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Leonard Marshall on CTE, Concussion, and the NFL then and now

“Was I honored for the career I had as a player? And was I cared for? I mean, truly cared for as a professional athlete by the organization and the league I represented?”

Leonard Marshall played defensive end in the NFL from 1983 through '94 and is best known for his role within the great Giants defenses of the 1980s, when he helped the franchise win two Super Bowls and became one of the most feared run defenders and pass rushers in the game. As a 3–4 defensive end before sub-packages were common, he amassed 711 tackles, 83.5 sacks, nine forced fumbles, two interceptions and two safeties, while often facing double teams and playing inside the edge. The two-time Pro Bowler retired with hope for his future as an entrepreneur, and he's been successful in that regard.

But like many players of his era, Marshall didn't get all the information on the effects of head trauma that should have been available to him. The league kept players in the dark regarding these effects for decades, and Marshall was diagnosed with signs of CTE in 2013, as one of the first former players to participate in a test developed by physicians at UCLA and a company called TauMark—the first test that could detect CTE in the brains of living people.

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Marshall was part of the recently settled concussion lawsuit against the NFL, and he became a man on a mission after his own diagnosis. He's become an advocate and spokesman on the issue, partnering with several former players, including a number of Hall of Famers, in the Practice Like Pros initiative, an effort to help youth football players play the game more safely.

Monday's release of the trailer for the upcoming movie Concussion, about the travails of Dr. Bennet Omalu and his discovery of the link between head trauma and CTE, didn't offer anything new for Marshall. He had already watched a full pre-screening of the movie and said that it will have people up in arms. He sounded unsure of his emotions about that, and that's where our conversation really started. Marshall speaks slowly and carefully, with great eloquence, and he's one of the more mesmerizing players I've spoken with on this subject.

Sports Illustrated: If everyone is up in arms, given the history of this subject, isn't that a good thing?

Leonard Marshall: My phone has been ringing off the hook. A lot of players have called me, and they can't wait for the movie to come out. Obviously, they know that the director and Sony are on the same page with the release of the trailer at the start of the NFL season, and the film is set to come out at the start of the last week of the regular season, just before the playoffs. So, this thing will be talked about all through the holidays and all through the playoffs. And through the season, as well—I think it will become another nightmare for the NFL. Which I hope it doesn't.

SI: You hope it doesn't?

Marshall: I hope it doesn't. Because football saw a lot of major distractions with everything going on [in the last year], and I hope that doesn't happen this year.

SI: Things were very different when it came to concussions in your era. Do you think the NFL has done enough to admit its mistakes, its inconsistencies and its out-and-out lies about concussions throughout the game's history?

Marshall: I mean, without coming out and specifically saying that, or coming out with a statement that “We know we did this wrong or handled that the wrong way,” I think the settlement speaks to that. This entire process has been horrible for the league, as well as for the [former] players and their families. I think, as it exists, between the estate of Junior Seau, the estate of Dave Duerson, and the estates of guys like Ray Easterling and several others, it makes a huge statement in terms of what has been done, what needs to be done, and the prioritization of that process. Granted, there are other players in this entire campaign who have not been cared for through this process.

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SI: Beyond the ramifications for the league or the ramifications for the players, just from an emotional, personal, visceral standpoint, what was your inner response to the movie?

Marshall: I felt that the film was very strong. I felt that Will Smith did an incredible job of playing Dr. Bennet [Omalu]. I happen to know Dr. Bennet. He happens to be very close to people who are very close to me in Pittsburgh—in particular, my attorney, Jason Luckasevic, who has worked with Dr. Bennet. As well as my friend Julian Bailes, who I've worked with at UCLA in determining this entire new [concussion protocol] process in terms of new ways to determine CTE. This man treated me, Joe DeLamielleure, Tony Dorsett and Mark Duper.

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SI: When you learned in 2013 that you had tested positive for CTE, how scary was that? How did you feel, knowing what you know?

Marshall: It was extremely scary. I mean, the first thing you feel as a former player is, you want to know how it's going to affect your loved ones more than you care about how it's going to affect you. The ones who have invested a lot of time in this process to helping you, who you became in the game, and who you've become outside the game. Those are the people I'm concerned about. And I'm also concerned about the fans who appreciate what I did as a player, and the legacy I left behind.

Was I honored for the career I had as a player? And was I cared for? I mean, truly cared for as a professional athlete by the organization and the league I represented? These things come to mind very often.

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SI: You've mentioned that you've worked with people to try and retrieve some of your short-term memory loss, and other various medical initiatives you're involved in. How in a general sense are you feeling these days, and what medical initiatives are you behind?

Marshall: First things first: My issues are no different than anybody else's who's coping with CTE. When players leave the league, most of them leave without lifetime care. And most of them are going to need long-term and acute care after football. If there were some sort of process associated with the deliverable of something of that nature, I would want to have something to do with that. I would want to be involved in that process, making sure that happens for guys when they retire from professional football. Because, trust me, it is very much needed, and it's well-overlooked. I mean, it's always been overlooked. And it shouldn't be. It should be something that we all wish to engage in and help to deliver to players.

