Battle scars

by Symptom Advice on January 10, 2012

From Stagg High School to Candlestick Park, football gave George Visger a life filled with cheers and glory. But long after the roar of the crowds faded, it was what football had taken away that would end up haunting him.

George Visger can calmly discuss the holes in his head, the concussions he sustained and the brain damage he suffered over the course of his football career, but his eyes well up with tears when he explains how the neurological effects have impacted his family.

The 53-year-old Stockton native reveled in the glory years at Stagg High School in the 1970s. he played in the Orange Bowl with the University of Colorado. he even won a Super Bowl with the San Francisco 49ers, but old thrills offer little consolation for all he and his loved ones have endured.

“Until just a couple years ago, I never hesitated … In a heartbeat, I’d do it all over again,” Visger said. “In the last two years, what it’s done to my family relationships … you can have it all. honest to God, it’s not worth what it’s done to my family.”

As a 6-foot-5, 275-pound defensive tackle, Visger wanted to strike fear into the hearts of quarterbacks, not his wife and children. This isn’t how he envisioned life when he reached the NFL in 1980, but his career was over and his future altered by the time the priest arrived to administer last rites as Visger lay comatose following emergency brain surgery at Stanford Medical Center in 1982.

He has had countless concussions and nine brain surgeries. he was hospitalized after the first concussion, which occurred during a practice drill while playing youth football in Stockton.

His last major concussion occurred when he was knocked unconscious on the first play of his NFL career, but he said trainers gave him smelling salts to help him finish the game.

Three decades later, Visger is estranged from his wife and living in cheap motels while seeking help for traumatic brain injuries that cause symptoms such as dementia, memory loss and mood swings. he suffers from hydrocephalus, a buildup of fluid inside the skull which leads to brain swelling. he also has early signs of frontal lobe dementia and Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy. Hydrocephalus nearly killed him, but CTE is what he fears most.

CTE is a progressive degenerative disease found in a growing number of contact-sport athletes, including football players. there is no known cure. For now, CTE can only be formally diagnosed postmortem, but doctors are certain Visger has the disease.

“There’s no question about it,” said San Joaquin County coroner and chief medical examiner Bennet Omalu, a forensic neuropathologist who was working in Pittsburgh in 2002 when he became the first to find the disease in football players. “George has CTE. he has loss of memory, mood fluctuations, impaired cognitive functioning. Almost like a bipolar disorder, he loses his temper for very minor things and has violent tendencies like yelling at his kids. the signs are there.”

Autopsies revealed CTE in professional wrestler Chris Benoit and numerous NFL veterans, including Mike Webster, Andre Waters and Dave Duerson. Benoit, Waters and Duerson all committed suicide. the disease also has been found in high school and college football players who’ve committed suicide.

“George is not alone,” said Bob Visger, George’s brother. “You see these guys from the NFL now that have dementia and they’re committing suicide. a lot of them don’t know who they are or what they’re doing, and I think that scares the hell out of George.”

Hyperbaric oxygen has given George Visger hope and some symptomatic relief. he often undergoes 90-minute treatments at the Hyperbaric Oxygen Clinic of Sacramento, treatments he is asking the NFL to make available in every locker room.

As Visger eases his enormous frame into a narrow glass tube, Dr. Kenneth Stoller, president of the International Hyperbaric Medical Association, explains that these treatments have been used for decades to treat decompression sickness and other ailments. Treating brain injuries with hyperbaric oxygen is a relatively new practice with studies showing mixed results, but doctors say Visger’s brain scans have improved dramatically while undergoing treatments over the past two years.

Stoller said the highly-pressurized oxygen improves brain function by revitalizing mitochondria in brain cells. he estimated that NFL teams could have oxygen chambers installed for $200,000, adding that players would gain short- and long-term benefits.

Visger already has endured numerous personal, professional and medical complications. he works as a wildlife biologist, serving as an environmental consultant on construction projects throughout the region, but he became deeply depressed earlier this year after losing a job and encountering financial difficulties.

Visger and his wife, Kristi, who declined to be interviewed for this story, recently lost their Grass Valley home in a short sale. they have been married for 15 years, but Visger said their relationship has changed in recent years.

Kristi still teaches in Grass Valley, but she and the children, Jack, 12, and Amanda, 14, are living with her mother in Sacramento while Visger stays at a nearby Motel 6.

“It kills me,” he said. “I can’t even see my family except just a few hours a day now and then, and then I’m out the door. It’s nuts.”

Visger said he has never physically harmed his family. he admits he can be “very intimidating,” but said he has been more mild mannered since starting hyperbaric oxygen treatments.

“I didn’t know it, but for years, the nights I came home, Kristi would stay at school working late sometimes with the kids because they weren’t sure who was coming home,” Visger said. “They said either the Gentle Giant or Maximum George. I had no idea they called me Maximum George.”

