Jim McMahon had nearly given up hope, resigned to a lifetime of pain and frightening memory loss. He even considered giving up completely and taking his own life.
Then a Long Island doctor helped him find a miracle.
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Before meeting Dr. Raymond Damadian of Woodbury, the pain in the 55-year-old former quarterback's head was so excruciating, the throbbing of every single heartbeat in his ears so persistent, that he mostly sought refuge in the bedroom of his home in Scottsdale, Arizona. It was the only way he could find any sort of relief, and even then -- just lying on his bed with the lights off -- he couldn't completely escape the pain.
"It got to the point where I wouldn't get out of bed for weeks at a time," the former Super Bowl-winning quarterback said.
The acute memory loss was just as troublesome. On the occasions when McMahon did leave his home, he sometimes couldn't remember where he was. Sometimes he'd decide to go out to the store to buy some chewing tobacco, but half an hour later, he'd still be home because he'd forgotten why he wanted to go out. He had to carry a picture of him and his girlfriend, Laurie Navon, with her telephone number in case he forgot who he was or where he needed to go.
"I'd be driving down the road trying to go home, and I wouldn't know where I was at," he said. "I called my girlfriend and I told her I didn't know where I was. She said, 'What are you driving past?' I said, 'Well, I just saw the casino, and I know I'm supposed to go past that to get home.' I just couldn't get home."
There were thoughts of suicide, he said, especially the times when he'd flash back to his last meeting with former Bears teammate Dave Duerson, who died of a self-inflicted gunshot wound on Feb. 17, 2011.
"I was with him a month before he killed himself," McMahon said. "He'd say, 'Mac, sometimes I'm driving around and I don't know where I'm at.' I told him I do that, too. I started having [suicidal] feelings myself. If I had a gun, I might be dead."
McMahon didn't take his own life, but he was resigned to spending the rest of his days in declining health, another sad example of the aftereffects of the multiple concussions he suffered during his 15-year career, which ended with the 1996 season.
A cover story in Sports Illustrated two years ago chronicling his health problems brought McMahon's situation into focus and drew further attention to the league's concussion crisis. He once had been an electrifying personality on the Bears' unforgettable 1985 Super Bowl championship team, but now he was reduced to chronic pain, forgetfulness and suicidal thoughts -- a familiar pattern for so many other players damaged by the game.
And then, help
But his haunting story ultimately turned into a life-changing moment for McMahon, thanks to two Long Island residents who had a hunch that McMahon's problems could be traceable not only to numerous concussions but also to issues with his neck.
As it turns out, Damadian and his brother-in-law, Dave Terry of East Quogue, not only may have saved McMahon's life and alleviated much of his suffering, but ultimately could help other former players dealing with similar situations.
"I read the article two years ago and I'm like, 'Oh, man, I didn't know he was having a problem,' " said Terry, who with Damadian co-founded Melville-based Fonar, the first company to manufacture magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) machines in 1980. "I'd met Jim at a golf tournament about seven years ago and I really got a kick out of him. My brother-in-law was starting a new science, and I thought maybe we can help."
Terry contacted McMahon through a mutual acquaintance and the former quarterback had an MRI at the Fonar facility, where Damadian had begun a new procedure in which patients have the MRI done while sitting down, not in a recumbent position, as in traditional imaging tests.
"Jim's principal problems were headaches and loss of memory, and I asked if he'd ever had an MRI," Damadian said. "He said yes, and I asked what part of his anatomy was scanned, and he said his head."
Damadian took a closer look at McMahon's neck and found that the top two vertebrae were misaligned, which caused a blockage of his cerebral spinal fluid.
"If that fluid gets obstructed and backs up, you get symptoms of pressure, numbness, loss of vision, and ultimately, people end up in wheelchairs," Damadian said. "When the fluid is blocked, it backs up into the head, a condition called cranial cervical syndrome."
McMahon said he was never told about any neck problems, believing that his post-NFL issues were solely concussion-related.
"Dr. Damadian said that the only thing that would make something like this happen to your neck is if you got dumped on top of your head," McMahon said. "I told him that's what happened in 1986. But I had taken so many painkillers when I was playing, I couldn't feel anything.''
McMahon -- who is part of an ongoing lawsuit among former players suing the NFL over what they allege is an indiscriminate use of painkillers and who also is one of more than 4,000 former players in a concussion-related lawsuit against the league (settlement talks to resolve the suit are ongoing) -- pointed to another hit in 1993, when he was with the Vikings.
"I got hit from the side, and my neck got bent," he said. "I laid there for a good two or three minutes. thought I was knocked out, but I was wide awake. I said, 'Don't touch me. I can't feel my legs.' I went to the sidelines, sat there for a minute and said I can go back in. I threw a ball and somebody barely brushed my helmet and my legs went numb again."
McMahon said injury protocol during his career was simplistic and largely ineffective. Unlike today's NFL, in which players are closely monitored and are removed from a game if a concussion is suspected, only cursory tests were performed when McMahon played.
"Back then, the doc would ask, 'Can you follow my finger?' " McMahon said, pointing his index finger up and moving it from side-to-side.
If a player showed that he could, McMahon said, the doctor would tell him, "You're good," and the player would return to the game.
"I got my Jimmy back"
A few days after the MRI, Damadian and Terry accompanied McMahon and Navon to the upstate Rock Hill office of Dr. Scott Rosa, a cranio-cervical specialist who has treated many athletes, as well as others suffering with multiple schlerosis, Parkinson's, autism, Lou Gehrig's disease and other neurodegenerative diseases. Rosa performed a noninvasive procedure -- the Image Guided Atlas Treatment -- that aligned the C-1 and C-2 vertebrae near the base of McMahon's skull.
