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'American Coyotes' Series

Traveling by Jeep, boat and foot, Tribune-Review investigative reporter Carl Prine and photojournalist Justin Merriman covered nearly 2,000 miles over two months along the border with Mexico to report on coyotes — the human traffickers who bring illegal immigrants into the United States. Most are Americans working for money and/or drugs. This series reports how their operations have a major impact on life for residents and the environment along the border — and beyond.

Sunday, March 6, 2011

At his lowest point, Brad Werenka could not enter a grocery store. The light was too intense.

He could not drive his car. The dizziness was too severe.

He could not bathe his children. The noise from their chatter was too harsh.

And he could not walk for more than two minutes at a time, because an elevated heart rate would trigger wicked headaches.

"If it hasn't happened to you, you can't possibly understand," says Werenka, a former Penguins defenseman who was forced into early retirement 10 years ago. "When your kids are young and need you, and you want to support your wife, and you wind up in a situation where you're just trying to manage from day to day• It's tough. It's not just your livelihood but your life that has been taken away.

"The life is just kind of sucked out of you."

Concussions were the culprit. Werenka figures he sustained a handful during his seven-year NHL career, including at least two in his final season. An innocent hit turned out to be his last call.

Werenka was playing for his hometown Calgary Flames on Dec. 29, 2000 — he'd been traded from the Penguins the previous spring — when Vancouver's Donald Brashear checked him into the boards.

"I got hit from the left side and bumped the right side of my head into the glass," Werenka recalls. "The symptoms came on immediately — headache, dizziness, etc."

It would be a year-and-a-half before Werenka could take a five-minute walk. Slowly, he progressed, to where he could help his wife actively care for their three children and finally to where he attained a law degree from the University of Calgary in 2007 and became an attorney.

Save for the odd flare-up, Werenka, 42, considers himself recovered. But he worries about the game he loves. It is the same game he passionately teaches at the Brad Werenka Hockey School and the one he bequeathed to his children — now 18, 15 and 11.

Werenka shudders as he surveys the carnage from afar. Several dozen NHL players, as usual, have been concussed this season, including Penguins superstar Sidney Crosby, who missed his 25th consecutive game Saturday.

Meanwhile, this past week saw Islanders thug Trevor Gillies — a menace straight out of the movie "Slap Shot" — suspended 10 games for a head shot only days after Boston University researchers discovered that long-time NHL enforcer Bob Probert suffered from degenerative brain disease before dying of heart failure at age 45.

Werenka's advice to Crosby: Don't try to be a hero.

"You want to make sure you're talking to the best people and being honest with them," Werenka says. "So many times, you don't want to admit (the symptoms). I was no different. You don't want to say it's crippling you. There's no objective evidence, and you're led to believe, 'I can just overcome this and play through it.'

"Well, it's not just something you can play through. Just be patient. And if you can talk to other players who've had it, that's great. I know that would have helped me."

Hockey leagues around the world — including the NCAA, the Ontario Hockey League and the International Ice Hockey Federation — have made it illegal to contact another player's skull.

It's a simple concept, really: No check to the head is a clean one.

The NHL has not gone that far, though it implemented "Rule 48" this season in an attempt to prohibit "lateral or blind-side hits where the head is targeted and/or the principal point of contact."

Werenka would like to see the NHL take the final step and ban all head hits. He knows opposition would be heated.

"Everybody's worried, 'Oh, you're going to take away the game,' " he says. "Listen, players adjust. When they took away hooking and holding after the lockout, players adjusted, and the game is better than ever. The hits to the head that are vicious, punish them as severely as possible, and take the less-vicious ones out."

In treating suspected concussions, Werenka's words could serve as the ideal mantra for coaches and medical personnel at all levels of every sport:

"Err on the side of caution."

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