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By E.J. Mundell
FRIDAY, Oct. 5 (HealthDay News) -- The pluck and luck that helped the upstart New York Jets football team capture Super Bowl III in 1969 -- considered one of the biggest upsets in U.S. sports history -- seems to have followed the players well into their retirement.
A new study finds the collective health of the ex-Jets is just fine.
But the study authors were quick to add that these findings are probably not representative of retired pro football players in general. In fact, controversy continues to grow around calls for compensation to many aging -- and often sick -- retired players.
"I don't think that you can generalize the entire population of pro football based on this small microcosm" of New York Jets, said the study's lead researcher, Dr. Stephen Nicholas. He's director of the Nicholas Institute of Sports Medicine and Athletic Trauma at Lenox Hill Hospital, in New York City.
For more than 40 years, Nicholas and his father before him, the late Dr. James Nicholas, have been team doctors for the Jets. The elder Nicholas was charged with the care of the 1969 team, including star quarterback Joe Namath.
At the time, the Jets were dismissed as hopeless underdogs hitched to the maligned American Football Conference. Their 16-7 victory over the prohibitively favored Baltimore Colts of the National Football Conference is considered among the most important pro football games ever played.
Now, drawing on 35 years of follow-up data, researchers led by the younger Nicholas found that the Jets veterans of that legendary match-up -- now averaging 62 years of age -- are in as good or better shape physically and mentally as other men their age.
Thirty-six of the total 41 members of the Jets participated in the study, whose results are published in the October issue of The American Journal of Sports Medicine. (Three of the original team members had died by the time the data was collected in 2004, Nicholas said.)
Players who suffered knee ligament injury during their football careers were at higher risk for knee osteoarthritis and knee replacement, the researchers found. In fact, two-thirds of the retired Jets went on to suffer from injury-linked knee trouble.
On the other hand, "the general health of these players was surprising," Nicholas said. "They had very little incidence of diabetes, their hypertension wasn't bad, and there were actually less deaths than you'd expect compared to an age-matched population."
Players with knee arthritis had physical health scores that were on par with the average 60-something American male, and those without knee trouble had scores that were 19 percent above the norm, the researchers found.
Even when players were overweight or obese, "we did not see diabetes," Nicholas noted. That may stem from the team members' continued commitment to fitness.
"I know most of these players," Nicholas noted. "I was a waterboy on that team in 1969. I knew them back then, and I know them now as a physician for many of them -- they maintain their fitness, and they are still in shape."
That includes brain fitness, too, he said. The study found that the ex-Jets were as or more mentally sharp than men of similar age, despite the neurological hazards that playing football can bring.
Precautions taken during the players' careers might have helped, Nicholas said. "My father was on the forefront of orthopedics and medicine back then, and they used very strict criteria for cerebral injury," he said. "Players wouldn't go back into the game; they wouldn't go back next week with concussions."
The researchers also found no evidence of any increased risk of depression among the Jets veterans, and 94 percent of the retirees said they had had either "very fulfilling" or "somewhat fulfilling" careers.
Even the risk of knee arthritis was limited to those 24 of 36 players who had suffered a ligament tear or other knee injury. "Those people who didn't have ligament injuries had a relatively low incidence of the need for knee replacement and osteoarthritis," Nicholas said.
All of this is in stark contrast with recent, more generalized research into the health of retired pro football players. For example, a study of almost 1,600 retired players, released in April in the journal Medicine & Science in Sports & Exercise, found that more than half had high scores for pain, and almost 15 percent reported moderate to severe depression.
That study's lead author said those results may better reflect the reality of life after players leave the gridiron.
"That [Jets team] was a very special team, they had a lot of spirit and camaraderie, and they had this amazing continuity of health care throughout," said Dr. Thomas Schwenk, professor and chairman of the department of family medicine at the University of Michigan School of Medicine. "We know that contributes to overall health and to mental and physical health and vitality."
He also wonders if the 1969 Jets -- a highly select, fit, medically pampered group of men -- shouldn't have done even better than the data shows. "Should they have scores that are only as good as the general population? Should they be better?" Schwenk said.
He believes that for too many players, life after the game is much lonelier than that experienced by the '69 Jets.
"I think a lot of this has to do with what happens to these players after retirement -- do they go off and have minimal connections? No support, no health care, no continuity, no follow-up?" Schwenk said. "Are they just shunted off to the corners of life, or are they connected in ways that give them certain attributes to their overall health?"
Indeed, recent headlines have shown that not all players fare as well as the retired Jets. Former NFL player Andre Waters, a star safety for the Philadelphia Eagles and Arizona Cardinals, committed suicide last year at age 44. He had been suffering from brain damage caused by multiple concussions during his 12-year career, pathology reports found.
And a legal and media tug-of-war continues between those representing aging and ailing ex-players and the NFL Players Association. Critics charge that the players' union isn't giving retired players the pension and disability funds they need for illnesses linked to injuries sustained during their careers.
Speaking at a special Congressional hearing in September, former Miami Dolphins running back Mercury Morris charged that the "intent" of those in charge of the disability funds "is to prevent the player from getting the benefit," according to a report in the Baltimore Sun.
In response, NFL Players Association chief Gene Upshaw has asked Congress to help with legislation that could reform the organization's pension and disability system.
According to Schwenk, much of the older players' anger may be justified.
"When they feel like they have just been used up and thrown away, I think it leads to significant health consequences," he said.
Nicholas agreed. He said that while the '69 Jets have fared relatively well over the years, many of their peers have not.
"A lot of these old ball players are responsible for what the game is today," Nicholas said. "And to see some of these people not cared for? Obviously, as a human being, you want to see that changed."
For more on sports injuries, visit the U.S. National Library of Medicine.
SOURCES: Stephen Nicholas, M.D., director, Nicholas Institute of Sports Medicine and Athletic Trauma, Lenox Hill Hospital, New York City; Thomas Schwenk, M.D., professor and chairman, department of family medicine, University of Michigan School of Medicine, Ann Arbor; October 2007, The American Journal of Sports Medicine
Last Updated: Oct. 05, 2007
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