Rik Bonness

Rik Bonness graduated from law school after his professional football career.

The news last week hit Omaha attorney Rik Bonness hard — it was disclosed that a long-ago Super Bowl teammate, the magnetic Kenny Stabler, had endured severe brain disease.

“It totally surprised me,” said Bonness, recalling the vital, younger Stabler. “He was a great leader, a great quarterback and a good guy.”

The diagnosis didn’t totally surprise those who’d been close to the former player known as “The Snake” for the way he slithered through defenders. He died of colon cancer last July at 69, and in his final years his mind had slipped. 

Stabler is the latest former NFL player whose donated brain was diagnosed with CTE, chronic traumatic encephalopathy. The degenerative disease is believed to be caused by repeated blows to the head.

For some parents of youth football players, it’s scary.

They read of star linebacker Chris Borland, at 24, quitting after one year in the pros because of a fear of brain damage; and of former wide receiver Antwan Randle El, 36, saying that because of physical and mental drawbacks, he regrets ever playing football.

Bonness, an All-American at Nebraska who won a Super Bowl XI ring with the Oakland Raiders in 1977, said people often ask him whether it’s safe for their offspring to play football.

His answer is nuanced. When his own sons played youth or high school football, he said, “I remember breathing a sigh of relief at the end of their games when they weren’t hurt.”

But there is much to be gained from playing football, he said, and precautions and post-concussion protocols have greatly improved. And as today’s Super Bowl 50 approached, he said the issue requires more research and attention.

Bonness, 61, says he is no expert, but he has consulted those who are and has done extensive reading. On Jan. 22 in Omaha, he took part in what the Brain Injury Association of Nebraska billed as “The Concussion Discussion.”

Besides himself, the other panelist at the Riverfront Place condominiums was Arthur Maerlender, director of clinical research at the Center for Brain, Biology and Behavior at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln.

Though the list of football players whose brains posthumously have been diagnosed with CTE is now well over 100, including Hall of Famers Junior Seau, Frank Gifford and Mike Webster, Maerlender said the sample size is relatively small.

At the Boston University Medical Center alone, the brains of 90 of the 94 former NFL players studied showed CTE. Some say those results are skewed because those studied usually had exhibited symptoms. Many more have played football without later showing dementia.

“We don’t know the denominator,” Maerlender said. “How many tens of thousands of NFL athletes have there been? I’m not saying the guys who were looked at didn’t have significant pathology. But there’s not enough science. Until then, it’s premature to call for an end to football.”

Football won’t end anytime soon. More than 100 million people in the U.S. alone will watch the Super Bowl today as young quarterback Cam Newton (26) leads his Carolina Panthers against old quarterback Peyton Manning (39) and the Denver Broncos.

Bonness played in the pros against Peyton’s father, Archie Manning, whose brain health is seemingly fine. But in the playoff game before the 1977 Super Bowl, the Omahan played against center Mike Webster of the Pittsburgh Steelers.

After his 16-year career, Webster suffered pain, depression, memory loss and dementia, and died at 50. PBS’s “Frontline” has called his postmortem “the autopsy that changed football.”

In 2002, Dr. Bennet Omalu, a neuropathologist who is portrayed by actor Will Smith in the movie “Concussion,” was assigned to autopsy Webster’s brain. Omalu discovered CTE, and over the years other former players’ names have been added to the list.

Researchers, Maerlender said, speculate that there’s more to CTE, possibly a predisposing genetic link, or other factors. “Ken Stabler was a very unique individual,” the Nebraska researcher said, “and could have had many reasons for brain pathology.”

Rik Bonness practices law, his mind clear and his brain healthy, apparently suffering no long-term effects from playing football.

As a player, Bonness had only one concussion that he knows of. While a Husker, he blocked a defender on a short-yardage touchdown and was kneed hard in the back of his helmet, rattling his brain.

In the vernacular, his bell had been rung. And he heard it ringing.

“I was facedown on the field, and my head was buzzing,” he said. “I had always said I’d never be taken off the field, but the next thing I knew, the trainers were out there. I walked off with them.”

If that concussion happened today, the player wouldn’t be allowed to return to the game. On that day, Bonness returned.

The danger, Maerlender said, is another concussion before the first one has healed. “There’s no doubt that when your brain is healing and it absorbs another blow, it causes much worse damage. And it can be lethal.”

Multiple concussions over a long period also aren’t good, but there’s no agreement on how many a player can take.

“It’s hard to know,” Maerlender said. “Is there a magic number? Do five lead to CTE? We’re a long way from that.”

Though the NFL agreed to settle a lawsuit by former players over head trauma, paying $765 million, critics remain. George D. Lundberg, a pathologist and former editor of the Journal of the American Medical Association, wrote in Thursday’s New York Times that the NFL still hasn’t effectively dealt with the concussion issue.

“At a bare minimum,” Lundberg wrote, “the NFL should publicly admit that there is a real problem with the risk of player brain damage, as it has in court documents. It should follow the lead of college football, which now punishes offending players with immediate expulsions from games.”

Bonness and Maerlender say the University of Nebraska does a good job with research and with concussion protocols, and is careful with its athletes. The two also noted that concussions are not limited to football, and occur in most sports.

A former rugby player and coach, Maerlender, 67, said NU will be bringing in experts in that sport to demonstrate “the rugby tackle,” which some pro and college football teams are now teaching.

“You never use your head, and you always have to wrap up,” he said. “It’s body positioning and getting your feet in the right position. There’s a lot more emphasis on yanking opponents off their feet rather than trying to blow through them.”

Maerlender said he believes the increased attention to concussions today will reap benefits for a long time to come. The players whose brains were studied “didn’t have any of the benefits of what we’re now doing,” and many suffered multiple concussions and re-concussions, often staying in games after head injuries.

On Wednesday, high school athletes from across the nation signed letters of intent to play college sports, including football. Bonness said virtually no 18-year-old will turn down a college athletic scholarship, and he’s glad he accepted one long ago.

Football has inspired personal excellence and opened doors, he said, and has provided more opportunities for racial diversity than anything else in his life.

But he said adults bear a responsibility to today’s 18-year-olds. He includes the NCAA, which he said should increase efforts “to allocate a portion of its rising income stream” to pay all or some of the sports-related medical costs for former college players, most of whom don’t make it to pro football.

In his Super Bowl year, rookie Bonness mostly played on special teams. When his Raiders got a safe lead late in the game, he went in at linebacker.

He soon was traded to Tampa Bay, and a few years later tried to make an open-field tackle on Earl Campbell of the Houston Oilers. Campbell made a shifty move, and his powerful thighs pulled Bonness’ left arm so severely that it seriously ripped the Omahan’s pectoral muscle. He was never the same in football.

Campbell, 60, succeeded in business with his Earl Campbell’s Smoked Sausages, but for years has had difficulty walking and sometimes uses a wheelchair. Some others, such as Mike Webster and Kenny Stabler, suffered brain damage. Still others seem healthy.

Said Bonness, who graduated from law school after football and for years has worked for Omaha’s biggest law firm, Kutak Rock: “I’ve been lucky. Not everyone is.”

Contact the writer: 402-444-1132, michael.kelly@owh.com

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