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The tool that's trying to equip retired NFL players with brain check-ups

The company RC21X offers online mental exercises that are helping retired NFL players like Joe DeLamielleure regularly monitor what's going on in their brains.

Joe DeLamielleure began worrying about his mind when Mike Webster died.

“Me and Mike were very similar,” DeLamielleure says. Both were Hall of Fame linemen known for never skipping a snap and rarely missing a Pro Bowl through the 1970s. But in retirement, their paths diverged. Webster suffered from depression and lived out of his truck before dying of a heart attack at age 50 in 2002. He would be the first former NFL player diagnosed with CTE. DeLamielleure’s peers from that era would keep dying over the next decade, often by their own hands. Terry Long. Ray Easterling. Dave Duerson. Each annual trip to Canton for DeLamielleure included disheartening news about another former great.

It was only natural for Joe to wonder if, one year soon, he would be that disheartening news. After all, he had been dealing with sleepless nights, bouts of depression, a shrinking attention span—and, in 2013, news that he likely had Stage 3 CTE, about the worst ever seen in a live brain. Joe and his wife, Gerri, appreciated having that information, but it didn’t resolve the big question every former player faces today: One of these days, will I fall apart?

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That’s where Clarence Carlos comes in. In 2013, the former West Virginia football player who had professional experience with both video games and a tool that tested for brain trauma began creating a “thermometer for the brain.” Now, his company RC21X offers online mental exercises, adapted from long-used neuropsychological assessments. The seemingly simple 5-15 minute tests of visual recall, auditory memory, or dexterity, offered in easy-to-play modules and combined with real-time and long-term tracking data, allow users to “know what’s going on upstairs,” Carlos says.

Since starting the venture, he has teamed up with Roberto Clemente Jr. (The Pittsburgh-based company’s name is an homage to Clemente’s father, the former Pirates great) and received help from StartUp Health, which itself is connected to the likes of the AARP, GE Ventures, and Mark Cuban. Carlos has worked to sell the tool to hospital trauma wards and school systems. Seeing the potential that a FitBit for the brain might have, the company is releasing an app, roberto, to the public this week.

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One of the most obvious constituencies for the product has already been using it for years. Since becoming the first lawyer to sue the NFL over concussions, Jason Luckasevic had grown used to being hassled by various brain health pitches. But once the RC21X team convinced him to try its tool in 2014, he saw several potential benefits for his hundreds of clients.

For one, the comprehensive tests required for an official diagnosis can be dauntingly expensive, often requiring significant travel. RC21X isn’t a replacement for that process, but it does allow Luckasevic to see who might benefit the most from the more extensive test. Plus, it allows retirees to monitor themselves regularly over time, letting them see if or when they ought to be reevaluated by a doctor. Maybe most importantly, RC21X provides a discreet way to do a quick checkup for the litany of former players who worry what their health might mean for their families, but who feel uncomfortable constantly speaking to others about their growing weaknesses. “Nobody wants to admit that their brain is not functioning right,” Luckasevic said. “But one thing I’ve noticed about these retired football players is they want to help themselves. They don’t want to be a burden on their families or on taxpayers.”

Former Browns running back Cleo Miller was one of the first to take the test. “I knew I wasn’t really healthy,” he says, “But I didn’t know how unhealthy I really was. The app makes you take a microscopic look at yourself.” He’s been diagnosed with deterioration in the left side of his brain and his wife tells him his memory has slipped, but he is pleased to say that his in-app results have been holding steady for a few years. “By taking that test, it gave me a sense of relief,” he says. “The scary thing is not knowing.”

After trying the test, Miller suggested DeLamielleure give it a shot, too. DeLamielleure fancies himself a guinea pig, having tried everything from tongue drops to a hyperbaric chamber to improve his mental health. He dove into RC21x with similar enthusiasm, traveling to Pittsburgh to investigate it. And recently, the results have been positive. DeLamielleure is reading again and sleeping better. He takes the test when he’s worried a downturn is coming, which means he hasn’t turned to it recently. But he still is glad to have the tool at his disposal, if only to collect data that might prove useful for future athletes.

DeLamielleure believes he owes it to his 12 grandkids to continue finding out what football might have wrought on his mind. Miller also sees his regular tests as part of a bigger project. Eventually, he hopes, as troves of players document their uncertain aging, their plight will become impossible to ignore.

“Sooner or later,” he says, “the truth is going to be told.”