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Is Titus Young the latest NFL player suffering from hits to the head?

by | National NFL Insider
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There are people who have feared Titus Young, and a father who fears for him. He has morphed into many things -- a punchline, a storyline, a timeline of chaos. But before Young engaged in an alleged crime spree that included him running not from defenders on a football field, but police officers on foot, there was a violent hit to the head.

It was 2011 and Young was a rookie with the Detroit Lions. A former teammate of Young's, who asked not to be identified, remembers a game early in the season when Young returned to the bench complaining about some sort of collision he had on the field.

Young was wobbly, the player said, and began saying things that didn't make sense. "He was out of it," the player remembered.

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No member of the medical staff, the player recalled, was aware of Young's status. No player alerted the team, either, believing Young would recover quickly. It's believed by the player that other teammates saw Young woozy and incoherent. It's unknown if he returned to the game. The Lions never listed Young as suffering from a concussion.

"Titus was high-strung before that hit but after it his behavior got much worse," the player remembered. "He started fights in practice. He started telling everyone to f--- off."

In fact, there were a handful of players aware that Young was having mental issues, and some tried to reach out to him. One of them was Chicago wide receiver Brandon Marshall, who said in an interview with ESPN that he attempted to get Young into the same treatment program Marshall used. Marshall was diagnosed with a personality disorder.

Young on Tuesday pleaded not guilty to eight criminal counts, ranging from assaulting a police officer to burglary to resisting arrest. He faces almost a decade in prison, representing a dramatic fall for a one-time second-round pick.

The overall picture is potentially a disturbing one. It remains possible a concussion triggered something in an already troubled mind. Young may have been prescribed psychiatric medication that he eventually stopped taking. With no braking mechanisms in place, Young lost control. At least, that's one possibility of several potential explanations for a story that grew so big it spilled outside of the sports world and settled into the national consciousness.

After news of the Young arrests broke, the anonymous teammate thought back to that moment on the sideline, and wondered: Did that alleged concussion irreparably change the brain chemistry of Young, and serve as a sort of spark for what police are calling a crime spree?

It's an extremely difficult question to answer. Indeed, Young had been in trouble off the field before, including when he was suspended most of his sophomore season at Boise State for attacking a teammate.

The difference is that as malicious as Young's previous misdeeds at Boise State and with the Lions were, they were still done in a football context. What Young is accused of now is something entirely different.

Young's father, like Young's former teammate, believes a concussion led to his son's increasingly violent behavior, though there is no proof of a concussion other than the player's and father's testimony. Richard Young told the Detroit News that the frontal portion of Young's skull became compressed due to the concussion. Richard says his son was prescribed Seroquel, an antipsychotic drug used to treat schizophrenia and bipolar disorder, but Young stopped using it.

One former longtime NFL player explained why, if what Young's father says is accurate, Young may have stopped taking the medication. The former player said it is not uncommon for players to be prescribed antidepressants but the side effects can be so severe, players stop taking them.

"When you use them, one of the things that starts to happen is you're sleepy all the time," the player said, "and you lose your desire to be aggressive on the field. The symptoms can last for weeks."

Players using the drugs may stop taking them during the season or at key points in the offseason, leaving them vulnerable to relapse, the former player explained. A 2011 CBS report on Seroquel said the side effects include dramatic weight gain and diabetes but can also include sleepiness or insomnia, constipation or diarrhea, headache, nausea, and dry mouth, among others.

It's impossible to tell what exactly has happened to Titus Young. No one will until Young speaks, and even then, the entirety of this disturbing and sad case won't be deciphered until a medical expert examines Young.

The only thing that's certain about Young's frightening tale is that it's no longer a joke. There's no humor in Young getting arrested three times in less than a week -- including twice in one day. Not when he broke into the San Clemente home of Bill Palttos, who began loading his weapon and aimed it at Young.

"I feel sorry for him, and I'm sure glad that he left and I didn't have to find out what's going to happen if he came in," Palttos told a California television station, "because I'm afraid I would have shot him."

  

What exactly happened with Young? Did his brain go haywire or is Young simply a criminal? Did a violent hit, or series of them, start Young's slide, or was he mentally ill before that, and the slide was inevitable, no matter what happened on the field?

Dr. Ben Wedro, a physician who writes frequently about sports medical issues, says Young's apparent mental issues likely begins somewhere in the frontal lobe of his brain. This part of the mind helps decide between right and wrong.

"Is Mr. Young's change in behavior due to a concussion involving the frontal lobes or is he developing a thought disorder?" Wedro said. "Patients with a frontal lobe concussion may become impulsive and become emotionally withdrawn. There can be aggression, outbursts of rage, and violent behavior and the ability to understand the difference between good and bad may be lost.

"Patients with psychosis, like schizophrenia, often present in their late teens and twenties and the symptoms may involve hallucinations, delusions and thought disorganization. Deciding between the diagnoses may be difficult, especially if the history of being hit in the head is not appreciated."

Wedro's main point is key: The brain remains a great mystery. Complicating matters is the violence of football. Its long-term effects on the brain are understood even less. Scientists now just understand the brain disease called chronic traumatic encephalopathy or CTE. It's caused by repeated blows to the head, and scientists estimate that by the time a typical football player leaves college, he's experienced some 8,000 blows to the head.

They've found the disease in the brains of deceased football players and NFL stars like Junior Seau, Ray Easterling, and Dave Duerson, who all committed suicide after years of emotional distress and rapidly declining cognitive abilities. Bengals receiver Chris Henry was killed accidentally but his career was filled with multiple arrests. Scientists found CTE in his brain, too. Recently, former player Kyle Turley said he has had suicidal thoughts. Last year, Kansas City linebacker Jovan Belcher killed Kasandra Perkins, his 22-year-old girlfriend, before killing himself at the Chiefs' facility.

Young's alleged actions in one respect in particular, when remembering what Belcher did, are especially chilling. It was reported that the former girlfriend of Young, according to court records, was granted a restraining order against him this month. The woman says in the order that Young threatened her, others, and once said to her: "I understand why O.J. killed his wife."

A cacophony of evidence increasingly shows that repeat blows to the head (and not necessarily something as severe as a concussion either) damage the brain's ability to function normally.

Young had a violent past before this alleged crime spree. His fight with a teammate at Boise State led to him dropping into the second round of the draft when he was a low first-round talent.

In Detroit, he punched another teammate, and got into repeated disagreements with players and coaches. The Lions eventually tired of Young and released him.

There are some players who believe one of the things Young needed were conversations with current or former players he trusted who could have yanked Young from the brink. LaVar Arrington, a former NFL player, is a member of the NFL's transition program, which consists of recently retired players who become certified to help in the arenas of mental health.

"The reason why some of these tragedies happen the way they happen is because the walls close in on guys," Arrington said, "and guys feel like they're alone. I'm not saying every guy can be reached but there are resources out there. I'll come get you. I'll drive you to the hospital. There's no need for a player to throw his life away."

It's possible Young was so far gone mentally nothing could have reached him.

The utter confusion about this story, in some ways, can be symbolized by a conversation Young's father told the Detroit News he had with his son, not long before he would be on the run from police. Father and son were talking while Titus lay on the bed, and while crying, made a confession.

"Daddy, I don't know what's going on with me. I don't feel good. I just don't feel good. I'm not myself, I don't feel good, Dad. I don't know what's happening to me."

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