BIRMINGHAM, Ala. (WIAT) — One of the many things Joe Namath is best known for is a promise he made to a crowd gathered at the Miami Touchdown Club on January 9, 1969, three days before the New York Jets were to play the Baltimore Colts in Super Bowl III.
“We’re gonna win the game. I guarantee it,” Namath was quoted as saying to a heckler in the audience.
True to his word, Namath’s Jets did beat the Colts exactly like he said they would, winning the game 16-7. With that win, Namath sealed his place in football history.
Today, that part of Namath’s career is behind him, but now, the NFL Hall of Fame quarterback is looking ahead to something else that could put him back in the annals of football history, albeit off the field.
Namath, who came to popularity as the quarterback at the University of Alabama from 1962 to 1964, has been working to raise $10 million dollars for the Joe Namath Neurological Research Center at Jupiter Medical Center in Florida. Years ago, Namath received treatment at Jupiter Medical Center after watching a fellow player struggle with chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE), the degenerative brain disease caused by repeated head injuries.
Namath said his fellow player was terrified about what was happening to him and recognized the change he was going through, something that was directly attributed to traumatic brain injuries from sports.
At the time, news reports of suicide among some former NFL players were making headlines across the nation as more people began learning more about CTE. Recently, CBS News did a report that chronicled several players who were found to have CTE after their deaths.
Ultimately, it was the death of Junior Seau, the former New England Patriots linebacker who committed suicide in 2012, that got Namath’s attention.
“I knew I had a handful of concussions and I felt like it behooved me to find out for my children and myself what’s going on and what can we do about it, if anything,” he said.
That’s how the Namath ended up at Jupiter Medical Center, where doctors he knew gave him a brain scan and cognitive tests.
“Initially, the left side of my brain and temporal and back was dark, wasn’t getting the blood flow,” he said. “The other side was nice and light.”
These tests led Namath to hyperbaric oxygen therapy, which involves breathing pure oxygen in a pressurized tube or room. He said that after 40 treatments, the dark cells began to gradually lighten up a bit. After 80, they were just as light at the right side of his brain. Now, after 120 treatments, Namath says his brain is healthy again.
Namath’s doctors are now trying to determine if they can indeed replicate the same results Namath said he experienced for other patients. Information found on the FDA approved study from the National Institutes of Health Clinical Trials website shows research will end in December 2020.
“We’re trying to prove to the FDA, that is very demanding,” he said. “They don’t want anecdotal information, they want hard, factual information on these tests that it does work.”
There are many claims about the benefits of hyperbaric oxygen therapy. The FDA has taken the step of listing all the conditions here the therapy has not been approved.
Dr. Robert Cantu is co-founder of the CTE Center at Boston University, which conducts research on CTE and the long-term effects of repetitive brain trauma. Cantu said that while doctors don’t have the therapies to remove the underlying process of CTE yet, they can treat the symptoms of the disease, as well as the symptoms of post-concussion syndrome and traumatic brain injury.
Those symptoms are why families of those who have played football, especially at the professional level, are so interested in finding something that works as treatment. However, Cantu said the benefits of hyperbaric oxygen therapy remain unproven.
“There is no peer-reviewed literature that says it works,” Cantu said. “It’s been around and it’s been studied in a number of protocols, both for traumatic brain injury as well as for stroke and it’s not been found to be useful in either one. Now, there are individuals who swear by it, but prospective double blinded studies have not proved its efficacy.”
Beyond the efficacy of this treatment, hyperbaric oxygen therapy is expensive and not often not covered by insurance. According to the Concussion Legacy Foundation, the dangers of traumatic brain injury and CTE remain a real threat to those with histories of repetitive brain trauma.