Introduction: This is Your Brain Health with noted Neuroscientists, Dr. Kristen Willeumier. Your Brain Health explores strategies to maximize your cognitive functions through life.
Dr. Kristen Willeumier: When creating this podcast. My intention was to not just bring on experts in the field of medicine, science, and technology as it applies to field of brain health. I wanted to include the stories of real people who have endured brain issues and to share their wisdom on what they have learned to help illuminate a path to empower others who may be going through the same struggles. Today’s guest is one such individual who touched my heart nine years ago when I had the honor of meeting him as part of a clinical study, investigating the impact of playing professional football on brain function. Ed White is a former All-Pro offensive lineman who played 17 years in the NFL, nine years with the Minnesota Vikings, followed by eight years with the San Diego chargers. He was a second round draft pick in 1969 out of the prestigious California Berkeley, and he played an impressive 241 games until his retirement from the NFL in 1986.
He played in four Super Bowls with the Vikings and is known as one of the 50 greatest Minnesota Vikings. Following his retirement, he was elected into the college football Hall of Fame and the San Diego chargers Hall of Fame. He then became a coach for the chargers, the Rams, Cal Berkeley and San Diego State where he’s had an instrumental impact on how the game is played. He is affectionately known as big Ed White to those of us who know and love him and I’ve had the pleasure of working with him for several years getting to know him as part of a brain rehabilitation program we provided to NFL players. Since retiring from coaching in 2004 he now spends his days devoted to expressing his creativity in his art studio in California as an environmental abstract contemporary painter. He’s been commissioned to do many bronze sculptures, including John Madden’s, all pro team, the San Diego Chargers Hall of Fame, and the University of San Diego Hall of Fame to name a few.
I’ve stayed connected with many of the players I’ve worked with and in a recent conversation with Ed, he shared with me that he was recently given a diagnosis of Alzheimer’s disease at the age of 71. My heart literally sank. I’ve grown so close to the players and their families and I have such a compassion for their journey and their struggles. I asked Ed if he was comfortable coming out and having a dialogue about this and to share his wisdom that he might want to impart to young kids who are playing the sport he loves both as a former player and a coach. And I’m also going to speak with him about the things he’s doing now since his diagnosis in order to stay healthy. So big Ed. Thank you for being so gracious to join me today. It’s an honor and a privilege to have you on. So I’d love for you to share what first drew you to football.
Ed White: Well, first of all Hello Dr. K it’s an honor to be on. And I’ve appreciated all that you’ve done for me over the years. And it’s just good to be talking to you.
Host: It’s such a pleasure, you know, I adore you.
Ed White: Well, and vice versa.
Host: Were you the one who called me? Coach K?
Ed White: Yes. Coach K.
Host: I think that’s where I got my nickname.
Ed White: You are. No, I appreciate that very much. And so where did you want to start? I’m sorry, I didn’t quite get the, I had a bad little connection there.
Host: Oh, that’s okay. I just wanted you to share with the audience what first drew you to the sport of football.
Ed White: Say that one more time.
Host: What first drew you to the sport of football?
Ed White: What interests me in the sport of football? Well, I grew up in San Diego. Those are young, young, loud playing football in the streets. And I just loved it. And every chance I had, I played the game. And as I kept playing through junior high and then high school, I had an opportunity to go to college and Berkeley had offered me a scholarship and I took that and you know, from there I went to the Vikings and then the Chargers. So it’s been with me since I was a young boy.
Host: That’s incredible. And I wanted to ask you, as an offensive lineman, you know, the sport’s changed so much in the past 20 years, you know, we look at linemen being bigger, faster and stronger. What was the average weight of alignment back when you played as compared to present day?
Ed White: Well, probably about 260 pounds and I was about 280. And so I was big and my coach had been a, what they call a [inaudible] . And he was at about a 235 pound guard and he actually played a little pro ball at that. So I was right at the turn of lineman being bigger. And so you know, when I came in, I was one of the largest offensive linemen at that time. Like I said, most were about probably 260, 235, 40 to 260 on the high side. And I was probably 280. My coach made me play smaller, but when I went to San Diego, I actually played at 280. And I had to, I had to get down to about 265. And when I, when I was with the Vikings.
Host: Oh, that’s so interesting. And now aren’t lineman up to 300, 350 pounds.
Ed White: Yep. 340, 320, 330. They’re taller, you know, they’re just they’re growing. And I think it’s the fertilizers they put on their fruits and vegetables probably.
Host: Oh my God, that’s funny. Well, the reason why I bring this up is, you know, we have these bigger, faster, stronger players and now you know, with NFL concussion protocols and, you know, looking at player safety, you know, we now have an NFL Head, Neck and Spine Committee, which has created these protocols regarding the diagnosis and management of concussions. And back when we were doing our big NFL study, what we found was the lineman tended to take the most number of hits per game. And when we’re thinking about brain health. We think about the repetitive sub-concussive impacts and how many of those you take over time and whether that can lead to CTE, chronic traumatic encephalopathy, which was discovered by Bennet Ormolu back in 2005. So taking all of that into account, I think I wanted you to share with us what was the extent of player safety especially with regards to head injuries back when you were playing?
