|Kevin Turner, who played in the NFL for eight seasons, relaxed with his dogs yesterday in Birmingham, Ala. (Butch Dill for The Boston Globe)|
Another blow after years of hits
ALS diagnosis for ex-Patriots player; NFL considers aid
Kevin Turner was strumming his guitar about 18 months ago when the fingers of his left hand suddenly stopped listening to him. Maybe it’s arthritis creeping in, thought the former New England Patriots fullback, or lingering effects from many a football injury.
“I was telling them, make a G chord,’’ he said, “and they wouldn’t move.’’
Turner, known on the gridiron for his punishing blocking, had been shrugging off growing weakness in his hand, but now he couldn’t ignore it. He had surgery to fix the neck injury that ended his career, thinking that may have caused the hand problem. But there was no improvement, and the weakness spread to his right arm.
Testing recently brought a stunning diagnosis: amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, also known as ALS or Lou Gehrig’s disease.
The 41-year-old Alabama native is the 14th former National Football League player known to be diagnosed with the often-fatal and incurable nerve disorder since 1960. That’s a rate eight times higher than the rest of the adult male population.
So many former players have been diagnosed with ALS that the NFL is considering whether to provide benefits to help with their care, league spokesman Greg Aiello told the Globe yesterday.
The news comes the same week that Boston researchers reported there is a link between an ALS-type illness and the repetitive head trauma suffered by some athletes, as well as soldiers. Until now, Turner had thought it was just a cruel twist of fate that he had been stricken with a horrifying disease that paralyzes the body while leaving the mind intact. But the new research raises the possibility that Turner and the other ex-NFL players might have been mistakenly diagnosed with ALS and instead have the ALS-type illness.
“Playing NFL football was a dream come true,’’ Turner said. “I just never thought in 20 years I would be fighting for my life.’’
Aiello declined to comment on whether the NFL believes Turner and the other players may have the ALS-like illness linked to repetitive head injuries. ALS “is obviously a very difficult disease and we want to help people,’’ Aiello said, “without respect to whatever the cause may be.’’
Turner, a starting fullback at the University of Alabama, was drafted by the Patriots in 1992. He played three seasons with New England before he signed as a free agent with Philadelphia, where he ended his career in 1999 after a particularly brutal collision.
“The last time I tried to block somebody, both my arms went numb; it was a weird feeling,’’ Turner said. “I just got off the field and said, ‘I am done.’ ’’
That came after countless blows to the head, including at least two games during which Turner said he took such a pounding that he couldn’t remember where he was. He has a souvenir from one of those games — his helmet, with a deep gouge. Life after football, in Turner’s words, “hasn’t been rosy.’’ He became addicted to pain pills and suffered bouts of depression and fits of rage.
A couple of years ago he heard about the work of a team of Boston researchers who had identified a degenerative brain disease in some former NFL players that sounded a lot like what Turner was struggling through. Called chronic traumatic encephalopathy, or CTE, it is believed to be caused by repetitive blows to the head, including concussions. The researchers linked CTE to depression, erratic behavior, and early dementia in a number of former pro athletes, including several football players.
“I just wondered if that work had merit,’’ Turner said, “or did I just turn into a major screwup.’’
When the same group of researchers announced this week that they had linked CTE to a new ALS-like illness, Turner picked up the phone. He has since agreed to enroll in their research, which will include donating his brain and spinal cord after his death. The research is partly funded by the NFL.
“It will require many strong and courageous individuals like Kevin to participate in research while they’re alive, to help us understand these diseases and eventually treat them,’’ said Robert Stern, a Boston University associate neurology professor who was a coauthor of the ALS study and is codirector of the CTE center at BU.
“ALS and ALS-like disease can have multiple possible causes, most of which are completely unknown at this point,’’ Stern said.
For Turner, the toughest part has been telling his kids, especially his two sons, age 7 and 12, who play football. “The father in me wants to say, ‘Don’t play,’ but it’s a hell of a game. It helps you with a ‘keep going’ attitude,’’ Turner said. He choked back tears several times as he discussed his sons and 10-year-old daughter.
Nolan will be playing his first year of junior high football, but he will not be playing fullback like his father. “There is no other way to do it without [bashing] your head, and it just ain’t worth it,’’ Turner said.
He is still in disbelief about his diagnosis, even as each day brings more of a decline. Turner now needs both hands to turn the key in his car’s ignition. But recently he contacted another former NFL player diagnosed with ALS, Steve Smith, a running back who played for the Los Angeles Raiders and Seattle Seahawks. He has been kept alive for years on a ventilator. They communicate via e-mail.
“Especially for someone like Steve, who in the past has been so strong and able to do things that most people can’t, not being able to eat, not being able to breathe, it’s hard to think about,’’ Turner said.
He once felt invincible strapping on his helmet. Now he knows time is against him.
“It’s probably not in time, realistically for guys like me and Steve,’’ Turner said of the Boston research. “But hopefully there are others in the future they can certainly help.’’
Kay Lazar can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.