By Barbara Vancheri, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
If a copy of "Head Games" came with every parental permission slip for a child to play football or hockey or soccer, no one might ever give approval for their son or daughter to step onto the field or ice.
Take Cindy Parlow Cone, a retired professional soccer player and three-time Olympic medalist. Almost 6 feet tall, she scored half of all goals with her head and estimates she "saw stars" and much worse more than 100 times.
Closed concussion syndrome forced her to retire and while she acknowledges her parents know about her headaches, they don't understand how much her problem interrupts her daily life. She developed a stutter at one point and uses her GPS because she can forget where she's driving.
She's a coach today and when one of her players gets smacked in the head on the field, she immediately subs them out. After all, some doctors believe athletes should quit after three concussions while others point to long-term problems after just one concussion in 15 percent of cases.
Or, as pundit Stephen Colbert quips in a segment included in the movie: "Why are you bashing your head into a 300-pound lineman? Your brain is a spongecake floating in a bone bucket. Stop now while you don't have to wear a diaper."
Or while you can remember the months of the year, in sequence, or don't have the irrational impulse to commit suicide or have signs of Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy, or CTE.
It's an incurable and progressive disorder in which protein deposits gradually compromise brain function. Young or middle-age brains show signs of dementia and damage typically found in much older people.
"Head Games" is about the country's concussion crisis, well documented in the Post-Gazette thanks to a 2010-11 series by former PG writer Chuck Finder and regular reports about Steelers or Penguins sidelined with injuries.
But documentary maker Steve James, who directed "Hoop Dreams" and "The Interrupters," not only concentrates on the pros but examines college standouts, high school students and peewee players who want to imitate their heroes and perform with an intensity beyond their years.
The movie was inspired by Christopher Nowinski, a former all-Ivy League football player, WWE wrestler, concussion sufferer and activist and author of "Head Games: Football's Concussion Crisis."
It also concentrates on what New York Times reporter Alan Schwarz found in a series about football concussions. It started with news about the brain damage suffered by former Philadelphia Eagle Andre Waters before his suicide at age 44.
One of the most poignant passages is about Owen Thomas, a junior at the University of Pennsylvania and a defensive lineman who played an aggressive brand of football. Despite his mother's belief that he had never suffered a concussion, an autopsy showed his brain was in the early stages of CTE when he hanged himself at age 21.
Today, his mother occasionally listens to the happy birthday message he left on her cell phone the day before his suicide; it's nice to hear his voice and she feels like she's carrying him around with her, she says. His father finds it difficult to visit his son's grave, marked by a black headstone with two engraved gray footballs celebrating his high school and college careers.
Mr. James interviews, on camera, a dozen medical doctors or Ph.D.s who have run tests, started a brain bank to bolster their findings, speak with authority and have differing opinions about age and concussion limits. One, for instance, suggests no one under 14 should play collision sports.
As thorough as "Head Games" is, it leaves some issues untouched, such as the value of the baseline tests many schools insist on or those headbands soccer players wear. And if a child wants to play a sport, is one safer than another? How can poor schools or parents press for certified athletic trainers?
Nevertheless, this excellent, eye-opening documentary puts faces, including some who passed through Steelers Nation only to meet tragic and premature ends, to a subject that shows no signs of disappearing any time soon. It's as scary as any horror movie ever could be.
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