In 2013, when PBS Frontline aired the documentary “League of Denial,” which focuses on the link between concussions and traumatic brain injuries in the NFL, I was sitting next to my dad. He happens to be a former professional football player and member of the Hogs, the famous offensive line that took the Redskins to four Super Bowls and brought three Lombardi trophies to Washington. To me, he is just Dad. But to others, he is “Joe Jacoby, legendary Redskins tackle.”
Watching the film was like a gut punch: finally learning what it meant to say that my dad played in the NFL, and suddenly feeling naive for knowing so little of my dad’s former career.
I would love to say that I knew a lot about my dad’s career, but the majority of it happened before I was born — I was barely 2 when he retired — and it wasn’t something our family dwelled on. Beyond fans approaching during dinners out, the occasional NFL documentary on Dad and his teammates, or a Redskins event, we didn’t pay much attention to his previous job.
That’s changed somewhat in the past few years, considering the NFL class-action concussion lawsuit and my dad’s last few years of eligibility for the Pro Football Hall of Fame as a modern era candidate. (He has been a finalist the past two years, which is quite an accomplishment.)
Football was always a part of our family — it was just part of my childhood experience to visit Redskins Park. That’s where BJ (the beloved receptionist) would always greet us and we’d run to the training room to find Bubba (our favorite trainer). Redskins Park was a comfortable place because everyone there felt like family. The relationships with the people my dad worked with are what stayed with us.
That’s why the concussion lawsuit hit me hard. The thought that someone would put my dad’s health at risk for financial gain was infuriating. More than anything, I was hurt. They were supposed to protect him and they failed.
While I am blessed to have a father who loves me unconditionally and has supported me through every decision I’ve made, I’m all too aware that many “football kids” won’t get that same opportunity with their dads. Many may have already lost that capability brought on by the ravages of the game. My dad currently does not show any signs of Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy (CTE) or other neurological disorders but my parents are still proactively taking measures to monitor for the possibility or, dare I say, inevitability of symptoms. He recently has been undergoing treatments at Carolina Health Span Institute using a combination of neurofeedback and biofeedback to optimize his brain health. He’s also focusing on staying active and eating a healthy diet to maintain and promote whole body health.
The league went from years of denying the notion that concussions were a legitimate player issue for current and former players to eventually settling a class-action lawsuit on the issue. The NFL reached a settlement with former players that was approved in 2015, which would provide up to $5 million per retired player for serious medical conditions associated with repeated head trauma. The settlement also requires baseline medical exams for retired players and financial awards for those who have had Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s, dementia, ALS and certain cases of CTE diagnosed.
I’m happy the settlement is done and payouts can begin to go to players in need. Should my dad need those funds one day, it will be a blessing. But there isn’t a dollar amount that can give back years to families who have lost their fathers, brothers, grandpas, and so on.
My heart breaks to think of the families of the nearly 2,000 guys in NFL training camps this week, and even more so for the college and high school players heading back, who may think that this is a problem only the professionals will face, though recent studies have proven that’s not accurate. Just last week, a study of 202 former football players’ brains found evidence of brain disease linked to repeated head trauma. The unfortunate finding is that they found the evidence in nearly 90 percent of those players, which were pulled from NFL (111), college (53), semiprofessional (14), Canadian pros (8) and high school players (14). This is not just a problem for the professionals. Ignoring it won’t change the reality many are already facing. As a family, we try to not focus on every new study or statistic because it would drive us crazy. But it’s becoming harder to not fixate.
I’ve never doubted before if my dad will be around to walk me down the aisle or meet my children but it’s seemingly harder to not question those things, both with myself and to those who ask me. I don’t know if I would let my children play football. It’s already changed significantly since when my father played, but it’s impossible to deny the ramifications that repeated hits to the head can cause to the brain. I may not have memories of my dad’s football-playing days, but now I worry my kids won’t get to have any memories with their grandfather. He may not be there physically or mentally.
Jenna Jacoby is the daughter of former Redskins great Joe Jacoby, works at Joe Gibbs Youth For Tomorrow and is a masters candidate at Johns Hopkins.
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