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Retired players get a lesson in health

Chris Slade is only 36 years old. He tries to stay away from junk food. He still runs four or five times a week.

Not exactly the sort of person who would seem at risk of health problems.

Then he remembers Reggie White, the Hall of Famer who died suddenly in 2004.

He was just 43.

“That woke everybody up,” said Slade, an NFLlinebacker for nine seasons who retired after the 2001 season. “No one was in better shape than Reggie. You can’t be too sure or too careful.”

So, Slade turned out June 3 at a downtown Atlanta hospital along with dozens of retired NFLplayers like himself. They moved slowly from one room to the next, spending about three hours getting poked with needles and hooked up to machines.

These guys were the backbone of the league, helping create the multi-billion-dollar behemoth that rules the sports world. Now, they’re part of a growing effort to learn more about the health problems facing retired football players, in hopes of preventing someone else from dying young.

“You spend all those years ramming into people and using your body as a weapon,” said 61- year-old Jeff Van Note, a former Atlanta Falcons center. “I want to know about my body, what’s wrong with it and what, if anything, I can do to help it.”

That’s just what Dr. Archie Roberts had in mind when he founded the Living Heart Foundation six years ago. As a former backup quarterback-turned-cardiologist, he was uniquely qualified to spread the message about what happens to so many of these guys when the cheering stops.

“When they were younger, they thought they were invincible,” Roberts said. “I did, too. I ended up having a stroke after never being sick a day in my life.”

That was eight years ago. Roberts recovered, but the 65- year-old doctor still has a nasty scar down the left side of his neck as a reminder. It also spurred him to help other former players get a better handle on their health.

“We can’t forget the guys who helped get the league to where it is,” Roberts said.

Others are coming around to his way of thinking.

The league and its players’ union recently teamed up to provide financial assistance to former players afflicted with dementia and related brain problems. Also, the NFLis trying to come up with a whistle-blower program that will reduce the chances of someone being pressured to play with a concussion.

Roberts is focused on the sort of health issues that face everyone as they get older, but are particularly acute for large men who once played a violent, demanding game.

It’s hard enough to cut down on the hearty appetites that were so necessary when they were practicing, running and lifting weights every day. It’s even tougher to keep working out when every joint in your body is hurting.

“When you’re playing linebacker, you’re actually seeking contact,” said Lucius Sanford, who did just that during a 10-year career spent mostly with the Buffalo Bills. “We’re learning more about how we abused our bodies.”

Roberts and those who work with his foundation have already screened some 1,200 former players and shared the information with the Mayo Institute. The early findings show this group is especially at risk for sleep apnea, hypertension, abdominal obesity, high cholesterol and enlarged hearts.

While those are the same issues that affect older, overweight people in the general population, Roberts is concerned that the ever-increasing size of NFLplayers will only magnify those problems once they retire.

“We don’t have the answer to that yet, but it’s on our minds and it’s part of what we’re looking at,” he said. “We do know that these risk factors, which are present in the players and the general population, are all correctable and all treatable. We’ve got the first step in the process completed, which is we know what our risks are.”

At the recent screening, which was held at Emory Crawford Long Hospital in conjunction with a weekend convention for retirees of the NFLPlayers Association, rooms were set up for various tests: body fat analysis, blood pressure checks, cholesterol screenings, blood sugar profiles, carotid artery ultrasounds, CT scans of the heart.

The former players also filled out a medical questionnaire, received a sleep apnea test to do at home and met with a physician once to discuss improvements in their lifestyle. They received some of the results right away, but most will come in the mail in about six weeks.

“I’ve taken my calcium and got all zeros,” said Tim Jones, a former receiver. “That’s good. I didn’t die.”

Those needing further examination or treatment will get referred to a doctor in their area or urged to see their own physician. One day, Roberts hopes, that sort of care will be available through his own program.

“We will still collect the data and track the outcomes, but we’ll also see that we’re making a difference in their lives,” Roberts said.

He’s already making a difference. More than 60 former players attended the Atlanta screening, though the bulk of the estimated 18,000 NFLalumni – most of them retirees – have yet to take advantage of the free program.

“We probably have a group here that is more inclined to do these sort of things,” said Dr. Douglas Morris, director of the Emory Heart Center. “Their buddies who are not here are probably the ones we ought to really be looking for.”

Those who came were glad they did, even with all the poking and prodding.

“This,” Jones said, “is definitely something I’m going to stick to.”

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