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BU CTE center says Tommy Nobis had most severe form of CTE


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BOSTON -- Atlanta Falcons linebacker Tommy Nobis seemed to transition easily into his post-playing career, landing a job as the manager of the team's training camp hotel and rising through the franchise's front office to vice president.

For three more decades, the man who came to be known as "Mr. Falcon" never left football.

And football never left him.

"Growing up, I remember my mom having to call his secretary when he was going out to training camp to let them know what kind of mood he was in. And then vice versa," his daughter, Devon Jackoniski, said in a recent interview with The Associated Press.

"We were pretty uneasy growing up," she said. "Although my dad had just some beautiful moments of being a wonderful man, emotionally he was so unstable it was just hard to get close to him."

Researchers have confirmed what Nobis' family long suspected: He had the most severe form of chronic traumatic encephalopathy, the degenerative brain disease linked to repetitive blows to the head that can cause the kind of violent moods they had grown accustomed to.

 

And now, as the NFL world descends upon Atlanta for Sunday's Super Bowl, it serves as a somber reminder of the impact that football can have on its players and those who love them.

Tommy Nobis was the No. 1 overall pick in the 1966 NFL draft and the first-ever selection by the Falcons franchise. Focus on Sport/Getty Images

"That truly was my dad's first love," Jackoniski said. "He wasn't born with a lot of money. They were from a blue-collar area. It gave my dad a lot of opportunities, so it's kind of a bittersweet thing.

"He told me before he became very ill he would never turn his back on football or do anything different. But he would educate kids a little different in the game. There's something very wrong with slamming your head against a brick wall over and over and over again."

A two-way star at Texas whose No. 60 was retired by both the Falcons and the Longhorns, Nobis won the Maxwell Award as the best all-around player in college football and finished seventh in the 1965 Heisman Trophy voting, just ahead of Bob Griese and Steve Spurrier. In the Orange Bowl against Joe Namath and top-ranked Alabama, Nobis led a goal-line stand to preserve the Longhorns' victory.

He was the No. 1 pick in the 1966 NFL draft -- the first selection by the new Atlanta Falcons franchise. Rookie of the Year. Five Pro Bowl selections. But he never made the playoffs, with the upstart franchise posting only two winning records in his 11 seasons.

And when the Falcons reached the Super Bowl two years ago, he was too far gone to understand what it meant.

Dr. Ann McKee, the director of Boston University's CTE center, said on Monday that Nobis had the most severe form of the disease, showing a "severe loss of neurons and large CTE lesions throughout the cerebral cortex."

The family was not surprised.

"We knew there was going to be something wrong on his pathology report," said Jackoniski, who is a physician's assistant. "But it was shocking how a human being could still be alive with that little functioning brain."

Jackoniski was 2 when her father retired from the NFL, but football was never far from their life.

Nobis spent three decades in the team's front office, working in scouting, marketing, player development and corporate development. (He also ran a charity that provided job training for people with disabilities.)

"When you see some of these guys going in for these tackles, I wish they would allow these guys to come into these houses where these CTE victims are living and see them living their lives, day to day." Devon Jackoniski, Tommy Nobis' daughter

At home, there was more football.

"It doesn't matter the time of year, my dad could always find a football game on," Jackoniski said. "That was basically our lives. When he retired, his only career was with the Falcons. We would go to all the Falcons games, whether we wanted to or not. That was who we were."

She remembered her father, who died in 2017 at the age of 74, as a humble man who was not very social, and yet a great public speaker. A prankster. Big Red. Huckleberry Finn with Muscles.

He was beloved in Atlanta; Jackoniski said he would approach children with disabilities at restaurants just to make them laugh.

"That can be awkward for a lot of people, but it wasn't to him. He could relate to a kid but not an adult," she said. "When we were growing up, people would always come up to us and say, 'Your dad is a saint.' We would just sit there smiling, knowing that when we got home, the tide was going to turn."

With his family, Jackoniski said, Nobis was a disciplinarian. Aggressive. Intense. "We always said we had to walk around eggshells with my dad," Jackoniski said.

When her older brother, Tommy, decided he didn't want to play football anymore, her father snapped. The incident drove a wedge between them, and kept Nobis from seeing any of his grandchildren for many of his later years.

"He just became unhinged," Jackoniski said. "We just thought that's who my dad was."

Nine years ago, Nobis was supposed to give the eulogy at his father-in-law's funeral. "My dad, who was the public speaker," Jackoniski said. "It was totally garbled."

Afterward, in front of the extended family, Nobis snapped at her 2-year-old son. His rage was so frightening that they thought about calling the police.

"He was this caged animal that was just unleashed," she said. "At that point we knew there was something wrong. Once he took it out to the public, we knew there was something horribly wrong with him."

