BUFFALO, N.Y. (WIVB) - Star athletes strive for the best, putting their heart and soul into the games they play. But sometimes the hits they take come back to haunt them.
The fear many of these athletes have can be summed up in three letters: CTE, or chronic traumatic encephalopathy. It is a degenerative condition scientists believe is caused by head trauma. Doctors at University at Buffalo now hope they can detect and help these players before it's too late.
Buffalo Sabres legend Danny Gare estimates he fought on the ice up to 300 times and suffered eight concussions.
"A lot of fist-a-cuffs. A lot of fights," Gare said. "I went to the hospital. Throwing up all night. They wake you every hour."
MORE | Gare believes his father, Ernie, died of CTE in 1981
Former Sabres enforcer Andrew Peters said, "It's something you're willing to do because you're playing at the highest level. I was in the National Hockey League, and I was willing to do whatever it took so no one would take that away, at least as long as I could have it."
There are hits game in and game out for years, if an athlete's body will allow it. And to young professional athletes, who hit their prime in their mid-20s, the reward almost always outweighs the risk.
"You're a young kid and you don't really think that stuff will happen to you. And now you're on the other side and just waiting to see if the unknown is going to be a part of your life or not," Peters said.
The unknown, as Peters calls it, involves CTE, which has been linked to depression and dementia, and is indicted by a buildup of tau, an abnormal protein that impacts the part of the brain that controls memory and emotions on top of other functions.
The condition became more well-known in the last few years after researchers at Boston University began studying the brains of former NFL football players - players who sometimes killed themselves after bouts with dementia.
Buffalo sports fans were saddened by the recent news former Bills legend Joe Delamielleure has been diagnosed by UCLA doctors as having signs of CTE.
MORE | Hear more from Joe Delamielleure about his diagnosis in this one-on-one interview
His symptoms include shortened attention span, trouble sleeping and mood swings.
"When no one's around, I get depression for no reason. No reason whatsoever to get it, and I start getting depressed," Delamielleure said.
He knows there are others like him. And now doctors at the University at Buffalo are determined to find them. They are conducting the Healthy Aging Minds study.
Doctors say it's the first study that looks at living, retired hockey players as well as football players. About 15 former Sabres players and Bills players have already signed on, and doctors hope to get up to 40 retired athletes involved in the study. They want to see if those former players are losing ground as they age faster than the general public.
One of the participants is Sabres legendary winger Danny Gare. In his 14 years in the National Hockey League, his head took its share of hits.
"It was great to play the game. but some nights it was not fun," Gare said.
Study participants are coming to Buffalo General Hospital to have MRIs done to see if researchers can detect CTE in their brains. In the past, researchers have only been able to diagnose CTE in the brains of athletes who already died, athletes like former Sabres player Rick Martin.
After he died of a heart attack while driving, doctors looked at his brain and found CTE. It was especially eye opening to researchers, because Martin was a scorer, not a hitter. It also opened the eyes of his former teammate, Gare.
"Definitely opened my eyes," Gare said.
Gare, Peters and others participating are alive and well. And if they are found to have signs of CTE, they want help now.
That's what the UB doctors want to offer. Dr. Barry Willer and Dr. John Leddy, the region's premiere experts on concussions, are leading the study.
"What we're doing is taking the information and identifying problems they might have no and suggesting resources that they can use to help them right now," Dr. Leddy said.
And by examining a wide swath of living, former players, rather than the brains of players who died, their hope is that they don't find CTE.
"We're skeptics. I think all good researchers are skeptics. And we're not absolutely sure there's a relationship between playing football or playing hockey and early onset dementia. We don't know that," Dr. Willer said.
Gare is already experiencing memory loss and headaches. When asked if he's nervous to learn what the study finds, he said, "I think you're always worried. Nervous. Sure. But I'd rather know than not know. It's there. I just don't know how bad it is."
And then there is a question that stirs some conflicting feelings in these former pros. If the tests find signs of CTE, do they have any regrets about their careers? Should parents today prevent their kids from playing collision sports?
"Looking back on my career, hockey was my life. Today, I'd say to my grandson, go out and enjoy it, skate, and see where it goes," Gare said.
Gare believes the speed is so much more dangerous at the professional level, that youth athletes don't face nearly as much risk.
But Peters says, if the tests show he's on a darkened path, his answer might be different.
"The fear of the unknown is maybe enough to say it wasn't worth it," Peters said.
The fear of the unknown is proving much more difficult to handle than any opponent these athletes ever faced.
The study will take about year to complete. Doctors at UB are still looking for former hockey and football players, plus participants for a comparison, such as former professional athletes in golf or swimming.
Doctors will provide help for the athletes based on specific symptoms. Many of the players can't sleep - they can be connected with sleep experts. Depression can be treated. And something as small as diet changes can be addressed once doctors get a full picture of a particular participant.
As for reversing the CTE in the brain, that is still pretty far down the road as doctors are still trying to understand the disease.
Courtesy of WIVB.COM