The relief was almost instantaneous.
"When they first did it to me, it was like the toilet flushed," McMahon said. "I thought to myself, 'No wonder I can hear my heart beating. It was bang, bang, bang.' I was having trouble speaking. I couldn't see clearly. But as soon as [Rosa] moved those bones, it was amazing."
Terry saw McMahon shortly after the procedure and was astonished.
"I saw a face that was almost ghostly white flush pink right after it," he said. "I said, 'Jim, how are you feeling?' He said, 'Actually, pretty good.' I said, 'Don't BS me.' He said, 'No, I feel really good. I don't have a headache anymore.' "
Navon, who once thought her boyfriend would never be whole again, almost couldn't believe what had just happened.
"Laurie was teary-eyed because it was like a miracle," Terry said.
Navon simply said, "I got my Jimmy back."
McMahon needed a few more treatments -- and still requires help in making sure his spine is properly aligned -- but he is living a relatively normal life again.
There still is some short-term memory loss, but not nearly to the extent he experienced before getting help. And there is joint pain from arthritis, something he understands and accepts after so many years of playing in the NFL. But there also is relief from the symptoms that once threatened his life.
Last month, after completing his bachelor's degree at Brigham Young University, where he starred in college, his number was retired. And on Monday, he appeared at the Pelham Country Club in Westchester to announce the start of the Players Against Concussions foundation, a nonprofit organization dedicating to helping athletes at all levels of sports better understand the dangers of concussions and promoting safety issues to help those sports -- including football -- continue to thrive.
"We don't want to change the way the game is played, because that's what made the game great,'' McMahon said of football. "Injuries are going to happen. You can't prevent the injuries, but you can help the guys once they're hurt, and that's by getting a proper diagnosis. These guys that helped me are on to something.''
A promise to help
Despite his recent improvement, McMahon believes he may be suffering from chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE), a progressive neurodegenerative disease. He has agreed to donate his brain to the Boston University School of Medicine, said to be the country's leading facility for studying the brains of deceased former players. A recent study conducted there showed that 76 of 79 brains of former football players, including many who played in the NFL, were diagnosed with CTE.
McMahon wants to do his part to advance the science of brain study, although he showed some of his trademark humor in making the decision to donate his brain.
"My girlfriend said, 'You can't just donate your brain.' I said, 'Well, I'm not going to need it if I'm dead.' "
McMahon's case is potentially good news for other former players suffering symptoms similar to the ones he has experienced, especially if their issues are related to neck problems not previously diagnosed. Damadian and Rosa believe the interconnectedness of concussions and neck problems is not given enough consideration. And it's not just with football players.
"The medical profession is generally not aware of it," Damadian said. "[Neck issues] are playing a role in a lot of neurodegenerative diseases, including multiple sclerosis, Alzheimer's disease, Parkinson's, Lou Gehrig's disease and, the one that troubles me the most, childhood autism."
Rosa suggests football players at all levels can benefit from increased focus on neck issues. He, too, believes that other people suffering from neurodegenerative diseases also can find relief.
"We believe that we have come across things and observations which are pieces of the puzzle that the medical and scientific people didn't know about," he said. "The technology has enabled us to see things we've never seen before. If the observations we're seeing continue as a trend, it's quite plausible that we might very well change the course of humanity and mankind forever.''
Rosa also suggests the NFL should avail itself of the new technology, although he believes the league might not be receptive. A league spokesman said the NFL has committed $161 million to research related to concussions and CTE. The league did not directly comment on Rosa's research.
"From a biomechanical perspective, it's difficult to imagine the head being struck without somehow influencing the neck not to be injured,'' said Rosa, who plans to meet with Hall of Fame running back Gale Sayers and Hall of Fame cornerback Lem Barney later this year. He said both players are experiencing post-career problems that might be related to neck problems.
Rosa added, "We can make it safer, and it doesn't have to be what it is. The catastrophic injuries are getting worse, not better. I'm just trying to help educate as many people as we can.''
The NFL might be reluctant to follow Rosa's advice, however. St. Louis Rams team physician Matthew Matava, president of the NFL Physicians Society, suggested that McMahon's case might not be representative of others.
"Despite the favorable claims of Jim McMahon that an upright MRI was instrumental in diagnosing (and ultimately treating) his condition, such claims amount to nothing more than a case report that would have to be proven in many more patients using standardized outcome measures of improvement,'' Matava said. "This is referred to as 'evidence-based' medicine. Keep in mind that there is also the very real potential for unnecessary radiation exposure with routine X-rays or CT scans, not to mention the added cost of these tests that would add up to millions of dollars per year, considering the number of concussions there are in the U.S. alone.''
Matava added that "the protocols currently in place in the NFL to deal with both the diagnosis and treatment of concussion have been carefully conceived through the input of specialists in every area of medicine that deals with this condition. In addition, these protocols are based on all of the available research that has withstood the rigors of the peer review process. Admittedly, there is much more to learn about concussion both in NFL players as well as other non-athletic patient groups. However, through the leadership of the NFL's Head and Neck Committee, NFL Physician Society, and other stake-holders in the NFL, we will continue to use the very best evidence to refine our treatment protocols for this condition.''
Regardless of where the NFL stands, McMahon hopes his example can help others.
"Let's raise the awareness about this problem,'' he said. "I wish they had figured out what was wrong with me sooner, but at least I got some help. Let's help others out there and let's deal with the problem."