Rung bells taking toll on Birds' old-timers

Posted: February 01, 2012

THE EAGLES who won back-to-back world championships in the late 1940s were a rugged bunch of birds - and one of the toughest was their star receiver, No. 35, Pete Pihos.

The son of Greek immigrants, hardened by serving in World War II's Battle of the Bulge under Gen. George Patton, Pihos dashed his way into the Pro Football Hall of Fame not so much for his ability to catch a long pass as the way he flattened defenders on the way to the end zone.

Like many NFL greats of postwar years, Pihos then galloped into retirement and relative obscurity, ending up as a construction manager in North Carolina. As black-and-white memories faded of the touchdown that Pihos scored on a 31-yard catch-and-run in a monsoon in the 1949 title game at the Los Angeles Coliseum, his loved ones coped with mounting problems that arrived around the onset of middle age.

The ex-Eagle went through four wives; the last one, Donna Pihos-Powell, remained close to her ex-husband but had divorced him because of increasingly difficult behavior in the 1980s - especially "doing crazy things with money." In 2001, the year Pihos turned 78, his worsening memory loss led to a diagnosis of Alzheimer's disease.

"He didn't want to talk, he didn't want to get out of bed, and he couldn't say what was wrong," said Melissa Pihos, the couple's daughter, who was increasingly distraught about her father's condition.

Then, midway through his difficult last decade, the Pihos family began to learn about the growing evidence of links between football and traumatic brain injuries that eventually lead to dementia and behavioral problems. Doctors performed an array of neurological tests, and Pihos-Howell said she broke down and cried when she went over the results.

"The bones in his neck were like steps - they were jagged, jagged steps, not straight like they would be in a normal person's MRI," she said. "And you could see the damage to his brain - they determined that it was from blows to the head."

The Pihos family also learned that his condition was far from unique for the players of pro football's "Greatest Generation" of the 1940s and 1950s, who played a pivotal role in taking the NFL from its rough-and-tumble roots into a $9-billion-a-year entertainment colossus in the 21st century.

The Daily News has confirmed with family members that three Eagles Hall of Famers from the team's golden era of the late 1940s - Pihos, who died last August, four-time NFL rushing champ Steve Van Buren, and two-way standout Chuck Bednarik - are or were enrolled in the league's 88 Plan to help care for players diagnosed with dementia believed related to football injuries.

Van Buren, the driving force behind the 1948 and '49 championships, recently turned 91 in a nursing home near Lancaster. Bednarik, now 86, who was a rookie in 1949 and led the Birds to their latest title in 1960, still lives with his wife near Bethlehem; he was hospitalized for a week last March with shortness of breath and anemia.

To get into the 88 Plan - which the NFL worked with its players union to create in 2007 amid mounting evidence that brain injuries had affected the health of numerous ex-players - doctors had to certify that the aging football players were suffering memory loss and other health or behavioral symptoms associated with repeated head trauma.

Players admitted to the NFL program can receive as much as $88,000 a year for full-time nursing home care or other medical benefits. Both the name of the program and the dollar amount are a tribute to another Hall of Famer - Baltimore Colts tight John Mackey, No. 88 - who suffered from a form of dementia and who died last July at age 69 after spending the last 4 years of his life in a nursing home.

The Eagles greats like Van Buren and Bednarik created some of the most iconic images in football history: Van Buren running through a snowdrift to score the only touchdown in the 1948 championship during a blizzard at Shibe Park, and a triumphant Bednarik after forcing a fumble by crushing the Giants' Frank Gifford to seal a key 1960 game, unaware Gifford had been knocked out cold.

But in the quiet years since, loved ones have grappled with the realization that the rugged play that made players like Bednarik, Pihos and Van Buren so beloved by Philadelphia fans may have also caused significant health problems.

Van Buren's relatives say that the retired running back - whose team record of 18 touchdowns in one season stood for 66 years, until LeSean McCoy broke it this past season - began to show increasing signs of memory loss and disorientation after suffering a serious stroke in 1988, when he was just 67.

"He had a shuffle to his walk," daughter Lynare Pipitone, said. "We thought he had Parkinson's disease."

Van Buren began to have trouble locating his car, and he grew less meticulous about his appearance; he would tell his daughter that "he always felt punchy."

In 1999, a Daily News reporter met Van Buren - whose wife, Grace, had died from cancer 2 decades earlier - in his Bensalem apartment that contained just a couch, a television and three card tables. The journalist found Van Buren struggling to remember even the names of his daughters and his late wife, confessing finally, "I got hit in the head a lot."

