Ron Heller knows football.
He has, after all, spent most of his life in and around the game.
A part-time Red Lodge resident now retired after a 12-year playing career, he has understandably kept a close eye on the physical and mental toll some players have paid after their time in the NFL. Chief among the concerns in recent years has been that mental aspect -- specifically, what role concussions and repeated blows to the head have in the development of chronic traumatic encephalopathy, or CTE, later in life.
A report was released last week detailing research into the brains of 202 former football players, including 111 who played in the NFL. Of that total, a staggering 110 ex-NFL players showed signs of CTE -- a disease that can include symptoms such as memory loss, suicidal thoughts or attempts, mood and behavioral problems, depression, and anxiety.
In the days that followed, coaches in Helena and the surrounding area spoke out, saying that what held true in what researchers openly admitted was a skewed sample -- a caveat not highlighted in many of the ensuing stories about their findings -- doesn’t necessarily carry over into the high school level.
After reading their thoughts, Heller reached out to share his reaction to that same study.
“When that study came out, it kind of ticked me off,” Heller told 406mtsports.com. “My point of view is this: The only people that donated their brains from the NFL to the study were people that had problems. So right away it’s not a very scientific study. And I also know that in talking with lawyers about concussions -- every lawyer in the world is trying to get NFL players to let them represent them for this settlement they have -- CTE occurs a great deal in the average person, as well. It’s not necessarily linked to all these disorders.
“My grandma died of dementia (after being initially diagnosed at the age of) 62 and was never hit in her life. Now, if the same happens to me, is it hereditary or the NFL? There’s a hell of a lot of people that are diagnosed with these sorts of things that never played football.”
CTE, for now, can only be found after death. And the brains studied were donated to a bank set up by the VA Boston Healthcare System, Boston University School of Medicine and the Concussion Legacy Foundation. The only brains accepted were from people exposed to repetitive head trauma, and families don’t tend to donate the brains of loved ones to research unless they know or suspect there were problems.
That means that the study, while interesting, does not indicate the frequency of CTE in the NFL as a whole, nor does it say anything about the occurrence of the disease in the general population.
Still, the next day, sports talk was filled with big-name hosts like Dan Patrick saying they wouldn’t let their children play football because of the obvious risks.
“You can’t tell me that football is good for you,” Heller said. “I would never argue that. But I also don’t believe there’s a direct correlation. There are a lot of people with these disorders.
“My biggest thing is I just hate the way everybody’s trying to make football out to be such a bad thing.”
Heller is a Penn State product -- playing on the 1983 national championship team -- drafted by Tampa Bay in the fourth round of the 1984 NFL Draft. Just before the 1988 Draft, he was traded to the Eagles but could not come to terms on a contract with Philadelphia. So he was then traded back to the Bucs.
After the draft, he was traded again, this time to Seattle, which in turn traded him to Philadelphia.
Heller played 75 regular-season games with the Eagles at right and left tackle, and then played three seasons in Miami before retiring as a player in 1996.
All told, he played in 172 games, with 166 starts, for the three organizations.
He eventually decided to get back into the football world, working in NFL Europe first as an intern, then offensive line coach and then offensive coordinator. He moved into the Canadian Football League as Toronto’s O-line coach, and in 2010 broke into the NFL with Jacksonville.
He spent two seasons with the Jags, and then ended up finishing his career as an O-line coach with the New York Jets, where head coach Todd Bowles let him go along with multiple assistant and special teams coaches in January.
That gives Heller nearly two and a half decades of experience either playing or coaching pro football. He’s also got some pretty significant Montana ties.
Heller’s family summers in Red Lodge and spends the rest of the year in Florida. His wife Heidi's family is originally from Miles City and later moved to Joliet. In 1993, while he was still playing, Heller said he bought a large home in Absarokee, where they lived for 20 years until he got into coaching.
“I know a lot of people that played a long time in the NFL and have come out OK,” he said. “I do know two, in particular, that committed suicide. I don’t want to single them out by name, but they had psychological problems coming out of high school. I know coaches in the NFL, college coaches at the time when these players came out of high school, and they were worried recruiting them out of high school when they had these problems. And it was the same when they came into the NFL.”
Existing mental issues, Heller said, are more common than the average fan realizes. He admitted that CTE may exacerbate those issues, but said that just because an ex-player develops depression or commits suicide doesn’t mean it was a result of head trauma.
Often, he believes, there are issues that stem from not being in the limelight anymore. Additionally, there are players who never looked to the future while playing and then leave the league with nothing. Some of those, he said, then find a way to “bite the hand that fed them,” and sue the league for one health reason or another.
Heller, now 54, found success after retiring from playing, purchasing a company that designs and sells industrial equipment, mainly pumps, to mines. He said that for several years, it was an awkward feeling being the “NFL guy who sells pumps.” Eventually, though, he moved into simply “the guy who sells pumps.”
While he was able to navigate that transition, it wasn’t easy. And many struggle, he said, with what feel like humbling, even embarrassing post-NFL careers. That, he said, should be the biggest concern and focus of the NFL in terms of helping former players.
“I know I had concussions before I was even in high school. I had one two years ago -- swimming, if you can believe that, and it was the worst one I ever had. But now it seems that everybody is buying into the belief that if ex-players have any problems at all, it must be football-caused.
“This isn’t a harmful game. It’s good for a lot of people. As are sports in general. Playing football taught me the attitude of ‘I can conquer anything.’”
Heller says all this while acknowledging that the game he loves certainly took a toll on his body. He’s had 29 orthopedic surgeries, he’s got four artificial joints and a fused spine to remind him of his playing days every morning. But, he said, “the NFL is also paying for that.”
“I don’t want to ignore (concussions), certainly. I don’t want to see a guy walk into the wrong bench and they only take him out for a play -- and I saw that. But we have great, modern equipment, we’re teaching kids new ways to tackle … I think technology in general is just getting better and better, we’re getting earlier diagnosis and treatment, and in every regard people are getting better and better.
“But, I believe there is an inherent risk. You accept that going in.”
Years ago, Heller was contacted by researchers in Boston asking if he’d be willing to take part in a study. He declined, worrying at the time what it might mean to his ability to find insurance -- which had been a struggle already. He asked, though, if they would be willing to share their results when the study was complete.
“They sent it to me, and ex-NFL players actually have a lower rate of mental disorders than the average citizen. Ex- NFL players live longer than the general population. In general, they have a healthier life than the average person -- but yet now they’re trying to make the NFL out to be such a bad league. It’s a big leap, is what I’m saying.
“There’s way more guys that get out that have great lives and are successful and don’t suffer from anything. But that’s not what you hear about. You hear about 100 tragedies and the tragic lives of those whose brains were donated to this study.”