Two decades after a series of concussions cut short his Hall of Fame career, 49ers legend Steve Young told an audience at Stanford University on Saturday that if there’s ever a word on the tip of his tongue he can’t remember, his wife will joke, “Here we go — this is it.”
The neurologists, physical trainers, athletes and others attending Young’s talk at a summit on concussions in sports chuckled at the anecdote. But Young said, “I don’t laugh. I think, ‘Oh my gosh — is this the beginning of the end?’”
Young described the symptoms he has experienced since his career ended as mild. But he knows that makes him fortunate among former NFL players, many of whom have struggled with brain damage linked to the head trauma they sustained over decades in football. And Young says he worries that more severe effects from all those blows to the head could pop up for him as well some day.
“That’s the nefarious nature of head injuries and the brain,” Young said.
More than 150 people attended the Stanford Sports Concussion Summit, which also included talks from renown researchers and, in Stanford Athletics’ “Hall of Champions,” demonstrations of the latest technology to diagnose and treat concussions and mild traumatic brain injuries in athletes, juxtaposed with trophies from Rose Bowls and national titles.
While football at large takes concussions far more seriously today than when Young entered the NFL in the 1980s, he noted that treating those injuries still puts doctors at odds with players, who usually don’t want to be kept off the field, and coaches who feel the same way about their stars. That tension will exist until there is a “sea change” in football and sports more broadly, he said.
“Everyone’s super serious about it,” Young said. “But it’s still a doctor on the sideline, under incredible pressure, trying to figure out whether someone’s OK or not. That’s a tough spot to be in.”
Young spoke as part of a panel discussion that included Gary Steinberg, Stanford’s chairman of neurosurgery and the 49ers’ team neurosurgeon during the 1990s, and William Maloney, a Stanford professor of orthopedic surgery and team physician for the 49ers and the Golden State Warriors.
Much of the discussion centered on the difficulty of accurately diagnosing concussions — particularly in the middle of a game, when doctors have limited time to examine a player and the push to get him or her back into the action is most urgent.