Visger knew he needed help after going to see his doctor in July 2009.

“He asks me how things are going, and this is just ingrained in your head when you’re a ballplayer: ‘How you doing?’ I’m doing good. I’m fine.’ And my wife, the first sentence out of Kristi’s mouth was – she bursts into tears – ‘Oh, my God, the kids and I are afraid when George comes home at night.’ … This just knocked the wind out of me.”

Three months later, on a referral from his doctor, Visger went to Newport Beach with his wife and son to see Daniel Amen, a physician, psychiatrist and brain imaging specialist. Amen conducted one of the largest brain imagining and rehabilitation studies to date on former professional football players. His examinations revealed brain damage in 113 of 115 living NFL veterans who took part in the study.

Amen said Visger’s brain scans showed considerable damage, mostly to his prefrontal cortex and temporal lobe. a healthy brain shows full even, symmetrical activity.

“When you look at George, you see all these holes. the holes are areas of low activity and low blood flow in his brain,” Amen said. “We were worried about his memory, judgment, impulse control, decision making, headaches, and there were concerns his wife had. His brain was not healthy. he showed some very significant low levels of activity.”

Visger’s memory of the past 30 years exists mostly in pocket-size notebooks he carries everywhere. he has hundreds of them, filled cover to cover with meticulous daily records of his travels, activities and interactions. Without them, he would be lost.

In an online blog for football veterans, Visger wrote: “After reading what I did last week 3-4 times, I know what I did even if I don’t really remember doing it.”

The short-term memory loss doesn’t stop Visger from recalling details from his childhood. he remembers playing youth football for the 1970 West Stockton Bears with Jack Cosgrove and Pat Bowe, both of whom went on to the NFL, and Von Hayes, who played major league baseball. he talks about the 1975 Stagg team, which went undefeated, achieved a No. 5 national ranking and referred to itself as “The Family.” he says he’ll never forget the night the locker room doors swung open during an emotional pregame speech by late coach Bob Mattos, and in walked star running back Freddy Douglas, equipment bag in hand, just four days after his father was murdered.

“I can remember this kind of stuff very vividly,” Visger said. “Don’t ask me what I did yesterday.”

Despite his difficulties, Visger has remained remarkably functional as a biologist and as an outspoken advocate for injured players. he studies his medical conditions and has stayed abreast of worker’s compensation laws since fighting the 49ers for medical expenses.

Visger has argued on behalf of injured players in court and in Congress, and has taken his advocacy to the airwaves on the CBS Evening News, CNN and National Public Radio. he will speak at the Santa Clara County Brain Injury Conference on Feb. 25.

“I’m the poster child for this thing,” Visger said. “By the grace of God, I’m still functioning and able to communicate, and maybe this is what I’m supposed to be doing to help change this whole thing somehow.”

He spent his second season in the NFL on injured reserve but was with the team when Joe Montana led the 49ers to a dramatic 26-21 victory over the Cincinnati Bengals in Super Bowl XVI at the Silverdome in Pontiac, Mich.

Four months later, at age 22, Visger had his first brain surgery after developing hydrocephalus. he celebrated his 23rd birthday recovering in the intensive care unit at Stanford Medical Center.

The shunt surgeons inserted to drain excess spinal fluid away from Visger’s brain failed eight months later. In May of 1982, he slipped into a coma and was given last rites before undergoing the second of two emergency brain operations performed just 10 hours apart.

He recovered and went back to school to earn a degree in biology from Sacramento State University, but he continued to experience sleeplessness, projectile vomiting and seizures. he once suffered a 50-minute grand mal seizure while sitting in a lecture hall.

Visger lived like this for years, but eventually the behavioral symptoms began to take a toll on those he loves.

“Kristi told me that she hates what football has done to her life,” Visger said. “When we first met, it was a big deal … ex-49er, blah, blah, blah, blah. She’d have me come in and talk to her students; show them my ring. now, she can’t even stand it.”

This isn’t how Visger envisioned his life.

He wanted to make enough money in the NFL to retire in good health after five years. he wanted to buy his parents a home, planned to build a cabin in the woods in Alaska and dreamed of the day his son would follow in his footsteps on the football field.

“Jack was just cranked up to play football, and I couldn’t wait for him to play,” Visger said. “He was about 10 the first time we went down to Amen’s clinic. … we walked out of that meeting, and Kristi looked at me and said, ‘Jack will never play football.’ Jack looked up at me and I looked at him – and I had all my brain scans in my hand – and I said, ‘Partner, I can’t argue with your mom. You’re not going to play. It’s not worth it.’ “

Contact reporter Jason Anderson at (209) 546-8283 or . Visit his blog at

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