Ed White: Well, there wasn’t much regard for it because I don’t think, I thought about it and really addressed it. And from the standpoint of equipment safety to how you play the game, how you coach the game, how you teach different techniques in the game. And you know, fortunately because of all that’s coming to light, there’s a lot more emphasis on all these things. The techniques that they use there now football has now, you know, incorporated techniques that teach more like rugby or cross the bow instead of head to and through. We were taught to put your hat on, you know, put your hat on the numbers and drive through people, and they’re finding out that’s not what you need to do. You know, you need to, yeah, you need to get your head out of there. And so I think from the teaching standpoint to changing the rules, making it safer having the protocol of, Hey, if you get, you know what we called a dang concussion we were just dinged back then. And as soon as you’re not dizzy, you were back in or maybe you never left. And we use get your bell rung that, those kinds of things.
And but you know, now of course they have the protocol of you know, checking them out and the little bit of privacy of that tent or they go to the locker and if it happens a second time or third time, you know, they’re out for so many games or whatever. I don’t know what the protocol is cause I’ve been away from it for a while, but I know there’s, there is a protocol for that. I know that the Players Associations is very active in, you know, cutting down the times of full contact and that’s important. The game looks just as fast and just as violent to me. So I don’t know if all that’s helping equipment. I think from what I hear, the helmets have become far superior to what we had, the suspension helmets. And but, you know, to me, just the logic of the jellyfish brain slapping up against that hard surface of and an instant stop still is going to cause some bleeding and [inaudible] process through the protein and all that. You know, to still happen. So I don’t know that equipment is as big an answer as it was just changing rules and changing techniques are.
Host: That’s actually a really good point. And I was thinking you stopped coaching in 2004 so none of this was really employed when you were coaching players because it wasn’t until 2005 then Dr. Emoto published his findings on Mike Webster having diagnosing him with the degenerative brain disease CTE. So all of this is sort of since 2005, you know, you had shared with me that you had the recent diagnosis of Alzheimer’s and I’m so sorry to hear this. And I really, you know, I mean we’ve had conversations about this and I’ve been talking to many players that I worked with 10 years ago that are getting this diagnosis. We’re seeing it at a higher frequency in NFL players. And there was a study out of the journal of neurology, which showed people who play professional football have up to three to four times higher chance of getting a degenerative disease. So I just wanted to ask you, does this change your view of the sport?
Ed White: Well, I think it sheds more light on the things that have to be dealt with. It, you know, all the things I mentioned that are happening not only at the pro level, but even the younger levels before high school and high school. My son works for USA football and he travels all over the world and teaches new techniques, and how to play the game. So I think the safety factor is huge. And so I think that’s going to help. I think you know, from my standpoint, I feel like, you know, my mission has got to be what I’m doing right now. And that is sharing that, you know, that you need to be careful. You know, you need to be careful especially with young people as they get, you know, I think the brain it’s developing, and I’m not an expert, but I do feel like, you know, you don’t, you know, you don’t bang it around too much. You know, I don’t think football is something that should be started at a real early age personally.
Host: I’m glad you brought that up. You know, I was going to ask you, what wisdom would you want to share with parents who have kids who are participating in football, who loved the game and here you’ve got your son who’s played and is teaching these better techniques. And we’re really much more aware from the side of safety and you know, there’s new technologies coming out, helmet technologies. And as you said, there’s no perfect helmet, right? A helmet is going to prevent a skull fracture, but it’s not going to stop the brain from hitting up against the skull and you’ll still have the shearing and tearing of the, the neuron. So you really want to look at how can we protect the brain. And I just feel from your vantage point, what would you tell parents?
Ed White: Well, I didn’t let my kids play football until they were in high school. They played soccer and, yeah, and I think there’s plenty of time for that. I think they can play, but I don’t think they need to put on a helmet, start banging their head against things. And I just think that that brain you know, needs to develop, like their body, you know, you don’t want to expose them to too much super physical stuff. And, but yet I, I really, you know, for myself, I came from a very middle class working family and football allowed me an opportunity to earn my scholarship in college and an education, and go on from there. And it provided so much opportunity for me. And there’s a lot of kids that come from the same environment and worse, that would not have an opportunity to advance as fast and as well as they can through football. And so I think there’s, you know, it’s a wonderful thing for a lot of young, young guys. And so I think it’s really important and from that standpoint that we keep developing. And I think that it’s a sport that people enjoy. I enjoy watching it and being a part of it. The big part of my history. So I love football and I don’t want to see it thrown in the can, but I think that they need to keep stepping up and doing all the things they’re doing to make it a safer sport.
Host: I’m Dr. Willeumier and you’ve been listening to part one of my interview with my dear friend, professional NFL player, Ed White. Please stay with us for part two when we discuss how his Alzheimer’s disease is impacting his day to day life.
Conclusion: You’ve been listening to Your Brain Health with Dr. Kristen Willeumier. For more information or to contact Dr. Willeumier, visit DrWilleumier.com. That’s D, R W, I, L, L, E, U, M, I, E, R.com.