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Brian Mitchell calls safety measures 'smoke screens,' suggests NFL doctoring K-balls

By Tim Graham

This week's NFL Sunday feature in The Buffalo News is about the disappearing kickoff return. Among the people I interviewed was Brian Mitchell, the NFL's all-time leader in kickoff and punt return yards.

In addition to moving kickoffs from the 30-yard line to the 35 two years ago and eliminating wedges in 2009, Mitchell alleged the NFL has undertaken a more subterranean method to generating more touchbacks.

An excerpt from today's feature:

Mitchell is disgusted with what the NFL is doing to his former occupation.

He rewrote the NFL's kick-return record books in his 14 seasons. Nobody has fielded more returns. He amassed more than 1,000 yards on kick returns nine times. He ranks second in all-purpose yards, 230 behind Jerry Rice.

Mitchell would rather hold onto those records legitimately than have rules erase would-be challengers.

He asserted special teams are being used as scapegoats for safety.

NFL Commissioner "Roger Goodell and the people in the league have thrown more smoke screens out there to make fans think they're doing stuff to prevent head injuries, and they haven’t done a damn thing," Mitchell said.

"Legal hits are being fined these days. Fans say, 'The game is being cleaned up.' No, they're making you think that they're doing more just by fining because the guys get fined, they appeal and a lot of times they win their appeals, which you don't hear about as much.

"I think it's a bunch of B.S. what they're doing. Every year, concussions have gone up."

As part of its report on NFL head injuries, the PBS series "Frontline" created a concussion database from official injury reports dating to 2009, when there were 92 reported concussions. There were 129 concussions in 2010, 142 in 2011 and 171 last year.

There have been 88 reported concussions this year, a pace of 125, the first annual decline if the trend holds up.

Mitchell told The Buffalo News he sees clues of a conspiracy to induce more touchbacks. He suggested the NFL is fiddling with the K-balls that are used only for kicks and punts.

K-balls were introduced in 1999 because players and equipment managers were manipulating game balls -- tumbling them in a clothes dryer, pounding them with dumbbells, soaking them in hot water -- to make them easier to kick.

To halt shenanigans, the NFL had 12 K-balls shipped directly from Wilson Sporting Goods to each officiating crew. The box is sealed with tamper-proof tape and popped open two hours before the game. K-balls never are to be unsupervised.

Once implemented, kickers and punters complained. The K-balls were too waxy and stiff, didn’t travel as far and permitted juicier return opportunities. Thrilling returns were what the NFL desired at the time.

Twenty years later, is the shoe on the other foot? Mitchell claimed the K-balls could be altered at the factory at the league’s whim.

"There are guys that couldn't kick the ball in the end zone when they were kicking from the 30," Mitchell said. "Now they're at the 35 and kicking it out of the end zone. Is it leg strength, or are the footballs doctored up now?"

Touchback percentages not only skyrocketed in 2011 compared to the previous season, but also compared to the last time the NFL kicked off from the 35-yard line.

In 1993, the touchback percentage was a relatively modest 26.5 percent from the 35-yard line. That also was the last season the NFL allowed 3-inch kicking tees. Tees now are an inch high to reduce hang time.

So in 20 years, kickers are blasting the ball farther and more consistently off a shorter tee.

"What is the league doing?" Mitchell said. "I know these kickers ain't got that strong that quick. It doesn't add up. It does seem like they’re trying to take kickoffs out of the game, doesn't it?"

In response to Mitchell’s allegation, two NFL spokesmen emphasized K-balls were tamper-proof and "introduced specifically to prevent tampering."

Informed of the league's reply, Mitchell texted: "LOL."

Joe DeLamielleure's suspicions affirmed by CTE diagnosis

By Tim Graham

Buffalo Bills legend Joe DeLamielleure already figured his brain was damaged from years of playing football.

Recent tests at UCLA merely confirmed his belief.

ESPN's "Outside the Lines" reported today that DeLamielleure, fellow Pro Football Hall of Famer Tony Dorsett and former All-Pro Leonard Marshall have been diagnosed with signs of chronic traumatic encephalopathy, the degenerative brain condition scientists believe is caused by repeated collisions.

"If you played football in my era, and you played as long as I played," DeLamielleure told me tonight, "there's a very, very good chance you got CTE. I knew for years I had some issues."

CTE usually isn't diagnosed until an autopsy. Over 50 former NFL players have been diagnosed posthumously, as former players and their families increasingly agree to will their brains for study to help understand the long-term neurological impact of repeated collisions.

Many former NFL players suffer from dementia and depression. Research has shown NFL players have eight to 10 times the likelihood of being diagnosed with amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS), the incurable neuromuscular disorder commonly known as Lou Gehrig's disease, than the average citizen.

That's because CTE mimics ALS, and the actual cause can't be learned until an autopsy. Some brains, including retired superstars such as Junior Seau and Dave Duerson, were found to have CTE after suicides.

UCLA researchers identified the condition in living players for the first time a year ago. DeLamielleure said UCLA used a nuclear PET scan for his diagnosis.

"When I heard they had a test for CTE, I wanted to know for myself and for my family," DeLamielleure said. "We want to improve things not just for me, but for all people. This can help people who have dementia, strokes.

"I just don't want there to ever be another Junior Seau. To me, that is the saddest of sad stories. He played 20 years and killed himself. Let's start helping these guys."

Dorsett, a celebrated Dallas Cowboys running back, told ESPN his symptoms include depression, memory loss and suicidal thoughts. Dorsett told the network that on his flight from Dallas to visit UCLA, he repeatedly forgot why he was on the plane and where he was going.

