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Football Concussions Coming to Light; Gold Medal Swimmer Tells Story of Near-Drowning as Child; New 'Fit Nation' 'Lucky 7' Introduce Themselves

Aired January 7, 2012 - 07:30   ET


SANJAY GUPTA, HOST: Good morning. I'm Dr. Sanjay Gupta. Here's a question. Have you kept your New Year's resolution?


GUPTA (voice-over): Dropping extra pounds without a diet. This way will make you feel better. And this boy almost drowns, and then he went on to become the first African-American to break a swimming world record. And you submitted your I-Reports, competing for a spot to try with me. This morning we unveil the 2012 "Six Pack."


GUPTA: But first, the NFL playoffs are starting and after a season where the issue of player safety and head injuries landed center stage, at all levels of the game. More than 100 former professionals are suing the league over safety and health issues. One of them is Dorsey Levens, a former star right up here the road at Georgia Tech, later a Pro Bowl running back with the Green Bay Packers. He also played for the Giants and the Eagles.

Now he retired in 2004 and he's now making a documentary called "Bell- Rung" about the struggles of many former players. Now I want to start with a clip. You're about to see Ellis Hobbs talking about the hit that he took when he was running back a kickoff that then ended his career.


ELLIS HOBBS, FORMER NFL PLAYER: As I braced myself, there he was right in my face, and my initial reaction, just like last time, but it was even worse. I just ducked, I just buckled in. And it just so happened that he did the exact same thing with his helmet. And when he hit mine, it compressed my neck that much worse.

And when you see it on film from the angle of the initial camera, the natural camera, you don't -- it's like, OK, he got hit. But then when they flipped it around for me and I saw it afterwards on the other side, I mean, my neck was just slinky and it just went all the way in and, like -- right when I got hit, everything went blank.


GUPTA: It's still amazing to hear him tell it. And we're joined now by Dorsey Levens. Your first interview, I believe, since the lawsuit was filed. Thanks for joining us. As you know, we've been staying on top of this topic for some time and I'm very interested in it.

I think millions of people probably watched what happened to Ellis Hobbs that time. He subsequently needed an operation to stabilize his neck. Was it hard getting him to open like that?

DORSEY LEVENS, FORMER NFL PLAYER: Not at all. We sat down. It wasn't scripted. I asked him what happened, and I let him talk.

GUPTA: So he had a disc problem, from my understanding, in the neck that required surgery. Did he have other lingering effects though?

LEVENS: Not that I'm aware of. I know he still has some pain in his neck. I know he needs another surgery to stabilize his neck, but that's all I really know about it.

GUPTA: One of the things I'm always curious about what it really feels like to get hit that hard, to the point where you get a concussion, which is a brain injury, and it's worth using that term. You've had them. What does it feel like? How would you best describe it?

LEVENS: I've never been knocked unconscious, but I've got a ton of dingers, which we know now are, as I call them in my documentary, "getting your bell rung." Those are small concussions. And what it really is, there is just -- there's a fogginess. You can't really get your thoughts together. A little blurry. You see some stars and it's just really a hard time getting yourself back to the level mentally that you were before you had taken the hit.

GUPTA: And you are going through the line, or you have got a lot of players coming at you. Are you worried about your head getting hit? You're a smart guy. You're trying to protect yourself. How much pain are you enduring when something like this happens?

LEVENS: At the time I wasn't. I wasn't worried at all, you know, because that's the way you play the game of football. We weren't aware of the long-term ramifications of concussions like we are today. So I didn't worry about it when I played.

GUPTA: And as far as pain goes, I guess probably in part the same answer?

LEVENS: Yes, it's part of the deal. Comes with the territory. When you're hurt, you still have to play.

GUPTA: And you know better than anybody, a lot of people are paying attention to concussions, it's part of this documentary that you're working on, you talked to a lot of players. I want to show a clip from that. But first let me ask you, why did you start doing that? What sparked your interest?

