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Bernie Kosar opens up about his battle with brain trauma and efforts to combat CTE

Former Cleveland Browns quarterback Bernie Kosar holds a microphone as he speaks to fans during the fourth round of the NFL football draft, May 1, 2021, in Cleveland.
David Dermer
Former Cleveland Browns quarterback Bernie Kosar speaks to fans during the fourth round of the NFL football draft, May 1, 2021, in Cleveland.

Beloved former Cleveland Browns quarterback Bernie Kosar is speaking out about his efforts to combat Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy, or CTE. It’s a brain disease associated with repeated traumatic brain injuries, including concussions and repeated blows to the head.

Ideastream Public Media sports commentator Terry Pluto recently had a candid conversation with Kosar, who opened up about his struggles with the condition.

Pluto said it’s estimated that Kosar, 59, was sacked 250 times during his playing career, and doctors believe he suffered dozens of concussions.

He played in a period where a number of the stadiums had old fashioned artificial turf. And it's almost like it was concrete, almost, with kind of a rug over it," said Pluto. "And so when you you'd hit your head on that, it would bounce off of it. Then there was the culture around football. ‘Ah, you got dinged in the head. You're okay.’ Bernie said he had one trainer, and all the players knew, they gave you the finger test after you got hit in the head: 'How many fingers?' They all knew the answer was always two.”

Pluto said Kosar wants the public to know the extent of what he’s been dealing with since his career ended in the early ‘90s.

“There would be nights where he would go two, three, even four nights, he just couldn't sleep. The skull was pounding, kind of lights flashing. And of course that often led to some of his friends, and even he sometimes, you try to take some sort of drugs to sleep. And so, he went through a period of battling all the prescription drugs. He said also he began to develop seizures, and he's had several of them. But the worst was in O'Hare Airport, and he ended up in a coma for five days.”

Pluto said many former players struggling with CTE keep their symptoms secret to avoid embarrassment.

“Who likes to say that, you know, I was driving on [Interstate] 480, I've been on this road a thousand times and I'm going, ‘Where am I going?' Then the panic attack hits,” Pluto said.

Pluto said for the past five years, Kosar has been on a strict diet with supplements.

He takes even some vitamin and supplement things through an I.V. He got up to over 320 pounds. He's back down his playing weight of 210. And he looks great,” Pluto said.

Kosar has been critical of the NFL’s $1 billion settlement with former players for concussion claims, saying it's been difficult for players to access the help that they need.

For players to get credit for CTE, they have to go through, like, two or three doctors. And, there's money on the line here. So sometimes the league thinks guys are claiming their concussion symptoms are worse than they are, and sometimes the players think, 'The league is just denying me because they don't want to pay.' So that's a tug of war," Pluto said. "And furthermore, there was a lawsuit in 2021 where the NFL was found to have been using a different baseline for minority players than white players, and they had to change that.”

On Saturday May 20, Kosar is participating in The Race to End CTE, a 5k run/walk sanctioned by the Cleveland Marathon. The event supports the Concussion Legacy Foundation’s End CTE campaign.

Bernie just really wants, first of all, people with CTE to be willing to, you know, go to doctors and be completely candid about what's going on. And he also says, 'I kind of feel like I'm in the fourth quarter of my life.' And a lot of the people that he played with, you know, they're dying in their 50s and early 60s and he's had a couple of them, former players, commit suicide," Pluto said. "He's just so grateful that the fans in Northeast Ohio just embraced him. As he said, ‘They've stuck with me through my ups and downs and everything else.’”

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