DeLamielleure, 62, is a lifelong fitness nut and called himself "very functional" despite his diagnosis. He's fortunate that his wife of 41 years, Gerri, is a nurse.

But he explained he has insomnia and mood swings and gets inexplicably depressed when he's by himself for any amount of time.

"I should not be depressed," DeLamielleure said. "I'm happily married. I got six children. They've all grown up and gone to college. I got 10 grandchildren. They're all healthy. I have a great job, and I'm able to do speaking engagements.

"I get depressed for what reasons? It's from football."

DeLamielleure played right guard for the Bills from 1973 through 1979. He was the star of the "Electric Company," the line that blocked for record-setting running back O.J. Simpson.

DeLamielleure played five seasons with the Cleveland Browns before finishing his career with the Bills in 1985. He went to six Pro Bowls and was inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 2003.

He said he never was diagnosed with a concussion, but conceded he probably had hundreds. He told The Sporting News last year that if he had a chance to go back in time, he would not play football.

"It can't be from anything else but football," DeLamielleure said. "My CTE is from hitting my head against Fred Smerlas twice a day for six weeks over the course of years, and for playing against Jack Lambert and Joe Greene and hitting my head every day.

"And if you didn't put your head in when I played, they said you were a big sissy."

He added he has 60 percent hearing loss in his left ear from repeatedly getting slapped in the helmet.

DeLamielleure has been a vocal critic of the NFL for not taking care of retired players or providing adequate healthcare.

At the Pro Football Hall of Fame this summer, he and Bruce Smith were among 16 inductees who signed a letter that expressed to NFL commissioner Roger Goodell their dismay over a "continued denial of the link between repeated head impacts and permanent brain damage."

"We have sub-poverty pensions and no healthcare," DeLamielleure said. "We try to tell the NFL, 'Give us healthcare so we don't have to go through this.' But if you played before '93, you don't get it.

"That's depressing. They haven't taken care of us."

Joe DeLamielleure, Bruce Smith sign brain plea to NFL commish

By Tim Graham

CANTON, Ohio -- Buffalo Bills legends Bruce Smith and Joe DeLamielleure and 16 other Pro Football Hall of Famers have signed a letter that tells NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell they are disappointed in the league's "continued denial of the link between repeated head impacts and permanent brain damage."

The letter was sent two days before the Hall of Fame stages its annual enshrinement weekend. This year is the Hall of Fame's 50th anniversary celebration, with as many as 130 inductees returning to Canton.

"Though the NFL now claims to be better protecting current players from the risks and consequences of head injuries, it is at times difficult to believe, especially as the league continues to evade confirming the link between repeated hits to the head and long-term neurological issues suffered by so many of our football brethren. ...

"No one wants to see another generation of players suffer this fate. As former players, we refuse to stand by quietly and watch men who unknowingly sacrificed their health and future to the NFL go without the care they desperately need."

Continue reading "Joe DeLamielleure, Bruce Smith sign brain plea to NFL commish" »

Mario Williams gun photos not the wisest way to project public image

By Tim Graham

Two days ago, I stood in a ballroom at the NFL Rookie Symposium and listened to former defensive tackle Tank Johnson beg the league's newest class of players not to own guns.

Johnson was arrested multiple times because of guns and was reinstated from a suspension on the condition he forsake ownership. One time, NFL commissioner Roger Goodell pleaded with him over the phone not to purchase a Glock after Johnson caught two men trying to burglarize his car.

A day after Johnson's rookie presentation, authorities arrested New England Patriots tight end Aaron Hernandez. He's facing murder and five gun-related charges.

Let's just say the NFL is hyper-sensitive about guns these days.

That's why somebody close to Buffalo Bills defensive end Mario Williams should advise him to remove from his Instagram page a photo that makes fun of Hernandez and shows Williams firing what he claims to be fully automatic assault weapons.

Continue reading "Mario Williams gun photos not the wisest way to project public image" »

Roger Goodell honors Larry Felser at Radio City Music Hall

By Tim Graham

FelserDraftBefore the Buffalo Bills made their first draft pick of the second round tonight, NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell paid tribute to former Buffalo News reporter and columnist Larry Felser in Radio City Music Hall.

Felser, 80, passed away Wednesday.

"I want to recognize on behalf of the Bills organization and Buffalo fans, Larry Felser, the legendary Buffalo News columnist who passed away this week," Goodell said. "Larry covered the Bills from their beginning, was a great writer and a terrific person. He will be missed."

The accompanying photo of Felser was shown on a large screen while Goodell, a Jamestown native, spoke.

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About Press Coverage

Tim Graham

Tim Graham

Tim Graham returned to The Buffalo News in 2011 after covering the NFL for three years at ESPN and for one year at the Palm Beach Post. Before that, the Cleveland native spent seven seasons on the Buffalo Sabres beat for The News and was president of the Boxing Writers Association of America.

@ByTimGraham | tgraham@buffnews.com


Mark Gaughan

Mark Gaughan

Buffalo native Mark Gaughan started working at The News in 1980 and has been covering the Bills exclusively since 1992. He is a former president of the Pro Football Writers of America, and he is a member of the Pro Football Hall of Fame selection committee.

@gggaughan | mgaughan@buffnews.com


Jay Skurski

Jay Skurski

Jay Skurski joined The News in January 2009. The Lewiston native attended St. Francis High School before graduating from the University of South Florida. He writes a weekly Fantasy column in addition to his beat writing duties.

@JaySkurski | jskurski@buffnews.com

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