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Roberto Clemente the inspiration behind brain health-monitoring app

| Friday, Dec. 7, 2018, 10:09 a.m.
Roberto Clemente Jr. visits the future site of the Roberto Clemente museum in the Strip District Friday, February 23, 2007.
PITTSBURGH TRIBUNE-REVIEW
Roberto Clemente Jr. visits the future site of the Roberto Clemente museum in the Strip District Friday, February 23, 2007.
Former NFL quarterback Gus Frerotte, Person of the Year, Circus Sinners and Saints, Le Mont, Mt. Washington. July 25, 2017.
John Altdorfer
Former NFL quarterback Gus Frerotte, Person of the Year, Circus Sinners and Saints, Le Mont, Mt. Washington. July 25, 2017.

Gus Frerotte doesn’t remember much from the 2005 game in Miami when, while playing quarterback for the Dolphins, Buffalo’s London Fletcher hit him squarely in the chin.

The hit sent Frerotte to the sidelines with a concussion.

“When I got hit by London, all they did was say: ‘We’re going to tell you five words and as soon as you can repeat the five words back to us, we’ll know you’re feeling OK,’” said Frerotte, a Ford City High School graduate who played for seven NFL teams over 15 seasons. “It took me until about two hours after the game before I could remember them all. And that was all they did.”

Now there is an app for that. It’s called “The Roberto” app — named after legendary Pittsburgh Pirates Hall of Fame outfielder Roberto Clemente.

Clemente’s son, Roberto Clemente Jr., is on the advisory board of the Coraopolis-based company that developed it nearly two years ago, RC21X. (The company’s name combines Clemente’s initials and uniform number.) Frerotte is vice president of brain health initiatives for RC21X.

The Roberto app has games specifically designed for users to measure memory and neuromotor skills. Over time, the data is used to create a baseline for individual users.

Clarence Carlos, chief executive officer and founder of RC21X came up with the idea after the teenage son of a close friend died from brain injuries he sustained playing high school football. Carlos believes the technology his company has developed might have saved his life.

“We want everyone to understand how important this is,” said Carlos. “It’s like monitoring your heart or blood pressure or blood sugar. Nobody monitors their brain performance. That’s why we created a brain performance monitoring system to be used daily.”

Carlos, who played fullback at West Virginia from 1982 to 1986, said neuropsychologists all over the country are using RC21X’S methods to evaluate football players. They created an app version to get it into the hands of as many people as possible.

The app costs $2.99 a month to download.

Since it launched in February 2017, the Roberto app has had over 17,000 downloads in 140 countries. One of its regular users is Frerotte, who said the app has helped him.

“It gives me information,” Frerotte said. “Years ago they gave you a test and it was a one-time thing and you never saw the information and you never took it again until you got injured. Well, what about a test that I could take all the time to monitor myself, so that if something happens to me in practice or on the way to practice or at home or anything, I could constantly check myself.”

The Roberto app measures different functions of the brain with games such as a finger tapping exercise that tests how many times you can tap your finger on a space bar in 15 seconds. And a race car video game requiring hand-eye coordination to keep the car on the track. Scores from the app come in red, green, and blue, with green being the normal range.

“We collect data when you play a particular game from the speed that you do things, the rhythm you do things,” Frerotte said. “So, green: you’re in your range, blue is a normal high — I’m feeling pretty good, red is below my normal range. So, we want you to understand what that is.

“We all have a lot of good and bad days. We want to know when those are. If you have something to measure them with, then you can make changes that are necessary for you to have better brain performance.”

Neuropsychologist Paul Nussbaum, executive vice president and chief clinical officer for RC21X, said the app is like a Fitbit for the brain. Its use extends beyond the playing field.

“As we generate more data, we’re going to be able to talk about what’s the normative profile data for a retired NFL player, what’s the normative profile data for a person with a stroke or Parkinson’s disease or the symptoms that lead to Alzheimer’s,” Nussbaum said. “Getting out in front of all these things in a proactive way is a difference maker. It changes the curve. It shifts the culture.”

Frerotte said he’s trying to persuade NFL players to use the Roberto app but that he has clients from all walks of life.

“I have had people who are retired use it. I have kids in high school use it. I have people in business use it,” Frerotte said. “I work with a group out of Chicago called Illinois Marine Towing, and their whole company uses it — whether they are people out on the barges and the boats or in the office. They have reduced some of their incidents and accidents through our program.”

Frerotte said there is a good reason for calling it the Roberto app.

“Clemente said, ‘Anytime you don’t do everything you can to make a difference, then you are wasting your time on this Earth.’ That’s why we want to give people another tool to help themselves.”

Paul Guggenheimer is a Tribune-Review contributing writer.

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