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FORT LEAVENWORTH, Kan. Former Kansas City Chiefs players and Army leaders said Wednesday that a change in culture about the risks of concussions must start at the top levels in sports and the military.
The comments came during a forum at Fort Leavenworth on traumatic brain injuries, the sixth in a series of such events to bring awareness to concussions and brain injuries. Several dozen Army officers listened to the discussion, including comments by Pro Football Hall of Fame linebacker Willie Lanier, who said he learned the lessons early.
Lanier, who played from 1967 through 1977, serves on an NFL player safety panel studying ways to make the game safer. Lanier suffered numerous concussions in his rookie season, including one that didn't manifest until a week later. Lanier says he changed his playing technique as a result, but only after he sought answers to his injury at the Mayo Clinic.
"It wasn't hard for me to do. I figured out I had to change the way I play the game or I don't play," Lanier said. "It just becomes practical that if you're going to do it, you better do it smart. Because if you don't do it smart you have all types of potential risks that you really shouldn't take."
The military has been looking at the impact of traumatic brain injuries as soldiers return from combat. The Army and NFL signed a joint letter in August announcing the partnership.
The NFL faces lawsuits by thousands of former players who say the league withheld information on the harmful effects concussions can have on their health.
NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell said Tuesday in Detroit that the partnership with the Army is about sharing what is known about head injuries and protocols for clearing soldiers and players to return to action, whether it be the battlefield or playing field. A portion of the program is changing the culture and the soldier and player frame of mind.
"It's about trying to combat the warrior mentality, which is you want to be on the battlefield or what you want to be on the field, but you need to be healthy and you need to identify yourself when you have an injury," Goodell said.
He said the NFL is stressing that players take precautions to identify when they or others may have had an injury that needs proper medical care.
"I think that's what hopefully our partnership with the Army is going to help do for our soldiers and our players," Goodell said.
Lt. Gen. David Perkins, commander of the Combined Arms Center and Fort Leavenworth, said the military is learning to take brain injuries seriously as soldiers see repeated concussions and head injuries from combat and training.
"Used to be a time when you had an event like that, here are the smelling salts, shake it off and go on. We didn't know what we didn't know," Perkins said.
Col. Emery Fehl, commander of Munson Army Health Center, said that 253,330 service members have had a traumatic brain injury, but that 84 percent happened inside the United States, either during training, falls, sporting events or other activity.
"This is not a one-time war issue that once we draw down from Afghanistan we won't be talking about this," Fehl said. "We will be talking about this for a long time."
He said new protocols issued in September require soldiers who have a concussion to be pulled off the line for at least 24 hours and given medical clearance before returning. Subsequent concussions require longer time away from duty before being cleared.
Former Chiefs player Danan Hughes said players share the same mentality as soldiers that there is a duty to be on the field and that no one who replaces them will do as well. As such, he said, players do all they can to hide any effects, shake off symptoms and get back in the game.
He encouraged the Chiefs and the rest of the NFL to create centers near cities where teams are located so that retired players would have access to practitioners who could check them for signs and symptoms of traumatic brain injury. He cited the deaths of Junior Seau and Dave Duerson as examples of former players who may have benefited from such facilities.
AP Sports Writers Larry Lage in Detroit and Dave Skretta in Kansas City, Mo., contributed to this report.