Ex-Colts LB pays price for ‘seek-and-destroy’ career

August 17, 2012 | News Stories

Jeff Herrod was the heavy-hitting, pulsating heart of the Colts defense, a self-described “seek-and-destroy” linebacker.  He led the Colts in tackling for seven seasons before retiring in 1998. But now, at age 46, Herrod said he’s paying a big price. Migraines and memory loss. Sleep issues and sensitivity to light. Full-body pain. Blink-of-an-eye mood swings.

“I know I’m not going to be any better,” said Herrod, who made 1,337 tackles for the Colts and played 11 NFL seasons. “It’s going to get worse. That’s expected.”

Getting ‘dinged’

Football has euphemisms for injuries, often used by coaches in a dismissive tone. One of those is a player getting “dinged.”

Herrod has learned what that really means.

“Over my career, I didn’t understand the shifting of the brain,” he said, “and that a ‘ding’ was a concussion.”

Herrod said he was never diagnosed with a concussion, which occurs when the brain, usually cushioned by fluid, crashes against the skull because of a hard hit to the head.

Herrod often delivered those hits. To keep going, he always had an ammonia capsule tucked in his pants.

“If I got dinged on the field, I’d (sniff) an ammonia capsule to stay on the field,” Herrod said. “I was the leader of the defense. I couldn’t leave the field.”

Former Colts and Indiana University defensive end Bernard Whittington echoed that aspect of the game’s culture. It’s about not letting down fans and teammates, he said. Sometimes it’s a matter of job security.

“You stay in there whether you get dinged or hit or anything like that,” Whittington said. “That’s the part that people don’t understand.”

Former Colts linebacker Barry Krauss said that when he does public speaking, he tells a story about an incident near the end of his career. He made a tackle, “got up, and was totally disoriented. … I was actually going into the wrong huddle.”

Inevitably, the audience laughs. But in hindsight, Krauss said, it isn’t funny.

Since last year, the suicides of former NFL players Dave Duerson and Ray Easterling have highlighted a condition called “chronic traumatic encephalopathy” (CTE), a degenerative condition caused by repeated head trauma.

Duerson, from Muncie North High School and Notre Dame, shot himself in the chest and left a suicide note saying his brain should be donated to the Boston University Center for the Study of Traumatic Encephalopathy.

Easterling’s widow said the medical examiner’s report showed her husband’s brain showed signs “consistent with the findings of (CTE).”

Former NFL players Junior Seau and O.J. Murdock, both of whom killed themselves within the past four months, will have their brains studied for CTE.

Herrod volunteers as a research subject for Boston University researchers on CTE. He has taken various cognitive tests and endured a spinal tap and scans.

“I was in a tube for two hours, with a 10-minute break, with a cage around my head,” Herrod said. “They’re trying to come up with a way to detect (CTE) while a person is living instead of after they’ve died. . . . Now, the only way they know is through an autopsy.”

When Herrod dies, his brain and spine will be given to the Boston University researchers.

“They’re asking former players to donate and they give you a card,” he said. “My mother has a card. She would contact the institution and they will get my brain and spine to do their research. … I want to help future generations better understand brain trauma and treat it. Trust me, it’s no fun.”

Herrod paused.

“Do I have CTE?” he said. “I don’t know. I’m just hearing things other players are faced with — all the symptoms and what they deal with every day — and I’m right there with them. I think I’m a candidate.”

David Josephson, a doctor who’s part of Josephson-Wallack-Mushower, the largest neurology practice in Indiana, said he’s a fan of the NFL. But he believes, on concussions, “We are just seeing the tip of the iceberg.”

The NFL points to rule changes protecting defenseless players. There are fines and suspensions for players who use their helmets as a weapon. A player who suffers a concussion during a game is not allowed to return to action, that day or in the future, before passing a neurological exam.

Late last season, the league began using medical observers at every game to monitor possible concussions. On Wednesday, USA Football launched Heads Up Football to teach kids proper tackling technique, which one kid demonstrated to Goodell.

Former NFL player Troy Vincent, currently the league’s vice president for player engagement, noted that the league’s annual rookie symposium stresses the long-term effects of brain injuries.

Last month, the league has NFL Total Wellness and NFL Life Line, which offer free resources for players, including experts on substance abuse and suicide prevention.

“Too often we find the athlete doesn’t embrace the resources,” Vincent said. “We are trying to change the culture. The last thing I was thinking about at 21, when I was drafted by the Dolphins, was what my life would look like when I was 40.”

Contributing:The Indianapolis Star‘s Michael Pointer

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