LEVENS: It was really just a high school buddy of mine, Nick Boston (ph), said he knows that I was getting into the film industry. And he said, I have an idea. Initially, his idea was to do something on hockey and concussions. Obviously, my background is in football. I know more about football. So that's the direction we went in. In doing the research, we found out all this alarming data, as far as what happens long term or even short term to some of the younger guys if you've had too many concussions.

So I didn't leave my neighborhood to talk to these guys, you know, I had some guys lined up that were around the country who couldn't make it that I played with that I know have had concussion issues.

Those guys couldn't do it. So I picked up my phone, talked to some guys that I used to train with, guys I used to party with back in the day, and I got all of this information in my backyard. I didn't have to go anywhere, which is quite alarming that, you know...

GUPTA: Shows how prevalent this is.

LEVENS: Exactly.

GUPTA: Let's look at a clip and then I want to talk about some of that research that you're referring to. Watch this.


UNIDENTIFIED MALE: How many concussions have you had?

JAMAL LEWIS, FORMER NFL PLAYER: Totaled them all up, probably about eight, eight to nine concussions, probably.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Probably close to 15 to 20 times.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: I don't think I've ever had one.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: I have had a few.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Yes. I had several of them.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: I had at least one dinger, and I had more, but at least one dinger every game.

JONAS JENNINGS, FORMER NFL PLAYER: From what they didn't tell us when we were coming in, probably 20-plus. Easily.


GUPTA: You know, it's sort of interesting, because you hear this common refrain, players going right back in. That's just the way it was. I've spoken to football players like yourself as well who said, look, that was just part of the culture.

But the bigger part of what's happening now is this concern that the NFL knew that there was damage caused to the brain, there was damage that would be lingering, and that that damage was hid from players.

Do you have evidence of this? I mean, I've been researching this for some time as a neurosurgeon and a journalist, and I have seen some of the studies that have come out over the last few years. But what evidence is there that the NFL was hiding this from players?

LEVENS: Well, I'm in the middle of a lawsuit right so I really can't talk about the particulars about it, but it's been a problem for a long time and hasn't been addressed. The goal here is to make more people pay attention, to focus on the issue at hand.

GUPTA: In balancing what you were saying earlier, the culture of football and obviously wanting to win, can you create a safer game and still win and still have football be football?

LEVENS: I think you can. You know? You just have to be creative. Back in the day we wore leather helmets. Somebody decided that wasn't a good idea. So we made a whole bunch of changes. Back in the day the goal post was on the goal line as opposed to the back of the endzone. So there are ways to go about it. I'm not sure how it happens, but it needs to happen.

GUPTA: Congratulations on the documentary. I hope you get a chance to watch ours as well. We're staying on top of this topic. Hopefully some good will come from it. Thank you so much.

LEVENS: Thanks.

GUPTA: For its part, the NFL says there's no truth to the suggestion that it hid knowledge about long-term dangers, but it's not just the pros. There are questions about safety in all levels of football. In fact, I am just finishing this documentary we were talking about, it's about high school team in North Carolina that's trying to turn tragedy into triumph. Can they play a safer game, and still win, and still have it be football? "Big Hits, Broken Dreams," Sunday, January 29th, right here on CNN.

Now fresh off his surge in Iowa, just how well do you know Rick Santorum? The GOP hopeful opens up about his family life. That's next.


GUPTA: The man with momentum in the Republican presidential race is Rick Santorum, the former senator from Pennsylvania. Now, he lost the Iowa Caucuses to Mitt Romney by just eight votes, as you probably know by now. He is campaigning hard nowadays in New Hampshire.

Over the coming weeks and months we're going to be taking a very close look at how the various candidates want to change your health care. But this morning we wanted to share something with you that you might not know about Rick Santorum, something very central to his life.


RICK SANTORUM (R), PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: And we have a little 3- year-old little girl who's our special child. She was born with a genetic disorder, and is -- we told that she would not live a few days, and she is now 3-and-a-half years old and it's just a miracle every day and really in many respects the center of family life. Not every life, you know, is meant to accomplish great things in terms of economics, in terms of utility that some would see to our society, but the utility of these children in showing the dignity of human life and the pure love that they emit and how they really -- at least, I always say that Bella gentled my condition, although I know some people say, you know, Santorum is so intense. You should have seen me before she was born.


