Wycheck wrapping his head around Alzheimer’s

Wednesday, August 19, 2009 at 11:44pm
Frank Wycheck

Right now, former Tennessee Titans tight end Frank Wycheck is all right regarding any effects from post-concussion syndrome and the injuries he suffered during his time on the playing field.

However, it is the “years from now” that Wycheck is concerned about.

That’s why the former Titans star and current color analyst is appearing along with his Wake-Up Zone co-hosts Kevin Ingram and Mark Howard at Mere Bulles Restaurant from 6-10 a.m. Thursday at the Alzheimer’s Association Breakfast, sponsored by the Nashville Area Chamber of Commerce.

“I don’t have any symptoms that occur on a daily basis, no migraines that occur every day. [I have them] every once in a while, but I don’t think there’s anything peculiar about day-to-day,” Wycheck said. “The thing I’ve always been worried about is 10 or 15 years down the line, because there are pretty much no signs. The subject is so important because there is so little information on it.”

Wycheck said he had “three or four” major concussions in his playing career and was “dinged” several other times before calling it a career after the 2003 season.

His most serious injury came in a preseason game in 2003 on the first play against the Buffalo Bills. He lay motionless on the field for a time after a hit by London Fletcher and wound up missing six games that year before finally retiring at season’s end.

An Alzheimer’s connection?

While there has yet to be an established direct link between Alzheimer’s Disease and the down the road effects of post-concussion syndrome, the symptoms in both patients do bring about similar results.

“Multiple head injuries, especially closely spaced, are a risk factor for dementia in later life,” said Brentwood neurologist Dr. Ronald Wilson. “This dementia is similar to Alzhemier’s Disease and can be devastating to the patient. They can result in poor memory, thinking and behavioral abnormalities.”

Wilson, medical director for the Middle Tennessee American Parkinson’s Disease Association Information and Referral Center, says that despite the differences in what might cause these two forms of dementia, the results are largely identical.

Alzheimer’s is usually linked directly to aging or genetics rather than trauma.

“Under the microscope, the brain is not the same with Alzheimer’s and those who have experienced severe head trauma, but if you put the two patients in a room together, they would look and react very similar,” Wilson said.

For now, Wycheck is able to joke occasionally that he has what he refers to as “scrambled eggs” when he forgets something. But he knows the subject is certainly no laughing matter and one that needs much more research and attention.

That is one reason Wycheck now wants to bring awareness to Alzheimer’s and brain injuries.

“Really that was the only type of injury I had when I was playing, and it basically ended my career,” Wycheck said. “If I can go out and talk to people and help out any way I can and bring more awareness to it, and if it can help someone to get proactive to it and raise money or whatever, I’ll be happy to do it.”

No laughing matter

The most concerning aspect for Wycheck is seeing what has happened to other former players who had multiple concussions during their playing days. Sadly, Pittsburgh Steelers Hall of Fame center Mike Webster suffered from dementia after his playing career was over before he died of a heart attack. Webster was at one point homeless in the aftermath of his football career.

Former NFL players Terry Long and Andre Waters committed suicide, and many believe those acts were a result of the effects of concussions in their playing careers. It is something Wycheck said needs to be brought to the forefront, and not just when such incidents occur.

“Things that creep up like the Andre Waters and Mike Websters of the world — God forbid that something like that tips you over the edge,” Wycheck said. “I don’t think anything was done to prevent that, and I don’t think they had any idea it was coming. Maybe if something sparks a little bit more action from the union and doctors and the medical field, who knows.”

Wycheck has another stake in the matter as well — his contention that the NFL Players Association is not doing enough to help former players who are in similar situations as himself.

According to Wycheck, if players don’t show any lingering effects from injuries in the first five years after their playing careers end, they are released and not given any help from the union regarding care and treatment later.

“I stopped being angry about it, because of the union, and there’s nothing being done about it. There’s no protections down the line,” he said. “They kind of leave you hanging, if you will. That’s scary with the injuries I’ve had.

“Five years! If nothing happens to me within five years, then I’m on my own. That kind of gets you frustrated and angry. I’m not as angry about it anymore, because I know it’s falling on deaf ears.”

According to a spokesman with the NFL Players Association’s benefits department, retired players vested (at least three accredited seasons) are allowed to stay on the league’s insurance plan for five years after they retire. After that point, a new fund, generally referred to as the “Gene Upshaw Fund” after the late former NFLPA chief, allows players to have a health care fund of $25,000 per year of service to the league available at their disposal.

Wycheck, who played 10 seasons, could receive a maximum of $250,000 in health care funds through that program sponsored by the players association and the NFL.

Still, the union’s involvement, or perceived lack thereof, with former players is a secondary concern for Wycheck compared to the unknowns he faces regarding his mental health down the line.

“That’s the scary proposition, because once a guy in the league gets a concussion, it’s a popular subject at the time, but then all of a sudden, [the topic] goes away,” Wycheck said. “I’m sure there’s someone somewhere working hard to try and get information, but it’s really hard, and that’s the thing.

“It’s the unknown factor. Is there anything I can prepare for or any preventative measures I can do in the meantime? I’ll just try to do what I can to be healthy.”

Anyone who wishes to get involved with the Alzheimer’s Association or its 2009 Memory Walk on Oct. 24 at Centennial Park should contact Kristy Barkley at 743-3044.