The Christmas before Wally Hilgenberg died in 2008, trapped in a wheelchair and only able to communicate by blinking his eyes, he gave each of his four children one of his Super Bowl rings.
Everyone was under the impression his decline in health was due to Lou Gehrig’s disease. Two years after his death, however, doctors in Boston have come to the conclussion that the cause of Hilgenberg’s death was repetitive brain trauma from his 20 years of playing football through high school, college and the professional leagues. Wally Hilgenberg had donated his brain to be studied by these doctors in Boston.
After hearing this news, Hilgenberg’s family is deeply conflicted by the game they owe so much too.
Eric Hilgenberg has gone as far as to say “football is bad […] really, really bad” in a new article in the StarTribune, based in Minneapolis. This sentiment comes after spending four years following in his father’s footsteps, playing football at the university of Iowa.
It was only two days after Wally Hilgenberg died that his wife, Mary, got a phone call from Chris Nowinski. Nowinski is the co-director of the Center for the Study of Traumatic Encephelopathy at Boston University, and his co-director Ann Mckee had encouraged Chris to call when she heard of Hilgenberg’s passing.
Nowinski and McKee were in search of brains to study, and McKee was especially interested in athletes who had diagnoses of amyothropic lateral sclerosis, also known as ALS or Lou Gehrig’s disease.
Mary Hilgenberg’s father had specialized in neuroanatomy at Marquette University and Wayne State University, so Mary and her family were very interested in letting Nowinski and McKee examine Wally Hilgenberg’s brain. While most think of the types of studies McKee and Nowinski carry out are morbid or possibly disrespectful, Mary, who had grown up around similar studies, immediately understood.
The results of Nowinski and McKee’s research, a 15-page study that claimed to provide the first pathological evidence that repetitive head trauma in collision sports might be linked to the onset of a motor neuron disease. McKee and her colleagues suggested, in simple terms, that Hilgenberg did not have ALS, but a new disease associated with repetitive brain trauma that mimicked ALS.
The study has been debated because of its low sample size, consisting of only twelve brains and spinal cords of athletes, but if their research can be confirmed with a better sample size, “another new subtype of ALS may be recognized.” They also have support in the form of newly published research by the American Academy of Neurology, which claims that NFL players are statistically at a much higher risk of dying from Alzheimer’s disease or ALS than the general public.
McKee’s next study hopes to include more samples, but it also looks to expand to college athletes so that she can show brain deterioration at an earlier stage.
While the Hilgenberg’s are struggling to reconcile their love of the game they have always loved with the reality of its long lasting effects, these studies will continue to investigate, and the initial reports aren’t promising. Football may be the most popular sport in the country, but despite all the pads and helmets, it may be the most dangerous game as well.