BOISE, Idaho (KPIX 5) — A former National Football League star and longtime KPIX broadcaster has chosen to speak out about his personal struggle – one of the biggest challenges facing a growing number of former NFL players.
Wayne Walker was a linebacker and kicker for the Detroit Lions, a three-time Pro Bowler who started every game he played for the Lions over 15 seasons.
When he retired from the NFL, he spent the next 20 years at KPIX 5’s sports director.
From racing cable cars up steep hills to engaging top athletes in competition, Wayne would often take on daunting sports challenges.
But now our friend and colleague is facing what may be the toughest battle of his life. It has to do with football – the game he loved to play.
Wayne lives in Idaho. We met up with him during a recent visit to family in the Bay Area to talk with him about the Pro Football Hall of Fame. After he gave us his opinion about the nominees and finalists for the Class of 2016, Wayne opened up. He wanted to let us know what was going on with him.
“Well, five years ago, I was diagnosed with Parkinson’s, which is a result of multiple concussions when I played,” he explained.
Parkinson’s disease is a degenerative disorder of the central nervous system that can affect motor skills, cause sensory and behavioral problems and commonly leads to dementia.
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, playing in the NFL triples the risk that a player will die from a degenerative brain disease.
This is especially true if the athlete played a speed position such as linebacker.
The evidence suggests the cause is due to repetitive blows to the head.
“I would get up after a lot of plays, after a collision of some sort – usually with your head – and I would look like I was looking through a frosted glass for a while,” said Wayne.
By his count, Wayne had at least 20 concussions over the 200 games he played, and was knocked out cold twice.
“I got knocked out totally and went back in the same game,” said Wayne.
He said his medical expenses are now covered in part by the NFL’s “88 Plan.” The plan was named after former Baltimore Colts Hall of Fame tight end John Mackey and was founded in 2005. Mackey, died in 2011 at the age of 69, suffered from dementia for years.
The 88 plan is jointly run by the NFL and the NFL Players Association. It is for eligible players with traumatic brain injury.
“I think they’re headed in the right direction, but they have a long way to go, the NFL does, in that area,” he said.
As for whether he would have played football, knowing what he knows now, Wayne said he would.
“It’s up the individual and if it were up to me again, I’d do it,” said Wayne. “I know playing now I’d have a better chance of, better medical advice than what we had back in my day, better medical help then we did back in my day and all those things would enter into making it an easier choice.”
And while our former colleague can only speak for himself, he is concerned about the younger players now taking the field:
“It’s tough to give it up, it’s tough to give up the celebrity, it’s tough to give up something you’re good at … and, you love the game,” he said.
The NFL is taking a number of steps to reduce head injuries on the field. The league says in the past three years, concussions are down 35%, and the helmet-to-helmet hits are down by more than 40%.
The league also donated $30 million to the National Institutes of Health to study the problem.
The league is currently trying to settle a long-standing lawsuit filed by former players who claim the NFL hid the dangers of repetitive head trauma for years. A $1 billion settlement is being challenged by a number of players who say the amount and payout structure are inadequate.