Did concussions cause Merril Hoge to retire from pro football?

In a recent interview we had a chance to talk with Merril Hoge on a variety of topics ranging from concussions, health, and overall fitness in the United States to Merril’s love for hunting and the outdoors.

Part 1

Starting in 1977, the US government dietary guidelines emphasized limiting dietary fats. This approach became an overarching ideology promoted by physicians, the food industry, and popular health media. This led to an increase in sugar and refined carbohydrate consumption, which can breed a host of health issues. A popular theory is that the change was partly responsible for the rise in obesity. We know today that essential fatty acids, omega-3 and omega-6, is important for proper brain function, learning and memory. New studies link patterns of polyunsaturated fatty acids in the blood to the integrity of brain structures and cognitive abilities. The human brain is nearly 60% fat so fatty acids are among the most crucial molecules that determine your brain’s integrity and ability to perform.

For athletes in contact sports, the dietary guideline changes in the 80’s could possibly have been detrimental to their performance and overall health. Increase in sugar and refined carbs could lead to inflammation among other issues and lack of fatty acids could increase the risks of traumatic brain injury.

Merril Hoge, star running back for Pittsburgh Steelers and Chicago Bears, is one of many contact sport athletes widely believed to have retired from concussions. But if you ask him, it isn’t as simple as it seems, at face value at least, Hoge believes different.

Hoge attended kindergarten through college in his hometown of Pocatello, Idaho. His high school and university (Idaho State) are 3 miles apart. He grew up riding horses, trapping gophers, and working on his uncles 80-acre property. He didn’t have the opportunity to indulge in childhood activities like summer camps and sleep overs due to work and responsibilities. Depending on who you ask, he either quit or was kicked off the football team his sophomore year. Hoge says he quit to cowboy, do farm work, calf roping, bull riding, moving pipe, 6 months of arduous work. A job for men at a young age. He soon came to the realization that the chance to play football won’t last as long as the chance to cowboy.

Hoge was drafted by the Steelers in 1987 at the age of 21. He returned to school after his rookie year and earned a degree in education with a minor in health and fitness. Long before sports, his passion for fitness was originally inspired by the physiques in comic books. When he returned to his hometown to finish his degree in 1988, he was given dietary guidelines to eat as much potato and pasta as possible for weight gain. At the time, this was the best information and perspective available, as opposed to the nutritional information available today, protein, healthy fat, fiber and even the efficiency in how to train. In 1989 his strength and conditioning coach began advising to manage sugar intake.

In 1990 Hoge was selected to the All-Madden team, a group of football players who John Madden thought best represented football and played the game the way he thought it should be played. To players, making the All-Madden team meant more than the pro bowl.

Hoge is of firm belief that his pro football career was cut short due to improper care of head trauma. In 1994, while playing for the Chicago Bears, he suffered a concussion during a Monday night road game against the Kansas City Chiefs. 5 days later, without being examined and still experiencing post-concussion symptoms, Hoge was approved to resume playing by the team doctor over the phone by asking one question, “how do you feel?”. Several weeks later, during a home game at Soldier Field against the Buffalo Bills, he sustained another concussion. While being attended to in the locker room, he collapsed and went into cardiac arrest. As they started to perform CPR, he revived. Hoge has 3 documented concussions in his 22-year football career. He had 2 severe concussions within a 6-week period without recovering from the initial one.

Hoge is clear that it was not a concussion that ended his career, but instead improper care was the direct root cause of his retirement from pro football. He states that if it was a concussion that ended his career then he would not have continued to play. Because Hoge was cleared to play while still experiencing post-concussion symptoms, he won a $1.55 million lawsuit from the Chicago Bears.

At the time, the league was behind the ball on brain related injury. The Bears did not have a neurologist on staff. However, the Steelers team physician Dr. Joseph Maroon, a neurosurgeon, had established a baseline for evaluating cognitive effects and tests. Hoge went back to see Dr. Maroon to retake a cognitive test that created a baseline for him. After the evaluation by Dr. Maroon and being informed that he was facing the risk of further brain injury and possible permanent damage, Hoge chose to retire. He became the first player in sports and NFL history to have a cognitive tool help a player retire from a sport.

Considering his experience, you would think Hoge would be hostile or averse towards the sport or even discourage his own son from playing. Instead, he’s become a staunch advocate of the sport and was supportive of his son’s participation. He is a firm believer in being educated and informed on proper care for brain injury in general and not just in sports. Falling is the leading cause of concussions, thus can occur in our own homes. Although it includes all age groups, the prime ages are 7-13 and the elderly.

Going through chemotherapy treatment for cancer, Hoge says he reflected often on three words that inspired him his entire life to take action and to take charge of his circumstances. He wrote a book, Find a Way – Three Words That Changed My Life, inspired by people who have inspired and challenged him from Walter Payton, Chuck Noll, Aristotle, even his children.

He applies this in a corporate, leadership, health and fitness aspect. His public speaking platform encourages others to apply patterns and habits in their lives as they see fit. A continuum of growth and challenge to evolve.

In part 2 we dive into how Hoge maintains a fitness regimen and prefers a holistic approach to managing and reducing inflammation and incorporates CBD into his fitness lifestyle.