One of the premier facilities in America treating veterans and NFL players for traumatic brain injury and PTSD has chosen Jacksonville as its location for expansion into the Southeast.
The renowned Eisenhower Center, based in Ann Arbor, Michigan, settled on North Florida in part because of the region’s international recognition as a medical tourism destination and large veteran population.
And Eisenhower has chosen a beloved former NFL player to serve as the public face of this expansion- former Jaguars quarterback Mark Brunell.
Brunell is now a commentator for ESPN and football coach for the Episcopal School of Jacksonville.
He’ll represent the NFL Players’ Association as liaison to the Eisenhower Center and be a spokesman for the initiative in Florida.
“I think since the movie ‘Concussion’ came out, it’s brought a lot of awareness to the subject,” Brunell told WJCT.
“It’s a real issue. There are a lot of former players, some that live right in this area, that are having some issues right now with brain injury. I’m thrilled to be a part of this,” he said.
“We’d been looking to come down to Florida for quite a while,” said Eisenhower Center CEO John Cornack. “There’s a large population of veterans down here, and if you’re going to help somebody, you’ve got to come to where they are.”
Eisenhower is partnering with the Washington, D.C.-based Ambit Foundation in the expansion effort. Ambit coordinates local, state and federal programs for veterans (who continue to struggle with a staggering range of medical issues and costs.)
The issue of traumatic brain injury (TBI) or concussion as pro players leave the field, often to have severe behavioral and relationship problems, sometimes including suicide, has been brought to a wide audience via the Will Smith film. At the same time, veterans leaving the actual battlefields of the Middle East also suffer from traumatic brain injuries, and the psychological wounds of war known as post-traumatic stress disorder or PTSD. Eisenhower is renowned for treating those as well.
As Eisenhower splashes out in Jacksonville with Brunell, Fort Myers Republican Rep. Heather Fitzenhagen filed legislation last week that would require continuing education for physicians related to concussions and head injuries in children.
“What we’re trying to do is, from a physician’s point of view, make sure that those that are on the scene of the athletic encounters that can result in an injury know how to ascertain quickly if a concussion has occurred and what to do about it,” Fitzenhagen said.
“The other factor in the bill is, it’s become clear as the result of research data that when a young person does have a concussion they have reduced mental capacity for learning for a period of time. We want to make sure that is recognized, and they are not penalized, in terms of grading and so on, until their cognition is back to their higher level.”
“I’m fortunate,” Brunell said. “In my NFL career, I probably had eight or nine concussions. But there’s a lot of former players, we get together and talk about these issues. And a lot of guys are talking about how they’re starting to feel some symptoms. Some guys are not mentally where they were when they were playing, or even just three or four years ago. This is very personal for me because some of my friends are struggling. But it’s not only that, it’s where it’s going. This may be a center down the road that some of my teammates may need at some point.”
Brunell concedes that more parents questioning whether it’s a good idea to let their sons play what can be a dangerous game.
“It’s a very valid question. My son is 17 and absolutely loves football. He’s my quarterback at Episcopal. I have the same concerns about the game. Every time he takes the field I get nervous. He’s already had a couple of concussions. Yes, it is a dangerous sport. Injuries do happen. But for me, it’s worth the risk playing tackle football. I learned so many valuable life lessons through the game of football that I didn’t learn anywhere else. For grade school, middle and high school kids, it’s a big decision, and if there’s a young man who has any concerns, he probably shouldn’t do it. I think it’s up to each family.”
Meanwhile, Cornack is focused on treating those who are suffering. That includes ordinary people as well as famous athletes and returning soldiers.
“Our strength is we focus on the neurobehavioral. We have always taken on the hardest cases in the country, and we’ve been doing it for 28 years,” he said.
Cornack says Eisenhower is on track to open in Jacksonville by the summer, either in an existing facility or with new construction.
Reporter Jenna Buzzacco-Foerster contributed to this story.