Len Oliver, U.S. soccer Hall of Famer and longtime Washingtonian, is 82. The days of weekend kickarounds with old friends are long gone, but soccer continues to run through his veins, as it has since he began playing on the narrow streets of northeast Philadelphia with his twin brother.
He cares deeply about the sport, and he cares about what effects it might be having on bodies and, more specifically, the brains of those playing it.
For that reason, Oliver decided over the winter to posthumously donate his brain and spinal cord to researchers studying the impact of head injuries. He is in the process of finalizing details with the Concussion Legacy Foundation, which works with the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs and the CTE Center at Boston University in studying brain trauma in athletes and other at-risk groups.
While higher-profile soccer figures have stepped forward, most recently 1999 Women’s World Cup hero Brandi Chastain, Oliver is a unique case because of his age.
“She’s 47,” he said last week at his home in Cleveland Park. “It might be 40-50 years before they get to her. I could pass tomorrow.”
During his playing days, Oliver said he suffered six head injuries. At the time, he never heard the word “concussion,” but that is what the injuries probably were. All were the result of head-to-head collisions, not heading the ball, a point about which Oliver is emphatic. (More on that later.)
His cognitive skills have not suffered, he said. After retiring from competitive soccer, he earned a PhD from the University of Chicago and forged a career in the humanities and continuing education. He reads and writes regularly, and has remained active in the soccer community. He can go into great detail about matches played a half-century ago.
But as his life enters the late stages, Oliver has given greater thought to the ramifications of playing soccer.
“Take an old guy, take a guy who has been in the sport his entire life, and take a look,” he said. “If there’s nothing there, good.”
As awareness and study of traumatic head injuries have broadened, the spotlight has shined strongest on football. Two-thirds of the more than 300 brains acquired by the Concussion Legacy Foundation have come from former football players.
The NFL has acknowledged the connection between the sport and chronic traumatic encephalopathy, or CTE, a progressive degenerative disease of the brain found in people with a history of repetitive brain trauma.
Soccer, too, has had to confront the issue. Several MLS players, including five from D.C. United, have been forced into retirement because of concussion-related issues. Head injuries became a story line at the 2014 World Cup in Brazil, prompting FIFA to take a closer look at a growing problem.
ESPN’s Taylor Twellman — a high-scoring forward for the University of Maryland and the New England Revolution who retired in 2011 because of concussions — plans to posthumously donate his brain to science. Chastain announced this month that she will do the same, joining a small group of former female athletes.
In cases such as those, however, researchers will have to wait years, if not decades.
The Concussion Legacy Foundation did not offer data on ages of living individuals in the registry, but Oliver is undoubtedly on the older end.
Executive director Chris Nowinski had not spoken to Oliver and did not want to comment on his specific case but said that, for someone without CTE symptoms to step forward, “it’s a special person that makes a pledge for the betterment of everyone. It’s a very altruistic gesture.”
Oliver starred at Temple University in the 1950s – he also played baseball — and served on armed forces squads in Germany. He played in the U.S. semipro leagues, taking more than a few knocks to the head. He never saw a doctor about head trauma.
“You shook it off and got back on the field,” he said. “You’re awake, you’re okay.”
He was good enough to make the U.S. national team and traveled to Brazil for the 1963 Pan American Games. It was there that he said he suffered his worst head injury.
“I went up for head ball and a shorter guy outjumped me and came down with his head,” Oliver recalled. “I was knocked out. The Brazilian trainer, a jolly guy, was hitting me with the magic sponge of ice-cold water. He was laughing. I got up, walked over and they put eight stitches in me.”
Two days later, he played again.
With a settled family life, Oliver ended his competitive career a few years later. He continued playing in over-35 leagues and said he did not suffer any more head injuries. He remained active in the game until age 60.
In pledging to donate, Oliver’s intentions are twofold. While he wants to help researchers learn more about head trauma suffered in sports, he also wants to combat the perception that heading the ball is dangerous. Oliver believes people or groups will use that fear to ban heading altogether, an action that he is convinced would change the game forever.
In his experience, concussions are caused by collisions between players (or, in some case, with the ground or goal post), not by heading the ball.
Some players, though, have been sidelined by concussions caused by headers. United’s Davy Arnaud, for instance, never fully recovered from a concussion suffered heading the ball in training late last summer. He announced his retirement this month.
Oliver hopes that, after he executed thousands of headers over some 50 years, researchers will find no evidence of damage. He acknowledges, however, his history of concussions caused by physical contact will probably prevent a definitive conclusion.
“It’s good we are more aware of concussion policy and protocol,” Oliver said. “But the moment you start insisting heading the ball is dangerous, there goes the sport.”
In November, the U.S. Soccer Federation resolved a proposed class-action lawsuit against it by unveiling a series of safety initiatives aimed at addressing head injuries in the sport. The new guidelines prohibit players age 10 and under from heading the ball and limit the amount of heading in practice for those 11 to 13.
Beyond restrictions for young players, Oliver said, “it’s crucial we teach proper heading technique.”
The USSF initiative also requires, among other points, early identification and proper management of head injuries; post-injury testing; and consultation with a neuropsychologist and physician.
For those no longer in the game, clues to the brain await discovery.
Said Oliver: “Soccer players who have been around — not players in their forties, but in their eighties and nineties – they should think about donating.”