When Eric Hill played linebacker for LSU and in the NFL, every tackler had the same mindset: “You kill the head, you kill the body.”

Hill, who retired from football in 2000, remembers coaches at every level telling him to use his helmet as a weapon. That created a greater risk of concussions for both players.

But the NFL was like “the wild, wild West” then, he said, with few safety rules, and concussions seemed like “a phantom injury” since few people were aware of the serious effects.

If a player got his bell rung, he had ammonia packs in his sock to sniff and keep playing.

“You could just grab one, and ‘all right, I’m good,’” Hill said. “That’s how we did it.”

Hill played 11 seasons in the NFL, mostly for the Cardinals in St. Louis and Phoenix. He also was a captain of LSU’s SEC Championship team in 1998. He had seven documented concussions in the NFL, but he suspects he might have had up to 100 throughout his career.

One sticks out in his mind. His team was facing the New York Giants when he scooped up a fumble. Another player came in and hit him on the side of the head. He dropped the ball and then instinctively headed back to the huddle.

“To this day, they were saying it was, like, three plays where I had no idea what I was doing,” Hill said.

The concerns about concussions surfaced after the first case of chronic traumatic encephalopathy was found in 2005 in the brain of Mike Webster, a former center for the Pittsburgh Steelers, and they have since prompted efforts to make tackling – and football itself – safer at every level, from youth and high-school leagues on up through college and the pros.

As more brains of deceased NFL players were examined, nearly all came back with the same result: CTE.

Many of the players suffered from severe mood swings, and some committed suicide. Former New England Patriots tight end Aaron Hernandez was convicted of murder and, at 27, hung himself in his jail cell in 2017. Researchers determined that he had one of the most severe cases of CTE for someone his age.

At first, the NFL shunned doctors who discovered the disease and refused to admit there was a connection between playing football and long-term effects like dementia, Alzheimer’s disease or brain trauma.

Hill sees these brain issues among colleagues with whom he played. He knows some who need handlers to help manage their days.

“To see friends that are hurting, that’s tough sometimes because you easily know that could be you,” he said.

Players received pamphlets before the 2007 season about a concussion protocol, but the plan was not very detailed. The pamphlets stated that research had not shown that having one or two concussions led to permanent problems.

Two years earlier, an NFL committee had found that returning to play after a concussion did not involve a significant risk of another injury in the same game.

But the NFL no longer holds these views, and it is spending $100 million on medical research and efforts to improve equipment. The NFL and the NCAA also created a targeting penalty to try to stamp out the head-hunting that was common in Hill’s day.

If a player lowers his head to initiate contact with his helmet against another player’s head, he is now ejected from a game. The penalty makes players aware of how to hit without causing head injuries.

The NFL has hired biomedical engineers to study how to make helmets safer. Many colleges, including Tulane University, now use mouth guards that track the force a player takes with each hit.

Trainers monitor hit levels during practice and games. If the levels reach a certain peak, a trainer will pull a player aside and assess him. Tulane defensive lineman Noah Seiden, who just completed his sophomore season, recalls how a trainer pulled him out of practice to be evaluated after a hard hit. He said he would not have realized how hard the hit was had the mouthpiece not picked up a high force.

Seiden said he has had three documented concussions: in sixth grade, his senior year in high school and his freshman year in college.

“The first helmet that I had when I got that first concussion was just like a brick,” he said. “It was hard padding and didn’t really help me that much.”

Each Tulane player uses three helmets to keep them from wearing down as fast. Trainers check the air pressure in the helmets to assure that they sit correctly and can limit the severity of a hit.

LSU, Hill’s alma mater, also continues to experiment with new safety measures. It uses sensors in its helmets to determine the gravitational and rotational forces from a hit.

Hill said he probably had more concussions in practice than in games. LSU also has cut back on violent practices to reduce the hits players absorb.

“We were the lead school to eliminate two-a-day practices because of our research,” said Jack Marucci, LSU’s director of athletic training for football.

Starting with youth and high school leagues, athletes need to recognize symptoms of concussions, which may include confusion, balance issues and blurred vision. Concussions can be scaled from level 1 to level 3, with level 3 being the most severe, and taking enough time to recover is imperative.

“Take it slow and get evaluated as soon as possible,” Marucci said. “Follow the protocol to return to play.”

“Every athlete is different, so there is not a set amount of days,” he added. “It can vary from four days to 21 days.”

Often, football players aren’t even aware they have a concussion, said David Daniels, who played at Millikin University and Valparaiso University. Like Hill, Daniels said he had probably played with multiple concussions in his career.

“Even though I got hit a lot, I never checked to see if I got a concussion or not,” Daniels said.

Mark Dalecki, an assistant professor at the LSU School of Kinesiology, said most athletes are eager to get back on the field, but they need to wait to be cleared by a medical professional.

Dalecki said short and long-term impairments might not stem from one big concussion but from a combination of tiny hits over time. Concussions as a youth also place a player at a higher risk for dementia or other ailments.

Hill, now enjoying the game from his couch instead of the field, sees how “the kids” are hitting differently and appreciates how the coaches are teaching them to avoid injuries.

“You still get big, fast, strong men that are running into each other, so that’s a lot of energy, so that’s gonna be violent,” he said. But the violence is not quite the same as when he played “because the intent is different,” he added.

Carolina Panthers linebacker Luke Kuechly felt that his health should take precedence over the game. He retired last year due to concussions sustained during his playing career.

Hill said Kuechly could make that decision because he was financially stable, whereas players in earlier times were not as well off.

Noah Seiden’s mom Kathy remembers the first time her son got a concussion, in sixth grade.

“It was the first time I ever thought, ‘Oh my gosh, this could potentially be dangerous,’” she said. “Because they were so little at the time.”

She has been impressed with the way her son’s coaches and trainers at Tulane work toward keeping safety a top priority. She still prays for her son before every game. But, she said,

“When your kid is so smart about it and handling it well ... you got to let him go.”

Hill is glad that more people are talking about the dangers of concussions. He said that breaks down the “gladiator shield” that he and his teammates had to maintain during their time.

Many parents, including some former NFL players, are concerned about having their sons play football. But for anyone who has a passion for football like he did, Hill thinks, the benefits still outweigh the risks.

“Every time you go out on the field, you take a risk,” Hill said. “You have to make sure that risk is worth it.”

Jessica Speziale and Henry Weldon are staffers with LSU Manship School News Service. Hunter M. McCann, Keith A. Fell Jr. and Anthony J. Mocklin contributed to this story.

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