Former Lion Eric Hipple tells forum he’s on mission to combat head injuries

Eric Lacy/ The Detroit News

Dearborn— Eric Hipple earned the nickname “Timex” on Nov. 24, 1985, when he survived a bone-jarring hit.

The former Lions quarterback, rolling out of the pocket left, got smacked so hard by Buccaneers linebacker Scot Brantley, that his helmet flew off his head near the sideline.

“Took a lickin’ and kept on tickin’,” Hipple recalled of his moniker, earned after he returned to the game two plays later. “I actually took pride in that name.”

Hipple, now 53, no longer wants to portray that tough guy, compete-at-all-costs image.

He knows the devastating effects head injuries have for current and former NFL players.

Hipple shared his bouts with physical pain (seven surgeries in 10 seasons, numerous head injuries) and severe depression in a NFL-sponsored forum Wednesday at the Hyatt Regency Hotel.

Hipple admits he was in denial for years about the effects of his injuries and years of mental health problems — until he was willing to get help.

It, however, took years of pain for him to do it.

The former quarterback’s 15-year-old son, Jeff, committed suicide in 2000 after years of enduring depression.

Now, Eric Hipple, who once considered taking his own life, is on a mission to help others who might not have the strength to do it themselves.

“Even the best health care in the world doesn’t do you any good if you don’t use it,” Hipple told an estimated crowd of about 150. “That’s the problem with stigma, it stops people from getting the services they need.”

The event, entitled “NFL Community Huddle: Taking a goal line stand for your mind body” addressed head injuries and mental disorders such as Alzheimer’s and dementia.

It featured forum panelists Dr. David Satcher, a former U.S. surgeon general, former Bills safety Mark Kelso, and Sylvia Mackey, wife of Hall of Fame tight end John Mackey.

Satcher stressed the importance of more scientific research to determine how severe football related head injuries and their affects are, especially years after a player’s career is over.

“From early childhood, people considered the butting of heads as a sport,” he said. “People take protection of the brain for granted. Hopefully that will change.”

Sylvia Mackey believes improved NFL safety regulations in the 60s could have helped prevent her 69-year-old spouse from getting dementia.

John Mackey, who missed only one game during his 10 NFL seasons, now suffers from severe depression and erratic behavior. He lives full-time in an assisted living facility.

Sylvia Mackey refuses to dwell on the challenges, and is determined to carry a message of hope for players and their families.

“I hope to pick the ball up and run into the end zone,” she said.

An effort is under way by the NFL to follow her lead.

Mackey’s story prompted the NFL and NFL Player’s Association to create the “88 Plan” in 2007 to help support players with dementia and their families.

To date, more than $7 million has been distributed.

Improved safeguards for current and former players inspires former Lions linebacker George Jamison to be more cautious about his health.

Jamison, 48, admits he occasionally suffers from short-term memory loss and was told often during his playing days it was best to hide injuries.

He was one of about 20 former players, including former Lions Ron Rice and Mel Farr, who attended the forum.

“There was a saying, ‘You can’t make the club if you’re in the tub’ and you’re hurt,” Jamison said. “I always tried to get back out there and play.”

Recent study results might help change some attitudes.

An NFL commissioned study in 2009 claims the risk of memory-related diseases for former players, including Alzheimer’s, is 19 times the normal rate for men ages 30 through 49.

Data was compiled from phone surveys of 1,063 retired players in late 2008.

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