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Favre's 'scary' memory lapses re-open NFL concussion questions

Football legend Brett Favre says that at age 44 he’s facing “scary” memory issues linked to on-field concussions. His story yet again casts the NFL as one of America’s most dangerous work environments, despite myriad changes made by the league to protect today’s players.

“I think after 20 years, God only knows the toll,” said the ex-Green Bay Packer, who was tackled for a loss, or sacked, 525 times – more than any quarterback in modern NFL history. In an interview Thursday with a Washington, D.C. radio station, Favre said he cannot recall one season of his daughter’s soccer games.

“I got a pretty good memory, and I have a tendency like we all do to say, 'Where are my glasses?' and they're on your head. This was pretty shocking to me that I couldn't remember my daughter playing youth soccer, just one summer,” Favre told Sports Talk 570. “…So that's a little bit scary to me. For the first time in 44 years, that put a little fear in me.”

Favre joins – and, perhaps, now headlines – an ever-expanding list of ex-NFL superstars and journeymen who have suffered memory lapses, depression, sudden violent steaks, debilitating diseases or suicidal impulses soon or long after retirement from the game. Ex-Chicago Bears quarterback Jim McMahon also has reported suffering memory problems.

Many of those affected players blamed football concussions for their worsening health issues and accused the National Football League of withholding information that head injuries were responsible for the frightening symptoms and, eventually, dozens of player deaths. In August, the NFL and thousands of players who sued the league for concussion damaged reached a $765 million settlement.

“For more than two decades, the NFL has been a leader in addressing the issue of head injuries in a serious way,” Brian McCarthy, a spokesman for the NFL, said in a statement released Friday.

“Important steps have included major investments in independent medical research; improved medical protocols and benefits,” as well as innovative partnerships with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the National Institutes of Health to “accelerate progress,” McCarthy said.

The NFL has in recent seasons changed its in-game rules to protect players’ heads from contact and, away from the games, the league has supported state laws meant to enhance safety in football and youth sports. 

“By any standard, the NFL has made a profound commitment to the health and safety of its players that can be seen in every aspect of the game, and the results have been both meaningful and measurable. We will not waver in our long-term commitment to a better and safer game at all levels,” McCarthy said.

But Favre’s worried comments re-open the debate about the inherent violence in pro football – the helmet-to-helmet collisions between players that cause dozens of concussions per season, often causing repeated head trauma. 

In May 2012, ex-linebacker Junior Seau killed himself with a gunshot wound to his chest at his home in California. An autopsy found that Seau suffered from chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE), a progressive degenerative brain disease. A year earlier, retired NFL safety Dave Duerson similarly committed suicide with a gunshot to the chest, leaving a suicide note that asked for experts to study his brain.

More than 30 former NFL players who have died have donated their brains to research.

During his interview Thursday, Favre talked of some of those ex-players who have lost their lives to brain injuries sustained years earlier on the field of play.

“The players either retired or some of the few players ... are either killing themselves or self destructing. And you know, studies have proven that some of this is because of concussions,” Favre said.

One NFL team reportedly tried to coax Favre out of retirement in recent days. The former Super Bowl winner declined the offer and said he’ll continue coaching high school football in Mississippi. 

Favre’s description of his memory failings troubled Dr. Richard Figler, who practices in the orthopedic surgery department at the Cleveland Clinic Sports Health Center.

“It made be sad to hear him say that, but also … it raises the awareness,” especially among high school football players who have sustained concussions but may not understand the symptoms, Figler said. “(It leads to) kids saying you know what, if I don't feel right, what exactly is going on? A lot of times, kids kind of pooh-pooh those symptoms and then, three weeks later, they're pulling F's on their math test."

Athletes or coaches are “naïve” if they believe that when a concussion occurs in a player and that player returns to action before the injury fully heals that the player may not suffer grave consequences later in life, Figler says.

Symptoms of a concussion can include headaches, difficulty focusing or concentrating, sleep issues and, often, nausea immediately after the injury.

“When you're putting the brain in trauma, we're going to see these injuries,” Figler said. “The question is: How do we reduce the risk of the injury? And that's with education, the recognition of the symptoms, the athlete being smart enough to pull themselves off the field when they do have these symptoms, and making sure they're back to as normal as they can be before they go back to that activity.

“When you play with a brain injury, it probably means that there's a buildup of these injuries over time, and I think it's safe to say the effects that we're seeing now (with retired NFL players) – it’s a cause and effect.”

NBC News producer Mike O’Donovan and NBC News contributor Linda Carroll contributed to this report