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Former Dallas Cowboy Shines Light On Brain Injuries

Lauren Silverman

Former Dallas Cowboy Daryl Johnston is using his fame shine a light on brain injuries in sports. He says all athletes should get a baseline assessment test before playing sports, and is working with the Center for BrainHealth in Dallas to promote awareness. 

Daryl Johnston played 11 seasons – or nine years – as fullback for the Cowboys. It’s impossible to know exactly just how many hits to the head he’s taken. Still, Johnston says he was more worried about the concussions he suffered as a rambunctious little boy than as an offensive blocker.  

Johnston first came to the Center for BrainHealth, he says, because he wanted to be proactive and find out if he had damaged his brain on the field, or off.  

So last year Johnston, along with more than 30 other ex-players, participated in a study looking at the long-term effects of concussions. It showed a higher incidence of depression for players – roughly twice the national average. Several former players also had signs of cognitive impairment.

Johnston’s brain scan came back normal, but he’s recruited others, like former teammate Cooper Gardiner, to come in for an evaluation and neurological tests.

Concussion Myths & Facts:

The Center’s Medical Director, John Hart Jr., has led multiple studies involving ex-NFL players, including Johnston. He says there are three main findings in his most recent concussion research.  

  • Not everyone who plays sports and gets a concussion ends up with a cognitive problem later on.
  • The number of concussions a player has had can’t tell you whether or not that person will have cognitive decline or dementia.
  • Depression among former players does correlate with concussions. Hart says this is a depression not characterized so much by crying and sadness, but more by negative thinking and even suicidal thoughts. 

Changing Rules & Cultures:

Dr. Hart emphasized that everyone reacts differently to concussions. Just like with the flu, some people recover in a day, others may end up in bed for weeks. He says in the future concussion treatment will have to be more personalized. Different guidelines for different players, sports, even for different positions on the field.

But rules and brain tests won’t be enough to change a culture that trivializes brain injuries. As a Fox sports commentator, Daryl Johnston says he makes sure not to make light of a serious head injury by using throwaway words – like 'ding' – to describe hits to the head.

"If you hear 'traumatic brain injury' instead of ‘he got his bell rung,’ you’re starting to shift people’s thought process on what the injury actually was.”

Johnston hopes that shifting the culture around concussions on the football field will trickle down -- to the courts, arenas, gymnasiums, and backyards across the country. 

Lauren Silverman was the Health, Science & Technology reporter/blogger at KERA News. She was also the primary backup host for KERA’s Think and the statewide newsmagazine  Texas Standard. In 2016, Lauren was recognized as Texas Health Journalist of the Year by the Texas Medical Association. She was part of the Peabody Award-winning team that covered Ebola for NPR in 2014. She also hosted "Surviving Ebola," a special that won Best Long Documentary honors from the Public Radio News Directors Inc. (PRNDI). And she's won a number of regional awards, including an honorable mention for Edward R. Murrow award (for her project “The Broken Hip”), as well as the Texas Veterans Commission’s Excellence in Media Awards in the radio category.