North/Clybourn: Sports Concussion Panel Shares Harsh Realities of Football

Sports Concussion Panel Photo 

 Panelists (from left): Rick Telander of the Chicago Sun-Times, filmmaker Steve James,
former Harvard football player Chris Nowinski and former Bears linebacker Hunter Hillenmeyer.
(Photo by Mike Chamernik)

North Clybourn GraphicBy Mike Chamernik
The Red Line Project

Posted: Wednesday, Sept. 26, 2012

Hunter Hillenmeyer knows about concussions.

The former Chicago Bears linebacker had five of them in his playing career. Well, at least five – he guesses he could have had a few more that went undiagnosed.

Hillenmeyer , 31, still looks like he could play: He appears svelte, athletic, and youthful, even in a collared shirt sitting down at a table in front of an audience. And Hillenmeyer knows it: “I had a game that I loved taken away from me when I was still physically, other than the head, able to play at a level high enough to perform in the NFL.”

Hillenmeyer was part of a sports discussion panel on Monday night at Joe’s Bar in Chicago. The talks, sponsored by were about concussions and their impact on football. Hillenmeyer, Sun-Times columnist Rick Telander, filmmaker Steve James, and Harvard football player/pro wrestler turned author Chris Nowinski all weighed in on the dangerous concussions that are changing the game.

Topics varied throughout the evening, from concussions in youth sports, to trauma-sensing helmets, to the future of football. Some clips of James’ new film, “Head Games,” were shown. James spoke with athletes, coaches and doctors about concussions and their impact on contact sports. The film, based on Nowinski’s book of the same name, debuts in Chicago on Friday at the Gene Siskel Film Center.

Stories from the ex-athletes put a face on the injury.

Two years ago, Hillenmeyer suffered a concussion in the preseason. He expected to shake it off a few days later, like he usually did. In the first regular season game, though, Hillenmeyer felt dizzy running down the field covering kickoffs. After exiting the game, doctors did a thorough review of his concussion history, and he was put on injured reserved.

“I knew,” Hillenmeyer told the crowd of about 75 people, “less than 48 hours after coming off that field that I would never play again.”

The silver lining for Hillenmeyer was that at least he controlled his future. He knew his next concussion would be exponentially more serious than his first handful, so he hung up his spikes on his own. Nowinski told the story of his friend, Isaiah Kacyvenski, who didn’t get to choose his destiny.

Kacyvenski was a linebacker in the NFL for eight years. He had two concussions in his career before reaching free agency after the 2006 season, the same time head trauma consciousness rose drastically, and the same time Nowinski’s Head Games book came out. As a result, Kacyvenski found himself labeled “concussion prone,” and received no offers from any NFL teams. One year earlier, he had several contract offers.

Eventually, Kacyvenski got onto the Raiders practice squad, but his career ended after the season. Concussion awareness, ironically, cost the linebacker $500,000, and a few years of his career.

“The one guy,” Nowinski said, “who’s suffering the most from all the awareness created back then was my former roommate."

These days Nowinski is working for his own organization, the Sports Legacy Institute. The group promotes the research and awareness of concussions, while also giving help and advice to athletes and their families. His efforts, along with the work of many other groups, have changed the idea of a concussion from a “bell ringing” to a serious debilitating injury if not correctly monitored and treated.

Hillenmeyer also pointed out the huge shift in the handling of concussions from when his career started to when it ended.

“That’s reassuring in the sense that we’ve come a long way,” Hillenmeyer said. “I almost wish I had been born and played football 10 years later.”

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