The passing of Alex Karras on Wednesday brought back a flood of memories, particularly the good old days of “Monday Night Football” or his role as Mongo in the movie “Blazing Saddles” when he knocked out a horse with a single punch.
But the death of Karras, a four-time All-Pro with the Detroit Lions during the 1960s before turning to a television and movie career, also has revived talk this week about the primary sports medicine issue of this generation.
Among the maladies that worked to claim his life at age 77 was dementia, and the former hulking defensive tackle in April became one of more than 3,500 former players suing the National Football League over the long-term damage caused by concussions and repeated hits to the head.
If Karras’ death by itself didn’t serve to reignite talk about how to improve safety for athletes at all levels of sport, on Thursday came word that NASCAR’s most popular driver, Dale Earnhardt Jr., will miss the next two races in that sport’s Chase for the Championship after being diagnosed with a concussion.
Earnhardt was part of a 25-car crash on the final lap of last Sunday’s race in Talladega, Ala., but he said the concussion actually may date back to a hard crash he absorbed while testing in Kansas on Aug. 29.
Newburgh native Ricky Craven, himself a former NASCAR driver who was sidelined by post-concussion syndrome during the height of his driving career in the late 1990s, said Thursday in his role as an ESPN analyst that he wouldn’t be surprised if Earnhardt is sidelined for the rest of the year.
Certainly awareness about the effect of concussions on athletes large and small or young and old has been magnified exponentially since the days Karras chased down opposing quarterbacks or Craven was a teammate of Jeff Gordon and Terry LaBonte at Hendrick Motorsports.
That’s a good thing, even if it means significant changes to a whole range of sports in the coming years.
For now the focus is on diagnosing and managing the injury, with many schools in Maine already instituting preseason baseline testing to have a frame of reference available if a student-athlete subsequently is suspected of having suffered a concussion.
And a state law will take effect Jan. 1 that requires all school boards in Maine to develop policies for concussion management; require training in the identification and management of concussions for coaches, athletic administrators and other school personnel; and require that an injured student will not be allowed to return to a sport or the classroom until being cleared by an appropriate health care professional trained in concussion management.
Such a law is likely just the beginning.
Who knows what football will look like in 20 years. Already it has evolved from three yards and a cloud of dust to a more wide-open, pass-oriented experience during the last decade, though how that change directly relates to the prevalence of concussions in the sport remains to be seen.
And will we live in a world where one day soccer players will wear helmets, or the header is taken out of that sport altogether?
It will be interesting to see what happens, but, in the interim, knowledge surely is power when it comes to identifying and managing concussions.
It’s just too bad that guys such as Alex Karras had to learn the hard way.