Jack Youngblood once played through a Super Bowl on a broken leg, but he has found it even more difficult to thrive in his senior citizenship with a far more significant injury – a brain battered by 14 years of collisions with offensive tackles.
One of the toughest football players of all time, Youngblood a few years ago noticed his memory was short-circuiting. He couldn’t focus, or concentrate, and he was starting to worry about it. He invoked violence on others for 201 consecutive games as a defensive end for the Los Angeles Rams from 1971 through 1984. Now he was having anxiety attacks?
“I was starting to slip – aggressively so,” Youngblood, who turns 66 next week, said over the weekend. “And I didn’t like it.”
Youngblood took his trouble to a guy he knew who knew something about biofeedback, the technology that has been around for decades that allows you to consciously control autonomic functions such as your heart rate. The friend hooked up Youngblood to an electroencephalograph machine. In learning how to slow down and smooth out his brain waves, Youngblood discovered his brain began to work better.
“My memory started to increase,” he said. “It allowed me to stay focused for a span of time, and then my anxiety went away.”
The Pro Football Hall of Famer and his friend, Dave Allen, have since opened the Jack Youngblood Center for NeuroEnhancement in Winter Park, Fla. He has also become something of an activist speaking on behalf of football players from previous generations on issues such as traumatic brain injury and pension equity for the oldest old-timers of the NFL.
A Sacramento resident in the mid-1990s, Youngblood worked as an executive for the Sacramento Surge of the World League of American Football and the Sacramento Gold Miners of the Canadian Football League. Now he’s coming to Northern California to participate in a couple of pre-Super Bowl events open to the public. The first is former Raider Fred Biletnikoff’s Pro Football Hall of Fame brunch Feb. 6 in San Francisco. The second is a Feb. 7 game-day wine party in Yountville, where Youngblood will be joined by Hall of Famers such as Willie Brown of the Raiders, Dave Wilcox of the 49ers, Anthony Munoz of the Cincinnati Bengals, Chris Doleman of the Minnesota Vikings and Joe DeLamielleure of the Buffalo Bills.
Hey, we have concussions. We have brain damage. It’s not a matter of science anymore. It’s something that anybody with any common sense knows. Just take care of it.
The Yountville party will raise money for the Tug McGraw Foundation, named for the relief pitcher who died of brain cancer in 2004. The foundation in his memory supports research on brain trauma and brain tumors.
“We’re going to have a nice relaxing afternoon watching the ballgame,” Youngblood said.
Youngblood acknowledges his brain issues are partly the result of living into his mid-60s. But he has no doubt that the hazards of his occupation as a young man contributed to his condition as an older one. The science, as Youngblood sees it, is in. Autopsies showed the presence of chronic traumatic encephalopathy in the brains of more than 30 ex-players who have died, most recently Frank Gifford, the former New York Giants star whose calm manner, smooth delivery and movie star looks as the face of “Monday Night Football” helped popularize the game beyond the demographic of male jockdom.
“It’s time to stop all of this,” Youngblood said regarding any debate in anybody’s mind that playing football can wreck your brain long term. “Hey, we have concussions. We have brain damage. It’s not a matter of science anymore. It’s something that anybody with any common sense knows. Just take care of it.”
He’s convinced biofeedback can help, and there’s some scientific validation to back him up.
Researchers Dennis P. Carmody of the Robert Wood Johnson Medical School at Rutgersand New Jersey psychologist Kirtley E. Thornton conducted a review several years ago of the studies on biofeedback to see how it works as a tool to improve cognitive functioning for brain-injured people. The June 2008 report concluded that biofeedback “has demonstrated effectiveness in this area.” They recommended further research but said there “at least appears to be a potential to have a positive impact upon the TBI (traumatic brain injury) patient whether they come from auto accidents, slip and falls or our soldiers returning from the Iraq war.”
Youngblood is not shy in saying his neuroenhancement center can be a potentially lucrative venture. He wants to see the technology made available in every NFL locker room.
“I went through the protocol, and it literally changed the direction I was going in,” Youngblood said, offering himself as a scientific exhibit. “I said, ‘We’ve got to make this available to all my guys.’ ”
A neurologist he’s not, but Youngblood hopes to sell the biofeedback concept to an aging population. Maybe the old folks of America didn’t have to deal with Rayfield Wright or Ron Yary, opposing linemen with whom Youngblood used to butt heads. But the country is still desperately searching for a remedy for the ravages of Alzheimer’s disease and dementia. Youngblood thinks he might have something to offer.
“We can’t heal it,” Youngblood said, “but we can offset it.”