In the game of football, it’s an art that requires just as much skill and technique as shooting, passing, tackling or any extravagant flick or trick you care to mention in order to become proficient.
The dedication and bravery required to excel at heading a football – light and modern or otherwise – is quite a rare trait. One such player noted to have the necessary desire and aptitude was the American, Patrick Grange.
Growing up as a sports-mad kid in his hometown of Albuquerque, New Mexico, Grange’s parents Mike and Michele remember him regularly heading a football from the tender age of just 3-years-old and that, from then on, he sustained regular concussions – some of which were linked to his love of heading a football.
He began to flourish in the game during his late teens; starring for his college side Illinois-Chicago and then at the University of New Mexico. At was around this time that he began to demonstrate the first signs of the condition that would rob him of his life at the age of just 29.
Amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS), more commonly known in America as Lou Gehrig’s disease, has long been well documented in people over 50. ALS is a form of Motor Neurone Disease. The most common symptoms of ALS include depression, memory loss, impulse control disorders and progressive dementia. According to Grange’s parents, he exhibited many examples of these behavioural anomalies going back to his high school days.
There have also been many cases diagnosed amongst sportsmen in their 20’s; the vast majority of those have been recorded in participants of more violent contact sports with more potential for head trauma such as American Football and boxing.
Grange was diagnosed with ALS when he was 27 and died just 17 months later. Post-mortem analysis of his brain by Dr. Ann McKee of Boston University, Massachusetts, showed distinct signs of chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE) and indicated severe frontal lobe damage more consistent with injuries seen in former NFL players.
Dr. McKee’s examination found that the area of Grange’s brain that was most impacted corresponds to where footballers typically head the ball, but pointed out that it is very difficult to apportion blame specifically or exclusively to heading.
We can’t say for certain that heading the ball caused his condition in this case,” she said. “But it is noteworthy that he was a frequent header of the ball, and he did develop this disease. I’m not sure we can take it any further than that.
We think the precipitating factor in this case was most likely the trauma. First of all, he was absurdly young when he developed this disease. And he has considerable evidence of this trauma-induced tauopathy, or C.T.E.
CTE has hit the headlines recently in Britain in relation to the case of West Bromwich Albion legend Jeff Astle who died in 2002 as a result of brain trauma sustained by heading heavy leather balls during his auspicious playing career. The family of the former England striker are campaigning for an inquiry into the effects on the brain of such repeated concussive contact based on the findings of a 2011 study done at the Montefiore Medical Center in the US.
Under the lead researcher of that study, Dr. Michael Lipton, images from the brains of 32 amateur football players were taken and compared with those of who had suffered concussion. Results provided proof that players who frequently headed the ball were greatly increasing the risk of causing themselves severe and permanent brain damage. The study does not specify an exact amount of headers by which lasting injury can occur but a figure of 1000 or less per year may be considered safe, although more tests are required, say researchers.
At the time of his initial diagnosis, Grange had been hoping to realise his long-time dream of playing in the MLS. During his High School career, he was selected to take part in Albuquerque’s regional pool for the US Olympic Development Program. Whilst at college, the talented forward continued to catch the eye for Illinois-Chicago and for the New Mexico Lobos where he majored in communications. After university he had been playing at semi-professional level and was with Chicago Fire in the Premier Development League – a breeding ground for future MLS stars.
Deterioration in Grange’s condition was rapid; within six months of his ALS diagnosis he was forced into a wheelchair and soon after was unable to feed himself. He died at his parents’ house, surrounded by his family on April 10, 2012.
Patrick was described by his family and friends as quiet, optimistic and brave and after his diagnosis his passion became to research ALS and raise its awareness in his home state. He was successful in his driving passion when New Mexico declared February 3rd as annual ‘ALS Day’.
A tribute video was created about Patrick when he was inducted into a local Athletics Hall of Fame. Every image is of a smiling child, in full football kit, who grows to be a confident and competent footballer and because of a rare disease never had a chance to fulfil his potential.