"Players love the brutality and physical nature of our sport," Morey said. "Up until recently, most players thought of concussions as temporary and transitory injuries."
Kathy Brearley, the mother of former Penn lineman Owen Thomas, brought her son's high school football helmet to the hearing. Thomas had never had a concussion diagnosed at any age, Brearley said, but the helmet had numerous gashes and smudges across the front of it.
"That was the way he played," Brearley said after the hearing.
Brearley said her son would have cringed at being the center of so much attention. But she wanted to put a public face on chronic traumatic encephalopathy. Last week, a research team at Boston University School of Medicine announced it had determined Thomas had the beginning stages of the degenerative disease, believed to be chiefly caused by repeated head trauma.
"Maybe he had mild concussions that he never reported," Brearley said. "That would be Owen anxious to return to the game, not a coach pressurizing him. No one could pressurize Owen to do anything. Or maybe CTE is the cumulative effect of multiple subconcussions, compounded by some as yet unknown genetic component."
In her statement to the committee, Brearley said her goal was to put a face on CTE. She told of how her son would take his helmet off and "shake his long red hair as if he were a Viking."
She testified about how he was born with a confident type-A personality, and no fear. His mother said Thomas jumped into the deep end of a hotel swimming pool at age 4, before he knew how to swim.
Thomas was "deeply kind," she said, to the point that parents of bullied kids would ask him to sit next to their child on the bus or give protection on the playground. He was organized - every school year, he color-coded his files, got index tabs, "stocked up on erasers . . ." On church mission trips, he did twice the work that everyone else did but came home starving. That's because at home he often drank gallons of milk and would stop at Wendy's to get "four double hamburgers with french fries."
The pastor of a Church of Christ in Allentown, Brearley had expected a future for her son as "a wonderful contributing citizen."
Brearley said that whatever the explanation for CTE, if her son had not committed suicide, "he faced an increasingly circumscribed future as his brain disease progressed. . . . The bright future to which he aspired would have eluded him."
Researchers have not directly linked Thomas' suicide to the CTE finding, and some medical professionals have pointed out that the medical benefits of playing sports far outweigh the unknown and seemingly slight odds of being debilitated by a degenerative disease caused by brain trauma. However, one of the goals of the legislation is to help end any belief that concussions are temporary conditions with no lasting effects.
"Every concussion is brain damage. There's no way to say it otherwise," said Rep. Bill Pascrell (D, N.J.), who coauthored a separate "Concussion Treatment and Care Tools Act," which passed out of another House subcommittee last week, and calls for concussion management guidelines.
In some ways, this is a so-called "apple pie" issue. No one comes out in favor of concussions. No member of Congress spoke against the bill discussed at Thursday's hearing. The proposed legislation is supported by NFL commissioner Roger Goodell and calls for requiring school districts to develop plans for concussion safety and management programs as well as education programs for youths and their parents. It also called for support of "when in doubt, sit it out" policies.
After the hearing, Morey spoke of his retirement this summer, which came after he had signed a three-year contract with the Seattle Seahawks. "It was almost the only decision. I felt like I didn't have a decision."
"I was part of an independent research study" at Boston University, Morey said. "And in that, I discussed my concussion history. I was going through my concussion history with Dr. [Robert] Cantu, he's looking at me like I'm a train wreck. He said 'I don't think you should be playing football, but I want you to contact the office in two weeks when the lab results come back.' "
Morey ignored that suggestion, but Cantu caught up with him at another conference on helmets and asked how he was doing.
"I had just finished a three-day migraine," Morey said. "It's just debilitating. I still have most concussion symptoms. I still have migraines and chronic headaches and blind spots."
Asked if he believed his condition would have been the same had he consulted a doctor two or three years ago, the Brown University graduate said, "You know what, I don't know. I don't think I would have been honest enough. I think only because of that research study I was finally honest with somebody. . . . The way that I've played the game for a long period of time, I've had my share of concussions and I've played through every one of them."
Cantu told Morey that he couldn't with a clear conscience tell him he should continue to play professional football. Morey, in the league since 1999, said he felt he had to disclose that to the Seahawks. He didn't think it would be fair to his teammates to "have to change the way I played the game."
"I knew the risks that I was taking when I was playing football," Morey said. "I knew the science. I still played through injuries that I probably shouldn't have. But that's on me. I'm a responsible adult. . . . Kids don't have that ability. Society hasn't deemed them responsible to make decisions where they can project consequences. If that's the case, it's on us as adults to pass these bills, to get behind legislation to help high school athletes and youth athletes manage their concussions properly."
Contact staff writer Mike Jensen at 215-854-4489 or firstname.lastname@example.org