Thurman Thomas, the Buffalo Bills’ Pro Hall of Fame running back, offered one of the most sobering assessments of the toll that playing football has taken on his brain.
Thomas, who turns 50 in May, told a story that is becoming all too familiar to former football players in an appearance last week at the District School Board of Niagara’s International Concussion Summit in Niagara Falls, Ontario. A 13-year NFL veteran, he is experiencing the kind of mood swings and memory loss that have been linked to concussions and repetitive hits to the head.
“Still to this day, I can’t control my mood swings,” he said (via the Niagara Falls (Canada) Review. “On so many days, I have to apologize to my family for them. I thank God that I have a family that understands the things that I’ve been through over my 13-year career, and even after my 14 or 15 years that I’ve been retired. They all understand that with my mood swings, sometimes I just can’t help it.”
A few years ago, he said he was driving along the same route he takes daily and suddenly became disoriented.
“I didn’t know where I was and I didn’t know what I was doing,” he said. “I had to make the most difficult call I’ve ever made. I had to pull over on the highway, call my wife, and explain to her the events that just happened. She said, ‘You need to come back home.’ I knew that there was a problem.”
Thomas sought medical help and was told that an MRI exam of his brain showed a frontal lobe that was “similar to someone who has fallen off the top of a house, on to the front of his head, or going through a windshield of a car several times. He said decent … for an NFL football player who had just played in the National Football League for 13 years. Not great, but decent.”
Presently, chronic traumatic encephalopathy can only be diagnosed at autopsy and Thomas knows that his condition is likely to deteriorate. In spite of what he is experiencing, he allows his 14-year-old son to play football over his wife’s objections and despite of concussions his son has suffered. And he stands up for players and former players who are having the same experiences he now is.
“One thing that I realized is that discussing the effects of concussions and the reality of the situation doesn’t make me less of a man, less tough, less loyal to the National Football League, a less love for the game,” he said.
“All it means is that I’m not an ignorant fool, and that I don’t ignore factual evidence that this is happening to not only football players, but [to other athletes].”