Part 1: The Diagnosis
Imagine waking up every day, turning on the TV, and seeing headlines like "Junior Seau had CTE when he committed suicide" or "Jovan Belcher had CTE at time of murder-suicide" and knowing you may be at risk for that same, awful disease. Even worse, noticing some of the same symptoms connected with the disease in yourself.
What if you could put all the speculation aside and find out whether or not you were living with Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy? Would you want to know?
In 2012, physicians at UCLA, in congruence with a company called TauMark, developed the first test that could detect CTE in the brains of the living. Former New York Giant and two-time Super Bowl winner Leonard Marshall was one of multiple former athletes asked to participate in the study.
He wanted to know.
"When I found out that this opportunity had presented itself for me to go out to UCLA and look into whether or not I have CTE," Marshall told BSN Denver, "I was very excited. I was unbelievably excited about it."
Marshall was a classmate of Dr. Julian Bailes during his time at LSU in the early 80s, and Bailes was an author of the study, one of the leading authorities in neurological research and a consultant for the NFLPA on the lasting effects of head injuries. The combination of Bailes' involvement as well as the fact that Marshall's "homeboys," as he calls them, Tony Dorsett, Joe DeLamielleure and Mark Duper were also participating, made the entire idea a no-brainer.
"On one hand, I was excited about going through the process," the former defensive end explained. "On the other hand, I was wanting to know, for sure, unequivocally, that I had a problem."
Deep down, he knew something was wrong. Mood swings, light sensitivity, lackadaisical feelings, short-term memory loss and sleep deprivation, were simply accessories to "headaches that you wouldn't believe."
After months of clinical evaluations and brain scans at UCLA, Marshall received his diagnosis over the phone—he was all but certainly living with CTE.
On one hand, he felt vindication for what he was feeling. On the other hand, well...
"What the hell did I just do?" He thought. "Why did I do that? How am I going to deal with this?"
"Financially, it's going to be a major thing for me to overcome," he continued in his recollection. "Especially with a daughter in private school, college staring me right in the face in three years. Not that I didn't take care of my money, because I did, but I was concerned more or less about her being able to do the things that she wanted to do and me being able to participate as a father... I was also going through a divorce, and my ex and I weren't communicating. The only communication I had outside of my immediate family was a significant friend who played a pivotal role in some of the decisions that I made in wanting to know and coming to understand exactly what the journey was going to be like and how I would deal with it."
There were dark days, but a light was ahead.
Part 2: The Light
It has now been more than five years since Leonard Marshall received his diagnosis, and it's safe to say things have changed for him.
"I'm in a much better place now than I was then," he says, his smile jumping through the phone. "Life today is 110 percent better than it was nine years ago. I'm in a happy place."
His daughter, Arianna, is now 22 and getting ready to graduate from college, he is happily in a relationship, and his pain is under control.
In 2016, Marshall began a partnership with Colorado-based hemp-oil manufacturer Elixinol and began consuming Cannabidiol or CBD. CBD is a non-psychoactive cannabinoid found in cannabis, the plant that, of course, produces marijuana. The naturally-occurring, anti-inflammatory has also shown to be effective as an antidepressant, anxiolytic (anti-anxiety) and a neuroprotectant, effective in slowing the loss or neurons and protecting the brain from traumatic injury and neurodegenerative diseases like CTE.
The man who spent 11 years in the NFL says CBD has made a "significant" impact on his quality of life.
"I'm able to use the product to help me deal with pain," he explained. "I have four ruptured discs in my neck from pro football, I have degenerative hip failure in my right hip—they told me nine years ago I would have to have surgery within four years on my right hip, I've avoided that. I have a cracked forearm from my playing days in 1993, and I have a broken wrist from 1988 that I've still continued to nurse into my retirement. That aside, when it comes to short-term memory loss, sensitivity to light, being deprived of sleep, mood swings and other forms of deprivement from having CTE, CBD has flipped my life upside down. I mean, I sleep seven or eight hours every night and I'm doing a helluva lot better than I was seven, eight, nine years ago. I'm extremely happy with where I am, and I'm extremely happy with the products that we not only make but the ones that I actually use on a daily basis."
With his own health now stable, Marshall now faces a new challenge, one that's been increasingly frustrating—convincing his peers to join him on the safe side of the fence. For a variety of reasons, good ones or not, many former players don't use CBD despite teammates like Marshall imploring them to give it a try.
Marshall recalled a recent event with the New York Giants alumni in which he brought eight bottles of CBD for all of the players seated at his table.
"I want you to know, only one player from the table tried the products," he said, disappointed. "And he only tried the product because he was interested to see whether or not there was going to be an immediate effect. He wasn't interested in reading, he wasn't interested in knowing anything else. Now that I've educated him, now he's a consumer and he has his family consuming the product, and it's working for him."
One converted, seven still unwilling.
"I think the biggest problem with this entire campaign is that there are a lot of guys that are extremely ignorant to the usage of CBD and the usage of the plant in general," Marshall shared. "I have some guys now that work in corporate, and they barely have a job in corporate because they fall asleep at their desk. They sometimes don't show up to work on time. They sometimes get lost on their way to work, and I keep telling them, if you get lost in this day and age when every cell phone on the planet has GPS—there's almost no way you can get lost. If you tend to do that and you aren't trying to treat it, you're asking for trouble.
"They need to figure out what's important," he added. "In some cases, if you were dangling a bag of money, and you tell them, 'There's a big bag of money over here, but you have to get here to get it,' I guarantee they'll find a way to do that. But for many of them, they're afraid to know what's going on with them and why. I have teammates that are in that situation, that are very ignorant to the process. They don't understand what CBD is, they don't want to read up on it enough to become educated and—I don't want to think this, but I believe this—some of them probably can't read. Therefore, they are afraid to venture down that path."