GUPTA: Now Senator Santorum mentioned his daughter Isabella was born with a genetic disorder, it's known trisomy 18, which means you have an extra copy of chromosome 18. It causes abnormalities in many internal organs.

Also, as Senator Santorum, said only about 5 to 10 percent of these children live past a year. In most cases the disorder is not inherited and it's also rare. It only affects about one in 5,000 children. The chances do increase in older mothers. But thanks to Senator Santorum for sharing that, she's just a beautiful little girl.

Coming up , though, the perfect time of year to do this. A quick check up of those New Year's resolutions. How's your doing? Diet fads, exercises crazes, we have got a guest who says ignore all of that. Mark Macdonald will explain, stay with us.


GUPTA: Every New Year we promise ourselves we're going to eat better, drink less, maybe even exercise more. Sound familiar? But just a few weeks later, most of us are back to our old ways. Almost three quarters of us. This year, things are going to be a bit different. I'm challenging you with this. I want you to start with the food that you put into your body.

Mark Macdonald is here, we're very excited. He's the creator of the Venice Nutrition Program, and the author of "Body Confidence." You see it there. People should read this book, by the way. Thanks for joining us.


GUPTA: You know, this is New Year's resolution time. A lot of people have made them and by the end of this month, a lot of people will have already broken them. One of the most common ones is, you know, I want to go on a diet, I want to lose weight. What do you say to people who come to you and say, that's my goal?

MACDONALD: Well, most people, you know, we hit our tipping point. I call it a point where your weight's higher than it's supposed to be. Clothes are too tight. And we get so upset about that that we just start cutting everything.

So if someone wants to diet, they think they have to give up their carbs, they have to cut their calories, they have to ramp up their exercise, and as you said, 30 days later, 60 days later, life pushes back.

So what I share is that, let's get a better way. Let's educate you on how to pace yourself better, stabilize your blood sugar, and actually teach you how to take the food you love, work them into your day, and then get the right exercise in.

GUPTA: People think about calories in, calories out, which is not a bad way to think about things. But just how important is blood sugar and then also the insulin response? Because blood sugar goes up in insulin response, how important is that whole thing?

MACDONALD: Well, it's all -- when we talk about our first breath we take, I want you to think of a baby. A baby feeds every three to four hours. They have breast milk or formula, which is protein-packed carbohydrates. They stop eating when they're satisfied. They eat again when they're hungry.

The first year of life...

GUPTA: A pretty good model.

MACDONALD: ... that's how our body creates energy. You know, it's all about stabilizing our blood sugar. Then come the second year of life, we go see our doctor and everything can shift a bit and we can start moving more to eating three meals a day.

But there's a cost. Every time you miss a meal your body burns muscle, not fat, slows down your metabolism. And then when we're hungry, we're not craving chicken or tuna, we're craving pizza, doughnuts, and that spikes our blood sugar, makes us feel fat.

So stabilizing your blood sugar rather than using nutrition to lose weight, let's stabilize our blood sugar and use it to create internal hormonal balance, which releases your stored fat.

GUPTA: This is a really important point, right? Because what you're saying, if I'm hearing you correctly, is certainly don't skip meals. If anything maybe eat more meals throughout the day. And when you do eat the meals, make sure you're not suddenly spiking your blood sugar? Don't eat things that are going to just cause those sudden spikes?

MACDONALD: Exactly. Our body is a refuel-as-it-goes machine. And the only thing we're great at storing at, as you know, is fat. So whenever we miss meals and we don't eat, like the whole calories in, calories out, a lot of times people think, well, if I'm eating 1,000 calories or 2,000 calories a day, it doesn't matter if I do the one meal or five meals.

It does matter. It makes the difference.

GUPTA: It's a great read. Thanks for being here. I love the fact that you practice what you preach. I mean, it's really important, and I think people will get a lot out of it. Thanks so much.

MACDONALD: Thanks, I appreciate it.

