CHICAGO — Jim McMahon got another rousing ovation in Chicago.
The "Punky QB" who once helped the Bears win a championship heard the cheers as he was honored Wednesday by the Sports Legacy Institute for his efforts to raise awareness about the long-term impact of repeated blows to the head and make sports safer for athletes at all levels. The Boston University-based group is at the forefront of the issue, and McMahon is lending his support.
He has opened up about his struggles with early onset dementia and suicidal thoughts, which he believes stem from the beating he absorbed through football. The recognition comes at a time when he's going nose to nose with the league.
"I've never had a problem messing with the NFL," he said to laughs from the audience.
McMahon is one of several players identified by name in a federal lawsuit filed in California last month accusing teams of illegally dispensing powerful narcotics and other drugs to keep players on the field without regard for their long-term health.
He also is part of a class-action lawsuit in which the NFL agreed to a $765 million settlement without acknowledging it hid the risks of concussions from former players. A federal judge has yet to approve the settlement, expressing concern the amount is too small.
But on Wednesday, the themes were awareness and safety. It was about education and reducing the risks athletes at the highest and lowest levels face, whether they're professionals making millions or children learning the game.
It's not just about football, either. It's about all sports, particularly where players are susceptible to blows to the head.
"This is a major problem," McMahon said. "It's with all sports, any kind of contact activity. We need a program where we can get baselines of all these athletes from Little League on up. Get a baseline of their head and neck, what it looks like normal. It takes two or three minutes. If you get dinged in a game, you go into this machine ... they can tell you right then and there whether you can go back into a football — or any kind of — game that you're involved in."
McMahon spoke in a ballroom a few blocks from Soldier Field, where he played his first seven seasons in a 15-year career. Teammates from the Bears' Super Bowl run such as Gary Fencik and Otis Wilson were on hand.
Bob Costas addressed the crowd, praising NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell as a "good man who loves the game and cares about the players" while calling for reform in a culture where big hits are celebrated.
"The challenge for football is to address this question," Costas said. "Can the essence of the game be retained and with it it's overwhelming popularity while at the same time significantly reforming the game. The truth is that we don't know the answers, at least not for sure. But we sure do know by now what the questions are. And they're questions we have to continue to ask."
To Fencik, education is key. He's healthy and considers himself one of the fortunate ones.
He said he's not part of either lawsuit, but he wants to make sure the NFL takes care of its former players. He also wants to make sure children and their parents have the knowledge they need about head injuries.
"I just want to make sure people are aware that though it's a hidden injury, it's a very serious one when you get these concussions," he said.
McMahon battled a long list of injuries throughout his career — to his kidney and ribs and head and neck. He said he had three to five diagnosed concussions and believes he had more that were not detected.
He also found out in recent years that he suffered a broken neck, which he believes happened in a playoff game for the Minnesota Vikings against the New York Giants during the 1993 season. But the low point for him was when he started having suicidal thoughts a few years ago because the pain in his head was so great.
They are a thing of the past thanks to treatment he receives every few months in New York. Doctors are able to realign the vertebrae in his neck through a nonsurgical procedure that allows spinal fluid to drain from his brain. That, in turn, relieves the pain in his head and helps boost his short-term memory while eliminating his moodiness.
"Because of the pain and depression, you feel like an idiot sometimes and it's not a good feeling," McMahon said. "I wasn't a joy to be around. ... That's not what I wanted to be."
Copyright 2016, Deseret News Publishing Company