A lot of chatter this morning about the Strib’s muff of ex-Viking Orlando Thomas’ non-death, abetting by incorrect info from the team’s website, started by some Louisiana dude’s MySpace page. Though we live in an age of aggregation, non-death-by-proxy is a cautionary tale, one the paper at least explained at length.
Thomas is still living with ALS, aka Lou Gehrig’s Disease. Another Viking who really did die from it was Wally Hilgenberg, a linebacker who succumbed at age 66 last year. Coincidentally, just before the Thomas affair made headlines, Hilgenberg’s name popped up the New Yorker, as a bit player in Malcolm Gladwell’s “Offensive play: How different are dogfighting and football?”
Basically, Gladwell’s thesis is both blood contests knowingly ruin their participants by exploiting their need to please. As usual, the pop sociologist provokes, in part by likening players’ free will to that of canines. Still, it’s a great read — though you’ll probably enjoy that Vikings-Packer tilt less.
Gladwell focuses heavily on brain damage, and one of its markers, known as tau. He writes that in Alzheimer’s patients, tau marks “the critical second stage of the disease: it’s the protein that steadily builds up in brain cells, shutting them down and ultimately killing them.” This is where Hilgenberg, a linebacker in the ’60s and ’70s, comes in:
[Neurologist Ann] McKee’s laboratory occupies a warren of rooms, in what looks like an old officers’ quarters on the V.A. campus. In one of the rooms, there is an enormous refrigerator, filled with brains packed away in hundreds of plastic containers. Nearby is a tray with small piles of brain slices. They look just like the ginger shavings that come with an order of sushi. Now McKee went to the room next to her office, sat down behind a microscope, and inserted one of the immunostained slides under the lens.
“This is Tom McHale,” she said. “He started out playing for Cornell. Then he went to Tampa Bay. He was the man who died of substance abuse at the age of forty-five. I only got fragments of the brain. But it’s just showing huge accumulations of tau for a forty-five-year-old—ridiculously abnormal.”
She placed another slide under the microscope. “This individual was forty-nine years old. A football player. Cognitively intact. He never had any rage behavior. He had the distinctive abnormalities. Look at the hypothalamus.” It was dark with tau. She put another slide in. “This guy was in his mid-sixties,” she said. “He died of an unrelated medical condition. His name is Walter Hilgenberg. Look at the hippocampus. It’s wall-to-wall tangles. Even in a bad case of Alzheimer’s, you don’t see that.” The brown pigment of the tau stain ran around the edge of the tissue sample in a thick, dark band. “It’s like a big river.”
I don’t know why Gladwell didn’t specify ALS, and I haven’t followed the Thomas case closely enough to know if his affliction can yet be definitively linked to football. But the cases are reminders that what can seem like acts of God can be acts of men.