GUPTA: Thanks for being here. Yes, you too.

Every year nearly 3,500 people die from accidental drowning in the United States. And when Colin Jones was a child, he almost became one of those statistics. But thanks to a lifeguard who saved his life, and some much needed swim lessons, today he's the first African- American male to hold a world record in the sport of swimming.


GUPTA (voice-over): Beijing, the 2008 Olympics. Colin Jones wins the gold medal in the 400 freestyle relay, becoming the second African- American swimmer to take home gold and the first to hold the world record.

But growing up, learning to swim was the last thing on his mind.

COLIN JONES, OLYMPIC GOLD MEDALIST SWIMMER: My dad was a basketball player. So I watched the NBA. He was like, you want to play basketball.

GUPTA: But a trip to a water park at the age of 5 changed his life.

JONES: We went down this ride and I ended up flipping upside-down because I was so light. I almost drowned. My mom tried to come down and save me. She couldn't swim. So the lifeguard had to come get me. My dad had to get my mom.

GUPTA: After that, learning to swim became a priority, not easy when you're growing up in an inner city neighborhood.

JONES: I grew up in an area that wasn't, you know, the nicest area. It wasn't the friendliest persons walking around in a little group.

GUPTA: He found challenges in simply being different.

JONES: Fifteen years old, and my dad, there's no black people here. And he was like, well, you sucked at basketball, you wouldn't have this problem. And we laughed about it, but, I mean, that was a big, you know, step for me and overcoming it was hard.

How many of you guys have ever had a swim lesson?

GUPTA: Which is why it's so important to him to inspire other kids that are like him.

JONES: I was getting sixth and seventh place. And now I've got an Olympic gold medal. So there is hope. You just have to stick with it and keep with it and that's what I tell kids.

There we go.

GUPTA: Jones is sharing his story with kids who never imagined they would be getting swimming lessons from an Olympian.

JONES: This world has given me a lot. I really want to make sure that I give back to it and make sure that I can shine the path to another kid.

GUPTA: And he's not stopping there. He's going for gold again. And he hopes to compete in the Summer Olympic Games later this year in London.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Colin Jones, winning in a time of 22:52.

JONES: If you learn anything from my story, it can happen. As long as you stick with it, there are going to be rough days. I still have rough days. It's not easy. It's never easy. But it's worth it. When you can sit back and you're standing on the podium and you hear your national anthem, that's what I swim for.


GUPTA: We also asked Colin what he does to keep his energy level up before a race. He says he sticks to the basics, eggs for breakfast, a sandwich for lunch, always keeping an energy bar nearby, and most importantly, stays hydrated to avoid cramps you sometimes get while swimming.

And that tip is going to come in handy for the participants in this year's "Fit Nation" challenge. We've had more people enter than ever before. We're going to introduce you to the lucky viewers joining my team for their first try, that's next.


GUPTA: And we are back with SGMD. We have got an exciting announcement this morning. Our participants for the 2012 "Fit Nation" triathlon challenge. Now this is the third year we've chosen a group of CNN viewers to join me in training for this triathlon, they're about to get their lives changed. They're also going to get the royal treatment.

We're going to have every person on a bike, all the accessories, a wet suit, gym membership. We're going to take everyone on training trips around the country, also and hook them up with a triathlon trainer in their own area.

Our goal, besides changing our lives, is the finish line of the Nautica Malibu Triathlon which is in September. Half-mile ocean swim, 18-mile bike, four-mile run. Several hundred people submitted entries through I-Report, and this is who we chose.


NANCY KLINGER, CNN IREPORTER: My name is Nancy, and I am sending you this video on a really chilly November night here in Acton, Minnesota.

GUPTA (voice-over): Nancy Klinger is recently separated from her husband after a 26-year marriage. And though she's in OK physical shape, mentally she's finding it tough to stay motivated.

KLINGER: Just dealing with some life changes, some family changes, and going through a stage where I'm finding yet I'm a bit lonely and I'm finding it really hard to generate the energy needed to get through the day, let alone get some really good regular exercise.