No one disputes that. In interviews over the years, Van Buren spoke candidly on how he was shot up with Novocain as many as a dozen times to get through games in the final seasons of his 8-year career with the Eagles, and was even injected with morphine in order to play on at least one occasion.

His son-in-law, Nathan Pipitone, said Van Buren believed that in one game he suffered as many as three concussions, but coaches continued to send their franchise player back onto the field. The flimsier equipment of that era - Van Buren and other NFL players continued to wear leather helmets through the 1948 season - didn't help.

The Pipitones enrolled Van Buren in the 88 Plan a couple of years ago as the family and his doctors became more convinced that his symptoms were related to his football injuries. But there is still bitterness that the NFL didn't do more about concussions during his playing days, or warn players and families about the possible impact.

"The adjustment to going from a very public, very well-known life - that's a pretty common problem," Pipitone said. "If you couple that with a defective brain, that's a double whammy."

Since the NFL began the 88 Plan in early 2007, the league says it has enrolled 191 ex-players - out of 214 who have applied - and paid out more than $15.3 million in benefits.

The league denies that it has been negligent on head injuries. "The NFL has long made player safety a priority and continues to take steps to protect players and to advance the science and medical understanding of the management and treatment of concussions," said league spokeswoman Clare Graff. "The NFL has never misled players with respect to the risks associated with playing football. Any suggestion to the contrary has no merit."

Right now, it's difficult short of an autopsy for doctors to prove conclusively that an ex-player's dementia has been caused by conditions - most commonly, chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE) - related to concussions, but growing research is establishing a strong link between football hits and memory loss. In 2011, autopsies of three greats from the 1950s and '60s - Joe Perry and John Henry Johnson, of the San Francisco 49ers, and Cookie Gilchrist, of the Buffalo Bills - showed advanced CTE.

Dr. Robert Stern, co-director of the Center for the Study of Traumatic Encephalopathy at Boston University and a national authority on football-related brain injuries, said players from the leather-helmet, no-face-mask era of the 1940s might have faced serious risks, even though they played before the modern era of vicious helmet-to-helmet hits.

"But they sure did have a lot of rattling and rolling," Stern said of the players from that era - and many of them, including Pihos, Van Buren and Bednarik, played both ways on offense and defense, increasing the number of violent hits.

The evidence that behavioral problems related to concussions shows up in some ex-players as young as their 30s and 40s - well before their more severe memory loss - has family members now questioning things that happened in years past. In the case of Van Buren, relatives wonder whether his postfootball addiction to the racetrack - he went to Philadelphia Park almost every day for more than 50 years - was related to the blows he took on the gridiron.

But it's also a difficult issue for most family members to talk about, because they remain eager to protect the image of the retired NFL stars.

Bednarik's son-in-law, Ken Safarowic, confirmed that the rugged ex-linebacker and center was enrolled in the NFL 88 Plan a couple of years ago after testing, but primarily as a precaution against any future medical costs.

"He's got some memory issues," Safarowic said, but he stressed that Bednarik's current health is good after his hospitalization last spring.

"You see some of those old pictures of leather helmets and they were barely larger than skullcaps," said Safarowic, who noted that when his father-in-law played there was little effort to monitor players for blows to the head. "I doubt if one concussion was ever brought to his attention, or described as such."

Other relatives, such as Pihos' family, though, are more aggressive in wanting others to know about what the former stars faced later in life. Melissa Pihos, who is a choreographer and a filmmaker in Winston-Salem, N.C., made an award-winning short documentary film, "Dear Dad," that highlighted her father's condition, and she is now working on a longer tribute.

"I wanted to know all these things that made him the man he was," said Pihos, citing not just his football career but also the frontline combat in World War II as well as the tragic incident when Pete Pihos was 13 and a man came into a restaurant where the young Pihos' immigrant father was working, and murdered his father with a hatchet.

She said that before her father became seriously impaired, he told her stories - much like Van Buren told his family - about suffering injuries like broken ribs, getting a shot of Novocain and going back into games. But the tales were mostly happy ones, like the free lobster dinners the Eagles used to get at Bookbinder's every time they shut out their foes. Pihos never voiced any regrets or second thoughts about life in the NFL.

"They loved the game and they wanted to play, and they loved the fame," Melissa Pihos said. "They were putting themselves in danger. They didn't know."

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