The family tried to avoid chaotic or noisy situations, but Nobis would become increasingly rattled in public. There were restaurants he couldn't return to because of his outbursts; he got out of a car at a bank drive-thru to yell at the teller for taking too long with the customer in front of him.

"It became embarrassing," Jackoniski said. "But it was scary, too. Toward the end my brother removed all the guns from his house, thankfully. I don't know if he ever threatened to use a gun, but my brother had enough insight to do that."

CTE, which can be diagnosed only after death, has been found in more than 100 former NFL players, and in dozens more athletes and members of the military who have been exposed to repetitive head trauma. The disease can lead to memory loss, depression and even suicide.

"When you see some of these guys going in for these tackles, I wish they would allow these guys to come into these houses where these CTE victims are living and see them living their lives, day to day," Jackoniski said.

"Do they really want their lives to be that way? Not only is it going to affect their lives, but it rips families apart, and it rips friends apart, and it is so destructive."

Although her children don't play football, Jackoniski said they remain Falcons and Longhorns fans and are proud of the man whom they were once kept away from for their own safety. And though connecting his behavior to CTE has helped the family understand Nobis' struggle, it also made Jackoniski realize that she never knew what her father was actually like.

"I don't know that I ever saw my dad without showing signs of CTE, my entire life," she said. "In hindsight, I think that was the saddest part of the news. His children never even knew who he was. My mom even may have not known."

Jackoniski said she doesn't watch a lot of football anymore, but she will watch the Super Bowl "just because I know it will be on in our house." In an email follow-up to the telephone interview, she said she struggled to comprehend what the sport has meant to her family.

"Football was my father's life, the air he breathed and therefore the air we breathed," she wrote. "It brought discipline and recklessness, self-worth and depression, strength and weakness, determination and fear, teamwork and destruction of relationships, competition and dissension, friendships and loneliness, strategy and brutal honesty, entertainment and subsistence.

"In the end," she said, "it brought humility in every sense of the word."

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I love football but at its core, its barbaric. It mixes violence with strategy and those are 2 things human beings are good at. 

You'll never hear me get upset at a player retiring early or trying to get more money. 

Now that CTE and the science have caught up to the public. More and more parents are going to keep their kids out of football so eventually the talent pool to choose players from will diminish greatly. 

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The sport will be banned in 10 years at this rate. Now that we know the effects it is pretty barbaric to keep it going. If it's not banned out right then the talent levels will drop to the point no one cares about the NFL. No sane parent would let their kid play any type of football.

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I watched a friend of mine die - and another friend of mine (still a friend and co-worker) - his wife, have to take care of him like a child for many years before he died.   He was inducted into the Hall of Fame long after he really could appreciate it.   He was diagnosed with CTE after his death.

It was a sad thing to watch.

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3 hours ago, MAD597 said:

The sport will be banned in 10 years at this rate. Now that we know the effects it is pretty barbaric to keep it going. If it's not banned out right then the talent levels will drop to the point no one cares about the NFL. No sane parent would let their kid play any type of football.

I've said this for a while but I was giving it twenty years tops. I think all of it will be gone, Pee Wee, High School, College and Pro. The lawyers are in it now and huge lawsuits will be paid. You say the NFL can't go broke? We used to say the same thing about GM. There have been two deaths of high school kids this season directly attributed to football. Boxing and hockey will be next. I may not live to see it but it is coming.

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1 hour ago, Lowndesfalc said:

I've said this for a while but I was giving it twenty years tops. I think all of it will be gone, Pee Wee, High School, College and Pro. The lawyers are in it now and huge lawsuits will be paid. You say the NFL can't go broke? We used to say the same thing about GM. There have been two deaths of high school kids this season directly attributed to football. Boxing and hockey will be next. I may not live to see it but it is coming.

Yep, I love football but given the falcons ineptitude over the decades and the sport itself killing people slowly and ruining lives of people who may not have ever made it to the pro's Think I'm ok with it going away. Soccer look better and better every day as a sport to follow.

This is the same kind of stuff that made Chris Benoit flip out and kill his family.

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1 hour ago, MAD597 said:

Yep, I love football but given the falcons ineptitude over the decades and the sport itself killing people slowly and ruining lives of people who may not have ever made it to the pro's Think I'm ok with it going away. Soccer look better and better every day as a sport to follow.

This is the same kind of stuff that made Chris Benoit flip out and kill his family.

Ive really gotten into soccer the last several years. The World Cup was entertaining then when Atlanta got a team I really started watching. 

 

Now we got a ship!!!

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20 hours ago, MAD597 said:

The sport will be banned in 10 years at this rate. Now that we know the effects it is pretty barbaric to keep it going. If it's not banned out right then the talent levels will drop to the point no one cares about the NFL. No sane parent would let their kid play any type of football.

I think it will be around but I believe how the pro Bowl game was played this year is sign of things to come for the game

Edited by Brehus
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14 hours ago, quotemokc said:

It is a choice and the rewards tend to outweigh the risks.

