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A crusade to save football and the people who play it

Deseret News logo Deseret News 5/23/2021 Lee Benson
a man sitting on a table: Larry Carr wears the headset that provides infrared light therapy for the brain in his home office. © Lee Benson, Deseret News Larry Carr wears the headset that provides infrared light therapy for the brain in his home office.

The news hit Larry Carr hard. But it did not surprise him.

It was a Tuesday morning, Jan. 21, when his cellphone buzzed. A teammate from Carr’s football playing days at BYU was calling to let him know that another teammate of theirs, Keith Rivera, a stellar defensive end from 1971-74, died that morning in Oregon when he took his own life. Rivera was 68.

A little over two years ago, Carr, a man who has made it his crusade to save football and the people who play it, had met up with Rivera on a golf course in Las Vegas. Between drives he told him about the infrared light treatments that had freed him from decades of mental health issues tied to the concussions he absorbed as a football player.

Thrilled by his recovery, and hoping to help others, he had talked the University of Utah into doing a study measuring the effectiveness of the light treatments on ex-collision athletes.

The university, thanks in part to $150,000 Carr raised for the study, said yes. Carr wanted Rivera to be a part of it.

He knew his teammate, like more than a few of the guys he played with, suffered from symptoms consistent with the brain disease chronic traumatic encephalopathy: anxiety, depression, paranoia, anger, volatility, lack of sleep, cognitive problems, suicidal thoughts. A long, unpleasant list.

Rivera said he’d think about it, so the study began without him. Through the University of Utah medical school, department of neurology, 13 ex-collision athletes experiencing CTE-like symptoms, the majority of them football players, but also a soccer player, a motocross rider and a triathlete, were given the infrared light treatments called photobiomodulation every other day for eight weeks.

As an adjunct professor in the University of Utah’s neurology department, Larry Carr has made infrared light therapy his crusade to save football and those who play it. © Lee Benson, Deseret News As an adjunct professor in the University of Utah’s neurology department, Larry Carr has made infrared light therapy his crusade to save football and those who play it.

The university made Carr, who holds a doctorate in exercise physiology, an adjunct professor in its neurology department — a nonpaid position that would help him monitor the study’s progress.

All the data from the study is still to be compiled, but when the eight weeks were up and the participants were asked if they’d like to take a headset home with them so they could continue treatments and extend the research, 13 out of 13 said yes. (The units, not unlike a pair of headphones, are made by the Vielight Corp. in Canada.)

“All 13 improved their emotional state significantly,” says Carr, who also adds eight more athletes to the total, including himself, who previously received treatments and have no desire to stop.

“That’s 21 out of 21 who feel better and want to keep going. This technology is not just something that helped me, it is something that can help so many.”

Dr. David Tate, a neuropsychologist at the University of Utah, recently talked about the study’s encouraging preliminary results in a Zoom presentation to the neuroimaging faculty at Harvard.

“I first thought this was snake oil,” Tate confessed to the professors. Then he listed all the neurodegenerative diseases the light therapy could potentially affect in addition to CTE — including such plagues as Parkinson’s, dementia and Alzheimer’s — and said, according to Carr, “I know, it sounds too good to be true. But the reality is, if you find one mechanism that helps the brain, the possibilities are limitless.”

Carr, a BYU Hall of Fame middle linebacker who to this day holds the school record for most tackles per game in a career, is not one to wait around.

a man holding a gun: Larry Carr holds the infrared light headset that is being used as brain therapy for ex-collision athletes. © Lee Benson, Deseret News Larry Carr holds the infrared light headset that is being used as brain therapy for ex-collision athletes.

“I know I should say, ‘Well, it’s only been 21 people, let’s wait and see.’ But as a person who played football, who stared into the blackness that comes from this disease, who almost lost everything due to it, I can’t not say how excited I am by the results so far. The pattern of the research and the pattern of the response to the light treatment is to my mind unmistakable.”

The next step is preventive in nature. Through another fundraising effort, the neuropsychology department at Carr’s alma mater has agreed to conduct a study this upcoming football season involving 40 current BYU players. At the end of the season, the data is expected to provide additional clarity about the effectiveness of the treatments, and whether they are capable of reducing CTE-like damage with a preemptive strike.

In addition, an extension of the original research study is about to start at the University of Utah. This time they’re recruiting a group of up to 50 ex-collision athletes. Already signed on, in addition to football players, are an MMA fighter, a professional stuntman, several soccer players and a woman who was a victim of domestic abuse.

(To learn more about the therapy, how to volunteer and ways to contribute funding, see footballandthebrain.com.)

Carr hoped Keith Rivera would be a part of this second study wave after the first one passed him by. They were teammates on LaVell Edwards’ first conference championship and went to the Fiesta Bowl together. They share a rich football history. He was pulling hard for him.

And it appeared Rivera was ready. In an email last fall, he wrote to Carr: “Great to talk to you today. Yes, I would like to be part of the volunteer brain study group. When does the study begin? I have lots of anxiety that causes my sleep disorder; I’m thinking this might help relax my anxiety.”

Frustrated that he hadn’t heard back from his friend for a few months, Carr emailed Rivera: “Hi Keith. You seem to be ignoring me. I really hope you will consider participating in the second group of this study. The first group results appear to be very encouraging. Let me know what you think.”

The email was sent the morning of Jan. 21.

“I got a call a short time later that he had shot himself,” says Carr.

“Keith’s situation brings a sense of urgency. It’s devastating, what this disease does. Keith was very successful. He was a financial adviser for wealthy people, with a great personality. Just looking at him you wouldn’t know. This is a silent disease. Rivera is not an isolated case. I know of 14 players and coaches I played with who have either passed away from, or are currently experiencing symptoms, from football related brain damage, and that’s just those I’m aware of. People don’t have anywhere to go for help. They lose hope.”

Light therapy offers hope, and possibly much more than that, for sufferers and the games they play. Especially football.

“Once I found something that could actually impact the sport I love, and save it from itself, I was driven,” says Carr, who is 69. “This is my passion. It’s on my mind all the time. I go to bed thinking about it and wake up thinking about it.”

His wife, Laurie, can attest to that.

“He looked at me after he got better and said, ‘I’m going to save football,’” she remembers. “And I said, ‘You go right ahead.’ And look what he’s doing.”

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