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Tim Gay

Tim Gay found a scientific explanation for the New England Patriots' softer footballs. But the UNL physics professor can also see their benefits. "You can hold on to it better. You can hold on to foam rubber better than you can hold on to a bowling ball. You've got purchase," said Gay, who wrote "Football Physics."

Tim Gay has a problem.

He loves watching football -- the quarterback sacks and bruising blocks -- and even shows replays of what he considers classic college and NFL collisions before his presentations, including the one he gave Friday at Memorial Stadium.

“What an incredibly beautiful block that was, and that’s what football is all about,” he said after showing a clip of Nebraska’s Kenny Bell hammering Wisconsin’s Devin Smith during last season’s Big Ten championship game.

The University of Nebraska-Lincoln physics professor also understands the long-term physical impacts of those entertaining tackles and collisions, and thinks it’s about time football promoters get serious about protecting players.

“I think we need to worry about how it’s going to affect a player in the future,” he said.

Gay spoke about the physics and future of football, a sport under some fire after more than 4,000 former players filed a class action lawsuit against the NFL, accusing the league of concealing information about brain injuries caused by playing football. Players and scholars, who have begun studying the long-term impacts of football, have put pressure on league officials to improve equipment and tighten regulations, Gay said.

In the past year, nine former NFL players committed suicide, a trend that could be tied to high rates of depression among former professional players, Gay said. Football players also are four times more likely to die of Alzheimer’s and ALS, he said.

Repeated hits on the field translate into chronic pain and headaches, loss of motor skills and joint pain later in life, he said.

“This is a real problem for the organized game of football,” he said.

UNL has taken a lead role in national research efforts to understand and mitigate injuries. The university plans to open the Center for Brain, Biology and Behavior and the Nebraska Athletic Performance Lab -- institutions that will focus largely on studying athletic injuries, especially concussions -- in the new East Stadium addition that will be completed this summer.

“These are really cutting-edge developments,” he said.

Gay became a familiar face to Husker fans during the 1999 and 2000 seasons when his “Football Physics” lessons were shown on HuskerVision during games. The one-minute videos featured UNL football players demonstrating basic physics concepts, such as how Newton’s law of physics applied to blocking and tackling.

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He spoke Friday about the dangerous trend of having increasingly bigger and faster players colliding on the field. From 1920 to today, players’ weights have increased 57 percent. From 1920 to 2005, their speeds increased 9.4 percent. That has resulted in nearly 85 percent more energy being dumped on players during plays, he said.

“It’s kind of obvious why we have concussion problems and injury problems,” he said.

He offered several solutions to improving the safety of football, including better padding and helmets, and requiring players to wear certain protective gear like horse collars, which reduce head rotation during impacts. He said mouth guards also have been shown to reduce concussions.

He said football league officials should aggressively test players for performance enhancing chemicals and could start requiring players to sign waivers preventing them from suing football leagues for later medical problems they may encounter. He said football league officials also could reduce the number of games teams play each seasons.

While he dislikes the idea of losing them, Gay also suggested getting rid of “greatest hits” videos that glorify particularly gruesome football tackles and collisions.

One solution put forth by others that Gay didn’t endorse Friday was ending organized football.

“It’s our game, and we love it and we’re not going to let it go,” he said.

Reach Kevin Abourezk at 402-473-7225 or kabourezk@journalstar.com.

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I'm a Journal Star night editor and father of five.

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