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Columnist
Why do they do this to themselves?
By Mike Imrem | Daily Herald Columnist
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Published: 2/6/2010 7:27 PM

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A Chicago Bear is donating his brain to science.

If this weren't so serious a subject, you might joke that it should be Jerry Angelo, Lovie Smith or any of the assorted McCaskeys.

Wouldn't you like to know why they do some of the confounding things they do?

This is too serious a subject, however, starting with the most serious of all the headlines from Super Bowl week.

"Hillenmeyer donates brain to science."

Not to help cure cancer, strokes or autism. No, it's to help cure football.

Maybe the need for this is why so much alcohol is consumed on Super Sunday - to keep fans from thinking of why we encourage healthy men to play this unhealthy game.

Hunter Hillenmeyer, a Bears linebacker, is among former and current NFL players volunteering to donate their brains after death for concussion research.

What a brain Hillenmeyer's is. He was an academic All-American at Vanderbilt. He graduated with a double major in economics and human and organizational development.

Perhaps research will determine why a guy this smart would do something as dumb as play such a dangerous game.

If workers suffered brain damage from an unsafe environment, wouldn't the factory be shut down until it was safe?

Anyway, this isn't 40 or 50 years ago, when few were concerned that football could be so hazardous.

Last month I ran into a former Bear player and during casual conversation asked whether he ever had a concussion.

"No," he said.

As I mentioned that he was fortunate considering how many players then and now were concussed at some point, he recalled a medical condition he suffered 15 years after retiring.

"Maybe I did (have concussions)," he said, "and maybe they had something to do with (the later problem)."

Football players during his time didn't think about it. They took blows to the head, shook it off and kept playing.

Football was like smoking in the 1950s and '60s: No stigma.

Puffing cigarettes and playing football simply were what people did back then. Only later - recent decades for smokers and recent years for football players - were the consequences pondered.

It's easy to sympathize with pioneer players who were ignorant to possible depression and dementia resulting from concussions.

It's more difficult to sympathize with today's players who have been warned but continue to play.

Hillenmeyer figures to live another 40 years. Apparently the need for football brains to study is expected to persist.

Yet men still are lined up to play this game. Brett Favre didn't need to compete at age 40 and be physically abused by the Saints in the NFC championship game, did he?

But Favre has played for so long because football is a high like none other and players become addicted to it.

The flip side to the potential reward of running out on the field for the Super Bowl is the potential risk of debilitating ailments later in life.

We as fans might not want to, but maybe we should dwell on why Hunter Hillenmeyer feels compelled to donate his brain to science.

You know, as we enjoy the violence in today's game.

mimrem@dailyherald.com