Sanford Health’s partnership with NFL Alumni begins with a mutual purpose that covers a lot of ground.
For the NFLA, it embraces the missions of health care and wellness for players in their post-NFL lives as well as their families and their communities. For Sanford, it involves delivering care, support, expertise and promising research that can benefit future generations.
In support of medical research, and by extension the future of health care for decades to come, the NFLA and Sanford Health recently announced the creation of a biobank that will support studies in treating sports-related injuries, brain health and sports performance.
In a sense, a biobank translates to information. The more information available, the more efficiently researchers can push along the discovery process.
“A biobank is a library of tissue, it’s a library of samples, it’s a library of what a human being actually is,” explained Dr. David Pearce, president of Sanford Research, Innovation and World Clinic. “You can have a biobank for rare diseases, a biobank for cancer — you can have a biobank that targets humankind, if you want.”
How the biobank works
The Sanford-NFLA biobank will collect, process and store blood, saliva and survey information from participants. Coupled with robust participation from NFLA members, it may enable scientists to begin their studies earlier and accelerate research.
“It’s a long-term legacy type of a thought process,” Dr. Pearce said. “NFL players get exposed to a lot of different injuries. There is a lot of interest specifically in concussions right now. Sanford research has an active concussion program in youth sports. We have a passion for understanding the basis of concussions.”
For the NFLA participants, it’s an opportunity to help themselves and help others by providing information that can be used in advancing studies involving genomics, cell-based therapies and other treatments.
An executive committee composed of NFL Alumni and Sanford Health will oversee the biobank. Studies that wish to use the samples will be reviewed by a scientific committee that includes members from the NFLA, Sanford Health and experts from various fields.
“One of the things we’re very excited about is that we know this is going to be done the right way,” said Kyle Richardson, a former NFL punter and Super Bowl winner with the Baltimore Ravens who is now co-director of health care initiatives for the NFLA.
“If you look at this historically, we’ve all been poked and prodded and asked to give out this information that is sent here and there so we’ve been apprehensive about it, right? Even I was originally. When we got into it more and had more discussions with Sanford, it was obvious we were just going to be dealing with Sanford. There will be an executive committee that helps decide where the information goes and where it doesn’t go.”
Sanford a trusted partner
It’s a significant assurance within the partnership and a clear message to former players that information collected in the biobank will be put to use responsibly.
“It can be hard to get data on high-level athletes because when in you’re in the NFL and in those situations, they’re going to use it to degrade you — to use it against you,” said Zach Zenner, a former South Dakota State star running back who played in the NFL for five seasons.
“That’s the opposite of what is going on at Sanford. They’re looking to the NFLA membership to give to this biobank. It is not going to be used to downgrade, but in fact, to upgrade and help with the future of the game and the future health of those athletes.”
Zenner can offer colleagues in the NFLA assurances because he’s very familiar with Sanford, both as a former college football player from the region and in his work on Sanford research projects during his NFL offseasons. He has seen it from both sides, in other words.
“What the NFLA is getting as a partner is a reputable company that doesn’t just do the clinical work but also does the research that has the hardcore science behind it,” Zenner said. “You don’t see that very often in an institution. … So not only are they reputable, strong in the clinic and strong in research, but they’re also interested in the community. That’s why this is a really good pairing between two organizations.”
An advocate off the field
Billy Davis, a co-director of health care initiatives for the NFLA, played on Super Bowl-winning teams in Dallas and Baltimore during a career that spanned 93 games. He has since endured 26 surgeries.
The need for health care, based on Davis’ example and countless others who have played professionally, is a high priority within the NFLA.
Davis likened his history with injuries to a refrigerator that starts breaking down after the warranty runs out. He met Dr. Pearce at a world stem cell conference, and those conversations eventually led to a partnership with Sanford.
“David has been an absolute wonderful advocate for us,” Davis said. “He’s a football fan and he sees the need for guys to have access to the kinds of things Sanford is providing.”
Precision medicine for NFL alumni
The biobank’s role in advancing regenerative medicine is particularly encouraging for an organization that that has so many members like Davis, who deal with career-related health issues decades after the playing days end. Advancements in treatment could have a direct impact on quality of life.
“It’s a great opportunity for guys to get progressive medicine,” Davis said. “Take genetics, for instance. As a field it’s like the universe — it’s a constellation of opportunities.”
Davis calls Sanford’s work in genetics a “transformation from standardized medicine to precision medicine.”
“The biobank really gives a great platform for these guys to address their immediate needs,” he said. “It can provide a more informative perspective on your personal health quotient. You may not know you have some kind of family history of certain things. It’s really studying yourself down to the cellular level.”
The NFLA playbook includes a strong commitment to youth. That takes shape both in its wide-ranging support role within communities and specifically in regard to youth sports. As medical science continues to take on the challenge of treating concussions, there is a direct generational link to what was, what is and what’s coming next.
Concussion research and treatment
Richardson suffered three concussions during a 10-year NFL career that began in 1997. The first, in hindsight, was the most difficult based on the severity of the hit and the level of treatment available at the time.
He didn’t remember anything about the play that caused the injury. After the game, an athletic trainer told him it was the highest-level concussion a player could have. He then handed the punter a business card and told him to call if he had any problems.
“I was staying at a LaQuinta Inn in Seattle. I was in town for four weeks filling in for a guy who got hurt,” Richardson said. “I didn’t know anybody and I’m in Seattle, Washington, and I live in Miami, Florida. It’s like, ‘Here you go. If you have a problem, call me.’ I’m like, ‘If I have a problem, I’m dead.’”
Fortunately, medical science’s regard for head injuries has advanced in the more than 20 years since Richardson’s grim account his first serious concussion. Research accounted for the advances both at the NFL level and at every level below that.
“I’m confident our guys will realize this is a legacy that they can leave,” Richardson said. “I don’t see a lot of detriment to donating back. I just see that it’s only going to improve the future outcomes. I have young kids that play sports so maybe it’s helping my own kids down the road. That’s the benefit and that’s why I hope everyone would want to be a part of this.”
- NFL Alumni, Sanford Health team up on lifelong player health
- What is regenerative medicine?
- A biobank’s purpose and how it helps research