MIDDLEBURG HEIGHTS: Bernie Kosar knew something was wrong even before he was run off the air during an incoherent radio interview on Dec. 5.
All who heard his slurred speech and inexplicable tears on ESPN Cleveland 850 or on the Internet presumed the former Browns quarterback was drunk.
The doctor who has been administering what Kosar called “groundbreaking” treatments on him since November wasn’t surprised at how his patient sounded. He’d seen the PET scan of Kosar’s brain.
“After I met him, I went back and played it,” Rick Sponaugle, director of the Sponaugle Wellness Institute in Palm Harbor, Fla., said of Kosar’s radio debacle. “I knew why he was weepy; I’ve seen this in thousands of people.”
Specializing in brain injuries for 15 years, Sponaugle diagnosed Kosar with a traumatic injury to the frontal lobe, which controls speech and motor function, memory, problem-solving, social behavior and judgment.
At a news conference Thursday at the Marriott Courtyard near Browns headquarters, Kosar said he suffered more than a dozen known concussions during an NFL career that spanned 126 games in 13 years starting in 1985. That doesn’t count the countless times his head bounced off the concrete under the artificial turf at Riverfront Stadium, Three Rivers Stadium or the Houston Astrodome and the frozen grass of Cleveland Municipal Stadium. He said that was harder than any hits he absorbed from Greg Lloyd or Hardy Nickerson.
“Bernie had his head thrown through the windshield every Sunday,” Sponaugle said.
Kosar said he kept a vial of smelling salts in the pocket near his belt and when he was “dinged” he often handed the ball to running back Kevin Mack to give himself an extra 60 to 90 seconds for his head to clear.
Twenty-four hours a day every day for the past 10 to 12 years, Kosar said he has experienced ringing in his ears, buzzing and headaches. For eight to nine years, he said he suffered from insomnia. He tried all sorts of remedies — acupuncture, massage, pain medication, sleeping pills and holistic approaches. All were a Band-Aid, he said.
“As football players you don’t like to complain or constantly whine about it, you try to deal with it,” he said.
At the funeral for Browns linebacker Eddie Johnson, who died of colon cancer in January, 2003, Kosar gave a rambling, drunken-sounding eulogy that became more about him than Johnson and his family.
Then came recent stories about the connection of brain injuries with the suicides of friends Junior Seau and Dave Duerson, which Kosar called “scary” and “tragic, sad examples” of the pain many ex-players are experiencing.
On Thursday, the same day it was announced that studies revealed Seau’s brain had tested positive for chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE), Kosar sounded like a new man.
At Sponaugle’s institute, Kosar has undergone 15 treatments lasting about two hours, which includes intravenous and oral medication. Ninety-percent is natural. The purpose is to increase blood flow in Kosar’s brain, which in turn improves the electrical connections and receptivity.
Sponaugle said he has treated 18 NFL players, including one guard who couldn’t remember the play three seconds after he left the huddle.
Through an Internet search, Kosar said he found Sponaugle about 16 months ago. Although he was skeptical, his girlfriend Tammy Longaberger called the institute several times.
“I searched everywhere,” Kosar said. “I haven’t found anybody bold enough to say [he’s] going to reverse and stop degeneration of my brain.”
Kosar said he’s now sleeping through the night without medication. His headaches, the buzzing and the ringing in his ears has stopped. His speech has improved.
“Everyone’s telling me how good I sound,” Kosar said. “Dr. Rick is telling me one of the damaged areas was the emotional sector and the speech sector that made me slur my words. I wasn’t exactly cognizant of it. He’s making me very attentive to it. He’s reversed the trauma.”
Kosar said he has spoken to NFL commissioner Roger Goodell about his improvement.
“He was gracious,” Kosar said of Goodell. “He was excited to hear I’m doing good and wants to know more about it.”
Sponaugle, whose more than 8,000 patients have included some with Alzheimer’s disease and Iraq war veterans, said he talked briefly with the league’s medical director Wednesday night.
“My impression is they definitely are interested. Why wouldn’t they be?” Sponaugle said.
Kosar, who turns 50 on Nov. 25, is enthused because he feels 20 years younger.