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Tackling Brain Trauma

by Sandra Benavides Weichel May 2015 Also on Digital Edition

More than four decades after winning the infamous Super Bowl III in 1969 with the New York Jets, legendary quarterback Joe Namath, now 71, is making headlines with a different team. Today, the sports icon has partnered with Jupiter Medical Center to launch The Joe Namath Neurological Research Center to treat people of all ages who suffer from traumatic brain injuries.

Take me back to 1969 when you guaranteed victory over the heavily favored Baltimore Colts.

The Thursday night before the Super Bowl game, I was receiving an award down in Miami for the AFL player of the year. This was about 10 days after we had beaten the Oakland Raiders, and for 10 days we had been hearing from the media and the football fans how the Baltimore Colts were going to beat up the New York Jets. Well, it offended me; it offended us. So I said, “I got news for you … We’re going to win the game. I guarantee it.” That came from the heart ... and we did it.

What do you miss about your football days?

The game and the people. There were only two negative things about my life in that sport: losing and getting hurt. But the competitive part of it, the bouncing back, [the] learning that you just don’t get your way all the time but [that] if you work hard you can get something satisfactorily accomplished – [that] made it a joyful life.

When did you get involved with traumatic brain injury research?

I can remember when a gentleman from the Chicago Bears, Dave Duerson, took his own life. He was going through some awful times [chronic traumatic encephalopathy – a disease linked to brain injury] that I couldn’t relate to. Then, about five years ago, a teammate of mine was sharing his problem with me. ... I could just see the fear and the frustration my friend was carrying. Knowing my history as an athlete, I thought it behooved me to find out if I had a potential problem and if I had traumatic brain injury. ... So around 2012, I reached out for help.

Tell me about the tests.

We had to do cognitive tests and brain scans. We wanted to get an idea of what the brain looked like and what skills I had at the time. The scans clearly showed there was a dark side on my left temporal area. When Dr. [Lee] Fox pointed out to me that those cells had ceased to be functioning, we figured that, yeah, one of those hits more than likely caused the damage to the brain cells. So we started hyperbaric chamber treatments with oxygen. I did 120 treatments in about 200 days. Afterward, the scans showed the left and right area [of the brain] were very similar. The blood flow had reached those cells and regenerated them.

How does it feel to be at the forefront of this study?

I’m just so darn lucky – humbly so – and so very excited about being able to help people that are suffering from various traumas to the brain. Not just ball players, either. We’re talking about helping people of all ages, from children to adults