To combat seizures I take Lamictil, the sixth anti-seizure medicine I have taken due to horrible side effects from previous ones.
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Struggling to cope

Over the years I have assembled an arsenal of coping mechanisms.
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For 20-some years, I’ve written everything I do in Rite-in-the-Rain notebooks — small waterproof notebooks I began using for field notes when I first became a biologist — because I can’t remember much of anything from day to day. I always carry one in my back pocket and write several pages a day, including the time and content of each phone call.
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Every few days I review the prior week or so of notes to recall what I’ve done. I tell everyone I work with to never fear hurting my feelings if they have to remind me of an appointment. My home, truck and office are littered with Post-It notes. I set beeping reminders on my computer and phone, and still struggle to stay on top of commitments.
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I also take fish-oil supplements, drink concentrated fruit and seaweed juices and take daily one-and-a-half hour treatments inside a pressurized chamber of pure oxygen to reduce inflammation in my brain and improve my memory.
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Dr. Richard G. Ellenbogen, co-chair of the NFL Head, Neck and Spine Medical Committee, contacted me last spring and asked me to share my suggestions as to how players’ heads could be better protected.
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Several of my recommendations are being implemented thanks to Dr. Ellenbogen and his fellow co-chair, Dr. H. Hunt Batjer, including the controversial new standards on helmet-to-helmet hits (although I would make the penalties much tougher). They truly are trying to change the culture of football to protect players, especially younger players who emulate what they see on TV.
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I recently coordinated a meeting with Dr. Ellenbogen and Steve Reimers of the Hyperbaric Oxygen Medical Association in an attempt to get hyperbaric chambers installed in all NFL locker rooms.
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Concussions kill

In October, Nathan Stiles, a 17-year-old high school football star and homecoming king in Kansas, died of post-concussion syndrome after intercepting a pass and slamming his head on the turf during a typical tackle. He’d suffered a concussion earlier in the month during the homecoming game.
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My heart goes out to his family and friends.
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It’s time we realize the human brain was not meant to be used as a weapon or repeatedly banged into the ground.
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One of my suggestions that probably will never happen: Get rid of helmets. All the new technology makes one feel that much more invincible to injury.
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I know I did.
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George Visger is now a wildlife biologist and motivational speaker. He lives in Grass Valley, Calif.

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3 Responses so far | Have Your Say!

  1. Gordon Wright
    January 12th, 2012 at 3:26 pm #

    Gordon Wright - NY Jets

    Thanks, George. We appreciate your help!

    Gordon Wright
    Philadelphia Eagles & New York Jets
    1967 – 1970

  2. Gordon Wright
    January 13th, 2012 at 9:30 am #

    Gordon Wright - NY Jets

    In 1941. Colonel Bates was the white man who was the Master over the 761st First Black Soldiers Tank Battalion in WWII to even out Racism and Prejudice in the United States Military. I was born in 1943, a son to one of those Black Soldiers.

    In 1961, Racism and Prejudice against WWII Black Soldier’s son was still alive and well. My white coach took the Freeport, New York High School Football Team on a Ferry through Virgina to North Carolina to play a game at Johnson C. Smith University. This was the first time I came face-to-face with white men who wanted to murder me for attempting to get a drink of water from a white water fountain! I did not drink from the fountain but I never forgot the ordeal that almost cost me my life in 1961.

    I’m 68 years old now and I live in the United States of America and covert racist, prejudiced German soldiers are the owners and lawyers of the NFL and they have made sure that the 1938 Labor Laws and the 1964 Civil Right Laws do not apply to the son of Black Soldiers who helped ensure their defeat in WWII. I know I will never be paid for my 1968 NFL contract with the Philadelphia Eagles and I know the covert racist, prejudice German Lawyers will always work for the NFL and get paid the money I am owed. But I will always be satisfied that my Black Soldier Father and Uncles and all my relatives who served in the United States Military destroyed Nazi Germany in WWII and that is worth more than the money that has been stolen from me and my sons.

    My Sacrifice for the AFL & NFL and the sacrifices my Black Soldier relatives accomplished will never ever be taken away.

    Gordon Wright
    Philadelphia Eagles & New York Jets
    1967 – 1970

  3. Notes on ‘UPMC’ and George Visger’s ‘OUT OF MY HEAD’ Ebooks « Concussion Inc. – Author Irvin Muchnick
    January 13th, 2012 at 11:44 am #

    [...] Speaking of the amazing and indomitable Mr. Visger, he has a nice new piece up at the Dave Pear blog: “George Visger in His Own Words: A Career of Concussions,” http://davepear.com/blog/2012/01/george-visger-in-his-own-words-a-career-of-concussions/. [...]