The reality of concussion
The reality of concussion

Sunday March 9th, 2014

Reporter: Peter Fitzsimons

Producer: Paul Waterhouse

Rugby League player turned actor Ian Roberts has revealed exclusively to Sunday Night that, after a long career of concussions, he has brain damage.

Roberts travelled to Melbourne to learn whether his years of football have inflicted any permanent damage to the brain, and received his sobering results.

"I’ve got brain damage... that’s the nuts and bolts of it mate," he said.

Often cast as the 'muscle' in movies, Ian's body couldn’t be fitter, but his mind is letting him down as he finds it increasingly difficult to remember his lines.

"I've been acting now for 10 years, studying lines and that kind of thing," he said.


"One day you have it down, and then the next day you’re like, 'I have just lost all that info again'."

Ian recalls after a Souths vs Bulldogs game in 1986, he 'quite literally lost the day' after receiving a substantial knock to the head.

"I’d driven to the game but my Dad drove me home, and we had to come back the next day - I could not remember where I parked the car, I’d lost a whole day," Ian said.

"It’s those experiences that I’m worried about, because three different times in my memory that I lost the whole day - quite literally, lost the whole day."

Like Roberts, AFL legend Greg Williams also struggles with memory loss as a result of numerous hard knocks, saying he doesn't remember a lot of his career.

"I know I won the premiership in 1995 and things like that, but I don’t remember a lot about the game," he said.

Ian, who played league during the same era as Greg was playing AFL, has also battled mood swings since he retired.

"You start questioning your own self-worth... it's still a form of anxiety and depression which I hadn’t experienced before," Ian said.

"It’s quite possibly the beginning of the end of contact sport - hard contact sport - I was ignorant to just how severe the research and the medical evidence that has been gathered has become," Ian said.

Last year, two time Brownlow Medalist Greg underwent the same tests at Deakin University, comparing his reaction times and memory to men who had never played contact sport.

Greg’s results also showed he had suffered brain damage.

The destructive effects of concussion aren't just a concern for Australian sport legends.

In the US, Dr Chris Nowinski and his team of scientists have been studying the brains of American football players, and finding a disease known as Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy (CTE).

"Your brain is jello floating inside a bone bucket, and every time it moves around quickly your brain is stretching and pulling bashing into the rigid sides of the brain causing injury," Dr Nowinski said.

"It can essentially cause your brain to rot, and the older you get the more advanced the disease gets, the more symptoms you get like memory problems, impulse control issues, depression and eventually you get dementia."

In his last study, Dr Nowinski published 50 confirmed football players with CTE.

"It was [in] 34 of the 35 former professional players we studied, nine of nine college football players that we studied and even six players who have just played through high school, along with a couple of semi-pro players.

"If you have played more than 10 years of football, right now over 95 per cent have shown positive for the disease," Dr Nowinski said.

The only way the disease can be detected is by dissecting the brain, and so far only the brains of deceased American football players have been tested.

Until now.

Barry 'Tizza' Taylor was a top footy player, and coach to Peter Fitzsimons in the Australian under 21’s.

In his later years Tizza’s mind began to deteriorate, and he became short tempered and forgetful.

Before he turned 60, he was diagnosed with dementia.

There was no family history of the disease, but there was a long history of Tizza becoming concussed during his sporting career.

In April last year, Barry Taylor passed at 77 years of age, and his family agreed to send his brain to the US to become the first Australian athlete to be tested for CTE.

"His brain only weighed about a thousand grams which is quite small for an adult man, when we dissected the brain it was very abnormal," Neuropathologist Dr Ann McKee said.

"These were... some of the worst [changes] we have ever seen, but some of these changes are diagnostic of chronic, traumatic and an extremely severe or advanced case."

Now living the hard reality of concussion, Ian Roberts urges sports players to 'not be afraid to speak up' after suffering a blow during a game.

"If you get dazed throughout the game don’t be afraid to speak up, tell someone the way you are feeling and what has happened," Ian said.

"And don’t think it's one of those things you can shake off, and don’t let anyone try and convince you of that - either you’ll be okay and they give you the old water sponge, [or you] take action yourself.

"Be informed and educate yourself be empowered," he said.

We wrote to all the football codes looking for a mandatory four weeks on the sideline if a player is concussed in professional sport.

Read Peter Fitzsimons' letter here.

Read their responses:

* AFL response from Andrew Demetriou
* NRL response from Dave Smith
* ARU response from Bill Pulver (page 1)
* ARU response from Bill Pulver (page 2)

Dr Jo DuFlou and the team at the Sydney Institute of Forensic Medicine for their assistance to us and the Taylor family in removing the brain of Barry Taylor. This was an unprecedented request and their willingness to assist at such short notice is much appreciated.

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