49ers’ love of game versus reality of research – SFGate

Photo: Ben Margot, Associated Press

San Francisco 49ers’ fullback Kyle Juszczyk smiles during a media conference Friday, March 10, 2017, in Santa Clara, Calif. (AP Photo/Ben Margot)

San Francisco 49ers’ fullback Kyle Juszczyk smiles during a media conference Friday, March 10, 2017, in Santa Clara, Calif. (AP Photo/Ben Margot)

49ers love of game versus reality of research

Kyle Juszczyk might be the only economics major from his graduating class at Harvard who is working a blue-collar job that comes with significant health risks.

His 9-to-5 gig: NFL fullback.

Juszczyk, 26, who signed a four-year, $21 million contract with the 49ers in March, could be doing something else with his Ivy League education. And he was recently asked if hed ever considered how long he wanted to stay in a profession that requires him to routinely run full-speed into 250-pound linebackers.

Yeah, absolutely, Juszczyk said. Definitely. I think any player that tells you they havent put some sort of thought into it, theyre not being truthful with you.

Ive put thought into it, but I love this game so much and I wouldnt take a snap away from my career to leave early. Thats just my feelings on it. This is a game I love so much that Im willing to put it on the line.

Juszczyk spoke last week, four days after a major study generated a new wave of questions about the long-term effects of playing football.

The study published by the American Medical Association examined the brains of deceased former football players and found that 110 of 111 brains of those who played in the NFL had chronic traumatic encephalopathy, a degenerative brain condition that can be diagnosed only after death.

On the same day news of the study broke, wide receiver Andrew Hawkins, 31, announced he was retiring from the NFL after six seasons and donating his brain to concussion research. Hawkins said his body wasnt responding during the offseason after he signed with the Patriots in May. Two days after Hawkins exit, Baltimore offensive lineman John Urschel, 26, retired. Urschel is an aspiring chess master who is pursuing his doctorate in math at MIT.

Given the ever-intensifying spotlight on brain trauma and football, several 49ers have been asked during training camp about the potential long-term effects of their job: Do they think about what could await them in retirement?

Yeah, I think about it, tight end Vance McDonald said. And the day I dont think about it, I get reminded from my wife about it. Its really serious. I think honestly that the day that something is released that can connect football to (CTE) its going to change the game dramatically.

Such candor might have been unusual from an NFL player just a few years ago. But the landscape has changed, partly because of the stunning retirement of 49ers linebacker Chris Borland, who cited brain-trauma concerns when he left the NFL in 2015 after a standout rookie season.

More than two years later, its now common for players to at least acknowledge the potential fallout from their playing careers is a concern.

Everybody thinks about it, said center Jeremy Zuttah, 31. Everybody has to make a personal choice.

Said running back Tim Hightower, 31: Youre not oblivious to it.

Left tackle Joe Staley, 32, said: Its definitely on your mind. You see it. Id be lying to you up here if I said I hadnt thought about it. You know the risks playing football The studies are out there. They are what they are. I wouldnt trade my position. Im very happy playing the game of football. Its something I love and will continue to do so.

The majority of players are forging ahead, but some also are making attempts to protect themselves as best as they can.

This season, McDonald is using a helmet with a cushioned outer shell that has been deemed the safest by the teams equipment staff. He says it makes him resemble a bobblehead, but hes not worried about making a fashion statement.

In 2015, after his second concussion of the season, quarterback Brian Hoyer, then with the Texans, visited Dr. Micky Collins, a concussion specialist in Pittsburgh. The meeting inspired him to keep his brain engaged when he was away from football.

The thing that I walked away with is that concussions are treatable, Hoyer said. There are different types of concussions and there are different things you can do. So ever since then, I try to stay on top of things that keep my brain active. I try to read a lot more Theres some brain games you can do. Obviously, we know the risks.

Hoyer used acupuncture to treat both of his concussions in 2015. Hes also used a hyperbaric chamber and an app known as BrainHQ, which has games that are designed to aid concussion recovery.

Still, there is a tacit acknowledgment among players that even as they take steps to protect themselves, they are still taking a leap of faith.

We all understand the risk that weve signed up for, Hightower said. But I cant think about that when Im going into a game. I just have to prepare myself; just trust that Im doing the best that I can and that all will turn out well.

Eric Branch is a San Francisco Chronicle staff writer. Email: ebranch@sfchronicle.com Twitter: @Eric_Branch

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49ers’ love of game versus reality of research – SFGate

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