I know that if I was a player today, I'd want to get myself in position to become a vested veteran, put in my four years, try to win an NFL championship ... and when I hung up my cleats, I had long-term care ensured, and I had the proper medical benefits to ensure that I could live a full life and take care of my wife and children. Anything short of that? I don't think I'd be too happy.

SI: When you see a guy like Chris Borland play great for one year, do his own research on the effects of head trauma, and retire as a result, how does that make you feel? And do you envision a wave of this happening, where players are far more informed about what the game can do and leave the game earlier as a result?

Marshall: I think you're going to see shorter careers end sooner in the future. I don't think you're ever going to see players, unless they play a serious skill position like quarterback, maybe wide receiver, I doubt running back, and I doubt it with linemen ... you won't see them play 13, 14, 15 years in the NFL anymore. I just don't think that player's going to be there. Granted, when you play now, the practices are shorter, and they're different. My era was the time of two-a-day practices—sometimes, three-a-day practices—and when you play for a guy like Bill Parcells, who wants to have the most physical, meanest, most domineering team on the field, you can only imagine what that means.

SI: What did it mean?

Marshall: It meant that the practices were harder, tougher and more physical. More was demanded of a player. In training camps under Bill Parcells, I can honestly tell you, I walked around with a headache and a bottle of Tylenol, just like half of my teammates did. Especially linemen and linebackers. That was just par for the course. Now granted, as we put that time into the game, it became a little bit easier. But physically? It was tough.

SI: Did you have any memory loss issues, or what they used to call "feeling foggy", during your career?

Marshall: I don't recall that far back as far as games and practices. But I can tell you that since I'm out of the game, I've had some challenges. I don't want to get too far into it, because my issues are no different than anybody else's who is dealing with CTE. I have memory loss, I can't sleep well, I have erratic behavior often. You tend to forget things really easily. You tend to lose things really easily. Sometimes, you'll park your car and you'll forget where you parked it. Things of that nature. And you'll receive treatment, such as hyperbaric chamber treatment, and you'll take the medications. The medications do help, but they can't cure.

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SI: When you see the kinds of misperceptions that are still out there about head trauma, like when Russell Wilson insists that Recovery Water helps him deal with concussions, or when Steelers neurosurgeon Dr. Joseph Maroon says that football is safer for kids than riding bikes or skateboards, how does that make you feel? How frustrating is that for someone who knows as much as you do and has to live with the real effects every day?

Marshall: Let me just say this. A lot of people make a lot of irresponsible comments, and not to say that Dr. Maroon's comments are irresponsible, but unless you're a true authority on this subject, it's tough to take anyone else's comments very seriously. Guys like Bennet Omalu and others, where this is what they do 24/7. If they made those comments, I would find them quite binding. But when people make irresponsible comments, and they affect the lives of players like myself ... I mean, if you think it's like that, put on some equipment, go out and beg one of those coaches to let you get in the game on a Sunday, and line up against Joe Jacoby, who was 6'7" and 330 pounds, and let him pound on your ass for about four hours. And then, you tell me what you think.

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SI: I think I'll pass on that offer! Talk a bit about the Practice Like Pros initiative you're involved in.

Marshall: Practice Like Pros was set up by my dear friend Terry O'Neil from NBC. He got myself and a few others involved. What he's trying to do is to level the playing field in terms of teaching kids how to practice tackle football without having all the contact they have had in previous years. And it's basically learning how to practice football with marginal contact and saving the contact for game day. It's bad enough that you beat the hell out of each other on game days; now you beat yourself up three to four days a week in practice.

SI: Do you think that the concussion settlement was fair? Do you think it is equipped to care for former NFL players throughout their lives?

Marshall: I hope so. Without getting deep into it, I hope that the settlement can take care of all the players and provide the support they need to carry on with the rest of their lives.

SI: Knowing what you know now, and going through what you've gone through, if you could go back and have the same NFL career you had and accept the ramifications as they've been laid out, would you take that deal?

Marshall: Football shaped my life. And if I were to tell you that it didn't, I'd be lying to you. It's provided me with a lot of opportunities for me to take care of myself and my family, and one of the reasons I went to college was to make myself aware of those opportunities if you apply the skill set and the knowledge. The fact that I got my education by going to LSU and playing football at LSU, all of that together has shaped my life and given me the ability to do what I do now. With that said, I thank football, and I thank the NFL for the opportunity—particularly the Mara family and the Tisch family.

SI: So, the opportunities football presented to you outweighed the toll the game took?

Marshall: You know, I'm in that Catch-22. Playing football had its disadvantages, but there was a tremendous amount of upside. Think about it this way: I played in a huge market, in a marquee city, where sports are at an all-time high. You ask any player, and they'll tell you they want to play in a big market, where they can have the exposure they really deserve. Where I could not only market my talent, but also market myself for post-career opportunities. The fact that I got to play in a city like New York, to play with guys like Lawrence Taylor, to win two Super Bowls ... speaks volumes, man. It speaks volumes.

I'm blessed, man. I'm blessed. I can't say anything bad about it. The only thing I will say is that in the future, I hope the players are smarter.