MINNEAPOLIS (WCCO) — In America, Sunday is synonymous with football. It’s something Vikings fans know well.  This week, Hollywood is taking a crack against the game and the NFL.

Will Smith’s new movie is called “Concussion.” He plays a doctor trying to expose the brain injuries he believes are killing former NFL players. With us, what a local expert says he hopes the movie changes.

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Fred McNeill was one of the greats, helping lead the Vikings to their last Super Bowl in 1977.  His final years were painful. Dementia, he fought in every way he could, even using a hyperbaric chamber for therapy.

In 2012, Mark Rosen visited him in his California apartment, “We’ve got to do something because this is something that’s having an impact on kids in high school, players in college, players in the NFL,” McNeil said.

He’s talking about head injuries. A few years after this interview, his injuries cost him his life. McNeil died last month at 63.

McNeil’s life parallels the plot of Will Smith’s new movie.  A player too young to die loses his mind, then his life.  Smith plays a doctor in the movie. Joe Petronio is a doctor in real life. He deals with head trauma and concussions at Children’s Hospitals and Clinics of Minnesota.

“Repetitive head trauma chokes the brain, it turns you into someone else,” Dr. Petronio said. “I think that anything that sort of stimulates the discussion is good that gets the word out and makes people maybe talk about things.”

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He says he is asked constantly by parents if it’s safe for their kids to play football. He says there’s not a clear answer.  He says there are clear benefits to sports, as well as the risks.

“It’s becoming increasingly risky in my opinion again, because the athletes are becoming better,” Dr. Petronio said.

Just in the past year, Dr. Petronio says they have seen about 1,900 kids with concussions and it is far from a football problem.  He says many concussions come from women’s hockey and from soccer.

“We have to do a better job at being able to determine what kids are most at risk and when enough is enough,” Dr. Petronio said.

A question even Hollywood is trying to tackle. Dr. Petronio says most children recover fully from concussions. He says the real damage comes from repeat injuries, like the ones NFL players sustain each week.

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Here is more information about concussions from Dr. Petronio’s clinic.

Susan-Elizabeth Littlefield