Former college football player, city firefighter sues NCAA over concussions
When Matt Onyshko became a Pittsburgh firefighter in 2004, the former California University of Pennsylvania football linebacker could lift and drag a 145-pound dummy through a 130-foot course and climb five flights of stairs while carrying a 45-pound rolled firehose.
Within a year, he had Lou Gehrig’s disease, a progressive neurodegenerative condition, and gave up his lifelong goal.
“That was one of the hardest things, knowing I couldn’t live the life I dreamed of,” Onyshko, 32, of Brighton Heights said on Tuesday.
He and his wife, Jessica, blame the disease on concussions he suffered while playing five years of college football.
The Onyshkos filed a federal lawsuit on Tuesday, claiming the National Collegiate Athletic Association knew but did not warn Matt about the long-term effects he could develop from repeated concussions.
Jason Luckasevic, his attorney, said the NCAA did not warn Onyshko of “long-term, devastating consequences of repeated concussions” despite a large body of research before 1999 pointing to those consequences.
“Even when he was knocked out cold, he was going back in and playing games,” Luckasevic said. “It’s just the way the injury was handled back then. People assumed that as soon as you regained consciousness and could count the number of fingers, you were OK.”
NCAA spokeswoman Stacey Osburn said the organization hasn’t seen the lawsuit or the facts it alleges.
“However, it appears that many of the allegations are patterned after other litigation filed by other lawyers,” she said. “Just like those other complaints, we do not believe that the claims are properly directed to the NCAA.”
The organization continues to change rules, equipment requirements and best-practices in response to medical research and technological advances, she said.
Luckasevic said the lawsuit names only the NCAA because when Onyshko played football, the NCAA funded concussion studies and set policies for players. It since has delegated that responsibility to colleges and universities, he said.
Luckasevic said he is aware of other lawsuits but doesn’t think Onyshko’s case will be combined with them into a national settlement because there are class-action cases seeking medical monitoring and changes in NCAA policies.
Onyshko’s case seeks compensatory and punitive damages for injuries he received, Luckasevic said.
Luckasevic was the first lawyer to file a class-action concussion lawsuit against the National Football League. That July 2011 lawsuit and several others led to a national settlement that provides $5 million for any NFL player diagnosed with Lou Gehrig’s disease.
One stumbling block for Onyshko’s lawsuit might be the lack of scientific proof to back the claim that repeated concussions caused him to develop the disease, amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, commonly called ALS. It is incurable and typically fatal.
Dr. Robert Friedlander, chair of neurosurgery at the University of Pittsburgh, said someone predisposed to ALS might develop it earlier because of head trauma. The disease, however, is caused by the death of motor neurons throughout the brain, and a trauma that affected only those cells “would be unusual,” he said.
“There certainly is no proof out there that trauma can cause ALS,” he said.
Luckasevic said science behind the claim includes a 2012 study by the National Institute of Occupational Safety and Health showing that football players are more likely than the general public to die from ALS, Alzheimer’s disease and Parkinson’s disease.
The NFL has acknowledged the link in its settlement and its disability plans, he said.
In an interview last year, Onyshko had difficulty speaking but could walk. The disease since has taken more of a toll.
“His mental attitude is very good,” said Jessica Onyshko, 26. “Physically, he’s wheelchair-bound mostly and uses a feeding tube for eating and a pacemaker to help him breathe.”
Onyshko played football for North Catholic from 1995 to 1999 and then for Cal U from 1999 to 2003.
When he graduated from the fire academy, he was assigned to Engine 32 in Spring Garden. Battalion Chief Doug Praskovich said Onyshko was one of the finest recruits he had seen.
“He was an excellent firefighter,” he said. “I hate to see him have an illness like this to take his career away.”
While playing college football, Onyshko endured repeated blows to the head, losing consciousness for more than 30 seconds three times, the lawsuit says.
Onyshko said he couldn’t remember the details of the first time he was knocked out, but didn’t get treatment for it.
“I never really knew I had a concussion,” he said.
Former Cal U head coach John Luckhardt, who coached Onyshko for two seasons, said he was kind of a “throwback player” whose style of play would have led to concussions.
“He was very physical,” Luckhardt said. “He was a cerebral player. He studied the opponent very well. He was always in the right spot.”
Matt Rado and six other former teammates take Onyshko out to dinner a couple of times a month.
“I lined up across from Matt for five years,” Rado said. “He was an outside linebacker, and I was a tight end. You’d be hard-pressed to find anybody who didn’t show some sort of symptom of a concussion. Treatment back then was nothing like it is today.”
He believes football caused Onyshko’s medical problems.
“If I ever have a son, he would never put a football helmet on, knowing the effects the game takes on your body,” Rado said.
Staff writers Bob Cohn and Jerry DiPaola contributed. Brian Bowling is a Trib Total Media staff writer. Reach him at 412-325-4301 or [email protected].