They took on the NFL and won; 24-years of fighting football, concussions and permanent brain damage

Ohio County

WHEELING, W.Va. (WTRF) – They took on the biggest opponent in sports and won. 

It was a victory that started on the gridiron, carried over to the courtroom, and lives on in continued progress. Wheeling attorney Bob Fitzsimmons and Steelers Hall of Fame Center Mike Webster versus the NFL. 

Now, 24 years later, Fitzsimmons looks back and said he didn’t have a goal in the moment in 1997 when he agreed to represent Mike Webster and sue the NFL. He just took the case. He also didn’t realize he would still be a champion for the issue in 2021.

They wanted to make the league acknowledge the link between football, concussions, and permanent brain damage.  Eventually, they did.

The case may be over, but the game continues. 

Rules changed at all levels from the elite in the NFL to the kids just learning the game, but Fitzsimmons explained some of the damage already done could have been stopped. 

This bad thing about the head injury should have been discovered back in the early 1900s. These people shouldn’t have just buried their head in the sand. They should of started to do research.

Bob Fitzsimmons, Attorney

Mike Webster was an important part in making sure head injuries remain a focus of football safety. 

He wanted to make a difference.

Bob Fitzsimmons, Attorney

His disability claim against the NFL went through federal court in Baltimore and was then affirmed by the Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals.

“Iron Mike” passed away in 2002, but he lived with permanent brain damage called CTE, or chronic traumatic encephalopathy.

Mike Webster when he would shake my hand, his fingers were bent from being broken so many times in different ways. I remember one occasion when he bought a taze gun because some of the medicines and neurology and stuff like that you can actually stop the transmission of the pain signal up to your brain. He had a taser, the taser that the police guys use, and he would taze himself to stop the pain. It’s amazing some of the things that they go through.

Bob Fitzsimmons, Attorney

It’s caused by repetitive concussions during his playing days and was only found during an autopsy done by Dr. Bennet Omalu after Webster’s death, but he lived with the undiagnosed symptoms.

They can’t control their thoughts sometimes. They’re wanderers. They lose interest in things and it’s a terrible life. It’s a terrible life for the family.

Bob Fitzsimmons, Attorney

Webster’s struggles gave others hope and changed the future of football. 

Fitzsimmons explained it comes down to diagnosis, prevention, and treatment. He said there is research being done to diagnose CTE before deaths. Experimental medicines are also going through testing to treat the brain damage.

However, Fitzsimmons feels the key is prevention and awareness. The 2015 film “Concussion” helped with that. After denying the link between concussions during play and long-term brain injuries, the NFL finally began changing rules. The NCAA and youth football programs have since followed its lead. There are also new types of safety equipment in development.

There’s a football helmet that when it moves backwards, it actually shuts off the blood that goes into the brain because the brain is contained in a liquid and it floats back and forth. That’s why when you hit, it actually in the front the brain then moves backwards from the force and strikes the back and it causes an injury to the back of the brain. So, they feel if they lessen the amount of fluid it won’t move as much.

Bob Fitzsimmons, Attorney

Fans also may have a role to play in a culture change for the purpose of safety by enjoying the game without the emphasis on violence. 

There’s that point where you step over and you start looking and you start enjoying somebody being injured. That’s’ not a good thing.

Bob Fitzsimmons, Attorney

Fitzsimmons said enrollment in youth football programs is also down as safety becomes more of a concern.

I think parents are looking at it and saying is it worth it to have little Johnny or Susie playing football and to be some star is it worth the possibility that my child may have a permanent brain injury for the rest of his or her life?

Bob Fitzsimmons, Attorney

Even players in the NFL are asking ‘is the game worth it?’.

There have been NFL players after one or two years that were still physically healthy that after reading the research and learning more about it quit professional football. It wasn’t worth it to them.

Bob Fitzsimmons, Attorney

Football seasons come and go, so do careers in the game, but the brain and the plays Fitzsimmons and so many others are running to protect it keep going. 

You break an arm, you can fix it usually. Even lose an arm, you can replace it with artificial. You can’t do that with brain. We don’t have anything to replace the brain.

Bob Fitzsimmons, Attorney

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