GUPTA: Glenn Keller (ph) is a truck driver from Texas. He runs a call-in ministry from his cell phone when he's on the road.

GLENN KELLER, CNN IREPORTER: I'm trying to let everybody else know what they can accomplish, and what they can do, yet here I sit making this video and I'm at least 100 pounds overweight. I think the first life that I need to make a difference is in mine. And how much more of an impact would that have on others. We're looking forward to taking advantage of an opportunity to come to Malibu and be a part of not the triathlon, because I've tried enough, I want to come to the "do-athlon."

GUPTA: Denise Castelli from New Jersey was a star college softball player when a tragic accident on the field forced doctors to amputate her leg.

DENISE CASTELLI, CNN IREPORTER: There are no words to describe the moment when somebody tells you that they're going to have to amputate your limb. I have always prided myself on being a top-notch athlete, and I miss that. And I desperately want that back. I'm hoping to be that inspiration that somebody needs when they feel defeated.

GUPTA: Growing up in Southern California, Carlos Solis was headed down a bad road. Drug use, gang violence, but some well-meaning adults helped him get his life back on track, so now as an adult himself, he's dedicated his life to helping other troubled kids. But he often doesn't take time to focus on his own health.

CARLOS SOLIS, CNN IREPORTER: I am a type 2 diabetic. My doctors have told me that I needed to lose weight, diet and exercise, and bring my sugars under control. As a California public schoolteacher, I want to be able to show my students that you have diabetes, or if someone in your family has diabetes, you can break that chain of ever getting it.

GUPTA: Rick Morris is a Web designer, and volunteer firefighter in North Carolina. But the smoke he's battling most often comes from his own cigarette habit.

RICK MORRIS, CNN IREPORTER: After my career in the Army, I started smoking, and quit exercising. And for the past 12 years, I've eaten mostly only the things that taste good, you know, food that comes from a box, or a drive-up window. I've seen six relatives die from heart disease, lung cancer, and throat cancer. I'm worried that if I don't make some life-changing decisions about my health, I'll soon join the family statistic. I don't want to die young from controllable circumstances, I want to live.

GUPTA: And Adrienne Lagier, a journalism teacher from Maryland, has a big event coming up just two weeks before our big race day.

ADRIENNE LAGIER, CNN IREPORTER: I'm getting married to the father of my twins, Chris, after eight long years. And the biggest gift I feel like I could give him is starting our life off in fitness and in health. This teacher wants to be your student.


GUPTA: I can't wait to start training with these guys. Last year we called our team the "6-Pack." Well, this year, it's "The Lucky 7." Now you may have noticed, there were only six videos there. That's because we saved one for last because it was such a big surprise. Jeff Dauler is a co-host on "The Bert Show," it's a nationally syndicated morning radio show based here in Atlanta.

I've been on Jeff's show, but we never talked about his health or his fitness. But then my producer showed me this iReport video from Jeff.


JEFF DAULER, CO-HOST, "THE BERT SHOW": I've had an interesting 18 months, with a lot of personal challenges. And during much of this time, I felt very out of control. I was waiting on other people, I was dealing with personal issues I didn't even know I had. And I'm kind of a control freak and that bothered me a lot. I didn't like being out of control.

And at some point during that process, I realized that one of the only things that any of us can control in our lives is our bodies, what we put in them, and how we take care of them, no matter what's going on in our lives.


GUPTA: I think a lot of people are going to relate to the issues he's facing. So we've invited him as well to join the challenge. All of our new triathletes are going to be here in Atlanta next month. And we look forward to introducing them to you in person.

They're going to be your partners. Think of them like that. Join us for the ride. We'll be posting our regular workouts through our Facebook page at You can always tweet us as well @CNNFitNation. We want to hear from you. We want to help you as well.

That's going to wrap things up for SGMD this morning. Stay connected with me on my livestream at You can also join the conversation that's ongoing on Twitter @SanjayGuptaCNN. Hope to see you back here next weekend. Time now, let me get you a check of your top stories from the "CNN NEWSROOM."