Brain issues in back of Fencik's mind

Former Bears safety without symptoms, but realizes seriousness of situation

Gary Fencik plans to watch Sunday's Super Bowl on a big screen TV from the comfort of his own home.

The former Bears safety, who played in Super Bowl XX in New Orleans, also says he enjoys the comfort of not knowing whether he might be predisposed to developing CTE (chronic traumatic encephalopathy), the degenerative brain disease that was found in his late teammate Dave Duerson after he took his own life on Feb. 17, 2011.

Fencik, 58, said he was asked to participate in the recent study that purports to be able to diagnose signs of early stages of CTE, but he took a pass. Fencik has agreed, however, to donate his brain posthumously for study to a Boston research group.

Researchers say they found tau protein in the brains of five living retired NFL players who are experiencing various levels of cognitive and emotional issues. The microscopic tau protein had been found in the brain tissue of NFL players after death.

Gary Small, professor of psychiatry at the Semel Institute for Neuroscience and Human Behavior at UCLA, was the lead author of the study, published in the American Journal of Geriatric Psychiatry.

"I have talked to some friends of mine who are in research," Fencik told me. "We all have markers in our body that could potentially lead to illnesses, but it is only a probability. My view right now is that I am not interested in seeing whether there is a probability that I may have cancer or I may have CTE. I hopefully am living my life as I choose to do it.

"The threshold of this whole issue about brain damage changed when Dave committed suicide. Then you look back and say: 'I guess I did see some changes, I just didn't realize that they were attributable to concussions.' So I don't want to be dismissive. I know it is a real serious issue. I know that when I go to alumni dinners now with Bears, people are not necessarily talking first-hand about knee replacements and hip replacements. It's more about: 'How many concussions do you recall having?'"

Fencik, the Bears' all-time interceptions leader with 38, is not alone in his reticence to look into life's scientific crystal ball.

"I would rather find out when I am done playing," former Bears defensive lineman Anthony Adams, 32, said. "Sometimes that's not possible, but during the season I wouldn't want to know."

Adams, who the 49ers drafted in 2003, played for the Bears from 2007-11. He is a free agent and still hopeful of continuing his career.

While still a young man, Adams said his perspective about his mortality has changed.

"Once you have kids you want to start getting life insurance and start taking care of your body," he said. "Kids change your whole dynamics of what you do. It is vital that we see more information to prepare us for that and have someone we can talk to."

Bears Hall of Fame defensive end Richard Dent says he experiences short-term memory loss and offers a different perspective.

"I guess I would rather know (about having CTE) than not know," Dent said. "Because if you wait until (CTE takes total effect), I guess you would know. If such a thing would take place, I would love to know. Dave (Duerson) was a good friend. We got drafted together (in 1983) and we all used to play cards over at his house."

Fencik finds the whole CTE research topic fascinating in terms of philosophical approaches to life.

"There is probably a high likelihood that males at some point in their life will develop prostate cancer," he said. "But you don't know whether you will, or at what age you will. But if you knew that, would you live your life differently? That's kind of the question each player is going to have to address. Do you want to know, and what kind of certainty does finding tau protein mean?"

Fencik and former Bears safety teammate Doug Plank, were known as the "The Hitmen" because of their aggressive tackling style. Plank, in particular, often led with his helmet before such hits were flagged routinely.

"I have been very fortunate, at least to date," Fencik said. "I do forget names, like everyone else. And I think it is only natural to say: 'Wow, does this mean that something is happening to me?' But my health is good. I might have a different position (about CTE testing) if I noticed changes that I think were occurring that would lead me to try to find more information about whether there was some activity in my brain.

"I shouldn't need to have a test that says I may have a problem where I want to live my life differently."

fmitchell@tribune.com

Twitter @kicker34

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