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Concussions make Barney wish he never played in the NFL

By Dave Birkett, Detroit Free Press –

DETROIT — Lions great Lem Barney wasn’t diagnosed with his first concussion until years after his Hall of Fame career ended, when an ophthalmologist looked into his eyes and saw spots on his brain.

“(He) told me that he saw where I had at least seven or eight concussions,” Barney said. “One (spot) was as large as a silver dollar, and he said, ‘You were out for a long time.’ And there was about 30 minutes that I was out — down at Tiger Stadium playing against the Bengals. It was just amazing.

“And then the other ones that he saw — I can remember them. The ones I remember fondly was big Rufus Mayes from Ohio State, 6-9, 290, and he put his right knee right in the right temple when I came up to cut him down on a sweep. Next thing I know, it’s like la-la land. Was out for a long time.”

Barney is one of 106 retired players who filed suit against the NFL in Philadelphia federal court in January accusing the league of negligence when it came to treating and diagnosing head injuries. Similar lawsuits have been filed in Florida, Georgia and New York, some of which have been consolidated into one complaint.

The NFL is contesting the allegations, and commissioner Roger Goodell said at the Super Bowl last month the league is pioneering research “to make sure we understand all there is about brain injuries and brain disease.”

Despite his legal claim, Barney, 66, considers himself lucky.

He hasn’t suffered any of the debilitating mental diseases that have disabled many of his peers. He still works full-time in patient relations at Sinai Grace Hospital. And he’s able to deal with the health problems he has — he said he has been diagnosed with nerve conditions that cause tingling in his fingers, hands and forearms and limits him to 3-4 hours of sleep a night — without the help of medicine.

“I call it blessed,” Barney said. “It’s that type of game. It’s a lethal game. Again, as I tell people, ‘Do you miss the game, Lem?’ And sincerely, I don’t miss the game.”

In fact, Barney goes a step further.

“If I look at the game now and I look back on it retrospectively, if I had another choice I’d never played the game, at all, in my life,” he said. “Never. Never. From all-city, all-state, all-conference, all-American, seven times All-Pro, I’m in eight Hall of Fames, it wouldn’t be. It would be golf or tennis. I’m serious. Very serious.”

A standout cornerback in 1967-77 with the Lions, Barney said the term concussion wasn’t used during his playing days.

“I related concussions to boxers,” he said. “I didn’t put one and two together. You get KO’d on the football (field) like getting KO’d in the damn ring, it’s a concussion. I didn’t put that together because, again, no doctors from middle school through high school through college through the league called them concussions. They all called them dingers and stingers.”

Now that he has seen firsthand how dangerous concussions can be, Barney, who testified at a Congressional hearing about the subject two years ago, said he worries about players like Lions running back Jahvid Best.

Best suffered two concussions last year, finished the season on injured reserve and has not been cleared by team doctors to return to football.

Lions general manager Martin Mayhew said Monday at a town hall meeting for season-ticket holders that he has “big plans” for Best this year and is “very optimistic” about his health.

Barney said if he were advising Best, he’d tell him to consider giving up the game.

“If he wants to play again, God bless him, but if he can come back and still be comprehensible and still be able to understand things and still live a real good life,” Barney said. “I would tell him, if he’s going to play, they’ve got to get some kind of special helmet for him because it’s not going to take much longer if he keeps getting those dinger, stinger and bell-ringers as the boxers used to call them, or even the concussions, that he’s going to be around here.

“I would tell him to maybe look at doing something else rather than coming back again after having those back-to-(back) concussions. It’s a dangerous game. Like I said, I don’t have anything against it, I just don’t have anything for it now.”

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