The football world was stunned and saddened whenformer Chicago Bears,50 year old Dave Duerson killed himself and former San Diego Chargers star, 43 year old Junior Seau killed himself.
Joe Chernach's suicide in June 2012 went widely unnoticed until his family filed a lawsuit. The former Pop Warner fullback and linebacker was 25 years old.
"We don't know when it started; that's the issue," said Dr. Barry D. Jordan from New York. "He's not the youngest. There have been other cases. The interesting thing is that these autopsies don't necessary correlate the pathology to the time they present. That makes it difficult to get a good clinical description of what's going on."
To be clear, Jordan is not part of the suit. He's the director of the Brain Injury Program and the Memory Evaluation Treatment Service at Burke Rehabilitation Hospital in White Plains, N.Y. A certified sports neurologist with a curriculum vitae the length of a football field (Cornell, Penn, Harvard, Columbia, UCLA), he serves on both the NFL's Neuro-Cognitive Disability Committee, and the NFL Players Association's Traumatic Brain Injury Committee.
He gave a yes and no when asked if he were surprised by the autopsy results that showed evidence of chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE) in such a young victim, and that's because the Chernach case is so complicated.
The family is suing Pop Warner football even though Joe played high school football, as well, he wrestled for 12 years and was a pole vaulter.
The suit says Pop Warner failed to train coaches properly, failed to use the safest helmets, failed to teach players how to wear helmets properly, failed to limit the amount of hitting in practice and failed to follow concussion protocols published as early as 1997.
Some part of the medical community has long held that tackle football for kids younger than 14 isn't the greatest idea. Plenty of people suspected that full contact for children who are only 10 or 11 can damage growth plates and impact other areas of physiological development, but the brain for too long escaped scrutiny.
"Absolutely, the developing brain is more vulnerable," said Jordan. "And younger athletes take longer to recover."
Thus the potential implications of the Chernach case probably can't be overstated. If the broad structure of youth football, which has already seen a 7-10 percent decline in participation over the past five years, is going to be held liable for the unpredictable results of brain injuries, the sport could see further declines in participation.
Regardless of the outcome, you know the issue has reached a new level of intensity when an old-school, blood-and-guts icon like Mike Ditka tells HBO's Bryant Gumbel that he wouldn't let his hypothetical 8-year-old play the game because "I think the risk is worse than the reward; I really do," and then get a decorated sports neurologist to tell you otherwise.
"More former players don't have problems than do have them," Jordan said. "I believe there's a genetic predisposition to some of these problems. We've demonstrated, for example, that boxers with a certain gene have more impairment [from blows to the head], the same gene that is related to Alzheimer's. The reason we thought about predisposition is that I've had two boxers with the same experience, the same exposure, and one has serious problems and one is practically a rocket scientist.
"I think [the NFL] has made substantial progress in this area, and there's been a trickle-down effect. One of most important things for them was decreasing the amount of contact during the week."
There is no doubt football has entered a transitional period of self-analysis and correction.
Pop Warner is not doomed.
"If they haven't banned boxing, football is going to be safe," Jordan said. "Proper supervision is extremely important, proper techniques in tackling, proper recognition of potential problems, recognizing symptoms and so forth.
"But the benefits of athletic participation in a sport like football outweigh the risks. There are a lot of positive things that come out of playing football."