Local NFL veterans battle brain disease

RICHMOND, VA (WWBT) - In recent years, the NFL has tried to cut down the number of concussions by penalizing shots to the head, and forcing injured players to sit on the bench longer.  But these concessions about concussions are way too late for a pair of local NFL veterans.

John Hilton and Ray Easterling grew up in Richmond dreaming about becoming NFL stars.

Hilton was a member of Hermitage's only state championship winning team in 1958. He went on to star at the University of Richmond, and spent nine years in the NFL, playing for the Steelers, Packers, Vikings and Lions.

Easterling is the only Collegiate School graduate to play in the NFL. He also played for the Spiders a safety.  He starred on the Atlanta Falcons for seven seasons in the 1970s.

Both have lots of memories of their playing days, but sometimes they have trouble remembering much else.

After sustaining multiple concussions and blows to the head, they both show signs of Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy - a degenerative brain disease that is showing up more and more in former football players, hockey players and boxers.  Individuals with CTE show symptoms of dementia such as memory loss, aggression, confusion and depression.  CTE can only be diagnosed post-mortem.

Hilton was diagnosed with Alzheimer's Disease three years, but his wife Penny says she started seeing him change as long as 20 years ago.  Hilton started acting anxious in public situations, and would claim he was having a heart attack, when it was actually an anxiety attack.  Penny has also seen her husband become more aggressive over the years.  Hilton has been kicked off the golf course he lives on for yelling at fellow golfers.

Easterling was a successful businessman after an elbow injury ended his career with the Falcons.  But soon he lost all his money after making poor judgments, and he began to realize that he was losing his ability to make strong decisions.  Over the past few years he's lost most of his short term memory, and also battles coordination issues.

Both can recall being seriously injured, but then being asked to get back on the field.  Easterling was knocked totally unconscious in a game in 1977, and was back on the field three plays later.  He claims to have suffered 50 concussions for each year he played football.

"The more hits you take with a helmet, and the jarring you don't realize it sneaks up on you," said Hilton. "You can't remember this, you can't remember that, you're working in circles."

Easterling is one of seven plaintiffs in a class-action lawsuit against the NFL over the league's handling of concussion-related injuries, the first potential class-action lawsuit of its kind. The players accuse the league of training players to hit with their heads, failing to properly treat them for concussions and trying to conceal for decades any links between football and brain injuries.

In 2007, the league started the "88 Plan", which gives up to $88,000 a year to former players with brain injuries for health care.  Penny Hilton said that she's not sure how John would get the care he needs without the 88 Plan.

Both Hilton and Easterling realized their childhood dreams, but now say they wished they had never picked up the game.  Hilton has four grandsons, and he hopes none of them play football.  Easterling wishes he had just gone straight into business.  "It's such a short window of time to struggle with something for 30 years," said Easterling.  "It's not worth the trade off."

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