For Marshall, who has seen these natural products turn his life around, just talking about this gets him worked up. It's not necessarily that his former teammates and colleagues won't try the Elixinol products he is an ambassador for, but it's the reasons why. Some of them, like he said, are just ignorant to what it is. Some of them are simply waiting for someone or something to help them, but unwilling to help themselves. Some of them, most tragically, are far too gone in their addiction to opioid-based painkillers.
"I've never seen a plant or a vegetable kill somebody, but I have seen what synthetic drugs can do," Marshall said, setting up what would come next.
"Some of them just don't give a shit," he began, the frustration even more clear. "Hell, I know a football player who played in the NFL who was popping—and he did this for months—this guy was taking 1,500 painkillers a month. He was taking 1,500 Vicodin, Percocet, Indocin, Lortab, Lorcet, Oxycodone, Oxycontin, Morphine sulfate; you name it. This guy was taking 1,500 tablets a month for a number of months. He was 60 pounds overweight and one day he told me, he said, 'I feel so bad, Leonard, I'm thinking about getting in my Cadillac SUV, driving across the George Washington Bridge and making a right turn in the middle of the bridge and just ending it all. That's how bad I feel...' Thankfully, we talked him out of that but the guys that are right there on the fence right now, that are sitting in their house right now as we're speaking and they're trying to figure out what their next move is going to be and they don't know. I feel for that guy, that's the guy I feel for."
That's the guy Marshall wants to create change for.
Part 3: The Change
While it may seem obvious for former players like Marshall to consume CBD-based products, it's not so obvious for current NFL players. Because it is derived from the Cannabis plant, CBD contains trace amounts of THC. Therefore, an NFL player consuming CBD regularly could be at risk—albeit a small risk—for a positive drug test.
The obvious solution would be for the NFL to raise the THC limit that triggers a positive test, opening the door for more players to use products like CBD to relieve pain. Unfortunately, what is obvious from an outside perspective, isn't always so obvious to the league.
Both former and current players have envisioned a day where NFL trainers hand out packets of CBD rather than packets of Advil, avoiding football tragedies like that of recently-inducted Hall of Famer Kenny Easley, who claimed in a 1989 lawsuit that the use of Advil, promoted by the Seattle Seahawks, caused the kidney failure that took his career. Easley said after a 1986 ankle surgery, he was taking up to 20 Advil a day.
"That was a wakeup call because there were so many players that I knew that were doing the same thing to try to deal with pain," Marshall said. "They were popping six to eight to 10 to sometimes 20 Advil a day. I didn't want to be that guy. Did not want to be that guy."
Maybe, just maybe, if players are introduced at a young age to alternative, naturally-occurring painkillers by the training staffs they trust so much to take care of their bodies, they wouldn't be so reluctant to give them a try. Even better, what if those teams could educate their players on the health benefits of taking such products, so people like Leonard Marshall don't have to do so.
"What's missing here is that players just don't understand the opportunity that's presented itself," he explained.
"I think it would take [the NFL] to adopt a company like ours and have some serious discussions on both sides—the alumni side as well as the NFLPA," he added. "I think it's going to take that, I think it's going to take some sort of a double-blind study and that we validate to them the benefits and the medicinal usage of the marijuana plant in its entirety. How it can benefit players and families and help them get away from the use of opioids and synthetic painkillers and live fruitful and abundant lives as a result of that."
For Marshall, it all comes down to one man.
"It's going to take somebody stepping up to the plate and swinging the bat, that's pretty much what it's going to take, Ryan," he said. "For a guy like Roger Goodell to see his back against the wall and have to figure out, 'Do I let this continue to be this way or do I make a change?' Leaders make change. Leaders make change, and they make it effectively, especially when it can move a large mass of people. That's the challenge that Mr. Goodell has in front of him today."
"What does he want to leave in terms of his legacy?" He concluded. "Does he want to leave the fact that he changed the game of football?"
More from Leonard Marshall
On what he would tell players who are worried they have CTE
"Go get diagnosed. Quit playing the blame game and go get diagnosed. The first step is to go find out, go find out if you have a problem and if you have a problem, then we can take it from there and figure out a way to help you deal with that problem. You can't alleviate what you don't know, so you need to go find out. Don't be afraid to find out, you know?"
On if he would do it all over again, knowing that football gave him CTE
"I would. I would. Football shaped my life, so I would. Football literally shaped my life... I would not know a lot about a lot of stuff had it not been for football. I'm grateful. I know I'm blessed, and every day that I continue to live on this planet, I hope that I do well for the game, but I do well for those that are in the game."
"The only thing that I regret is that I didn't leave as healthy as I thought I could have. I knew what I signed up for in terms of a broken arm and a broken wrist, maybe something with my knee or my back or my shoulder. What I didn't know is that I'd come out of it with a traumatic brain injury and now have to deal with that."
On if he would still encourage parents to get their children involved with football
"Oh, absolutely. The only difference is kids between the ages of six and 11 years old; I would tell parents that kids between six and 11-years old should play flag football. Have them understand the fundamentals of the game. The game is about blocking and tackling; it's about bending your knees and ankles, it's about using your hands and elbows and not so much your headgear. They will never be able to take the headgear out of football. However, for young kids between the ages of six and 11, it imperative to teach them how to move their feet and how to play the game fundamentally before they put on the pads and equipment and start making contact with people. I think the contact piece should come a little bit later."
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