Joining the army and going to war is a huge risk yet people still do it.

If you play from Pee Wee all the way to the NFL, the chances of you developing CTE is VERY likely, it's only the question of how severe it is.

The chances of you dying in war (or at least the wars we're currently fighting in the middle east) is pretty low even if you're a marine relative to the chances of someone with a full football career developing CTE.

In this example you use, I'd wager playing from age 6 to, say, age 32 is more dangerous than enlisting. Obviously, the consequences of the army are graver as you can sacrifice limbs or even die, but that isn't at all a guarantee. Playing a position like linebacker or lineman (on either side of the ball) for 18+ years almost guarantees that you will develop CTE at some point in your life. 

Once there is a reliable way to detect CTE in living patients (I'm not sure if this is possible as I'm not a neuroscientist), the NFL is absolutely done. Most parents I talk to now that are football fanatics say they are not going to let their kids play football. First, the talent pool will shrink, then the quality of the product will continue to shrink, the fanbase will shrink and then there could be state actions against it. 

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51 minutes ago, octoslash said:

As long as young men are willing to play football, and as long as there are literally tens of billions of dollars to be made off of it, the NFL is not going anywhere. 

Just to add on to my last post, there was a study done by Boston university that examined the brains of 111 ex-NFL players. 110 of them had CTE. If the military had a 99% mortality rate, we would have banned all wars at this point.

link to that study: https://www.si.com/nfl/2017/07/25/boston-university-study-cte-nfl-player-brains

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1 minute ago, ChickenBiscuit said:

Just to add on to my last post, there was a study done by Boston university that examined the brains of 111 ex-NFL players. 110 of them had CTE. If the military had a 99% mortality rate, we would have banned all wars at this point.

link to that study: https://www.si.com/nfl/2017/07/25/boston-university-study-cte-nfl-player-brains

Unfortunately CTE can't be discovered on a living brain, so for all we know, 99% of us are walking around with it.

I've had three concussions, one of which was so bad it nearly detached my retinas.  That was almost 40 years ago and at this point (mid-50s) I notice no damage or symptoms. 

Concussion and CTE are very lacking in solid data, and its strange that society is only focused on the football side of it, when it's likely it a lot more walks of life, but largely ignored.

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Just now, octoslash said:

Unfortunately CTE can't be discovered on a living brain, so for all we know, 99% of us are walking around with it.

I've had three concussions, one of which was so bad it nearly detached my retinas.  That was almost 40 years ago and at this point (mid-50s) I notice no damage or symptoms. 

Concussion and CTE are very lacking in solid data, and its strange that society is only focused on the football side of it, when it's likely it a lot more walks of life, but largely ignored.

CTE in it's most severe forms are developed from boxing and from football. Soccer, NASCAR racing, basketball, etc. are all sports where players will pretty frequently experience concussions.

The issue is, CTE is mainly formed from sub-concussive hits, not concussions. So, picture repeated blows to the head over and over again. The effects of these hits in isolation are minor, but accumulative sub-concussive hits result in effects that are very similar to that of a full-on concussion. Essentially, you can develop CTE without ever receiving a diagnosed concussion. Research has shown that playing in one football game has similar concussive effects as being involved in 62 car crashes. The physician who discovered CTE said this:

"The issue is not about concussions. A concussion is a very severe type of injury that would manifest immediately with symptoms. For one documented concussion, there are thousands of sub-concussive blows. It is not about concussion, we should make that very clear.

“It is about exposure to repeated blows of your head, repeated blunt force trauma of your head over time with or without concussions. With or without a helmet, you stand the risk of suffering irreversible brain damage.” 

Sorry man, I LOVE football but the reason people focus on football is because it is one of the primary causes of CTE along with boxing. Not a few concussions, but several sub-concussive hits. Which is what football is all about.

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16 hours ago, AtlantaFanatic said:

Ive really gotten into soccer the last several years. The World Cup was entertaining then when Atlanta got a team I really started watching. 

 

Now we got a ship!!!

Yep at least our Soccer franchise has a foundation of winning we can look back on if we hit rough times. For the Falcons we just have a foundation of crap.

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16 hours ago, quotemokc said:

It is a choice and the rewards tend to outweigh the risks.

Joining the army and going to war is a huge risk yet people still do it.

Nope,

It is only a RECENT choice for players, previously studies on this were shooed aside by the NFL and the NFL has a history of ignoring and not treating ex players with respect and giving them the proper medical needs.

Most NFL players die much earlier than others and the ones with bad CTE are so mentally unstable they could not even properly tell you if it was worth it or not.

Players in the last 5 years are the only ones who have had a proper choice in the matter and we are already seeing huge drop offs of youth league populations which will ensure the talent pool for the NFL shrinks over time.

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