Former NY Jets center


He Helped Jets Win Super Bowl III; Now He’s Grateful for His Neurosurgery Team at Marcus Neuroscience Institute

John Schmitt, who is now 81, was the offensive center for the New York Jets who snapped the ball to quarterback Joe Namath in Super Bowl III 54 years ago. It’s still considered one of the greatest upsets in NFL history -- when the Jets beat the heavily favored Baltimore Colts.

Being a center in football means being right in the thick of the action. Mr. Schmitt played for the Jets for 10 years and the Green Bay packers for a year. “Winning Super Bowl III is definitely the pinnacle of my career,” he says. But that many years as a center in the NFL took their toll. “Over the course of my career, I had three or four concussions, five broken noses, two shoulder operations, 10 broken ribs, six leg operations, two new hips put on. I'm basically all replaced,” he says with a bit of humor.

But earlier this year, he took a fall that would land him in the hands of a healthcare team led by Frank Vrionis, M.D., chief of Neurosurgery at Marcus Neuroscience Institute at Boca Raton Regional Hospital, part of Baptist Health.

(Watch and hear from former NFL player John Schmitt and Frank Vrionis, M.D., chief of Neurosurgery at Marcus Neuroscience Institute at Boca Raton Regional Hospital. Video by Alcyene Almeida Rodrigues.) 

“I fell one night like around 2:30 in the morning and hit my head on the corner of the door,” said Mr. Schmitt. “I nearly died. That's when I met Dr. Vrionis, who's the greatest guy.”

Dr. Vrionis recalls that Mr. Schmitt had difficulty expressing himself and he seemed confused. The initial thought by the neurology team was that he had encephalopathy, a generic term meaning that his brain was not functioning well. But because Mr. Schmitt was a football player for many years, Dr. Vrionis said he began “digging deeper into the diagnosis of normal pressure hydrocephalus (NPH).”

NPH refers to an abnormal buildup of cerebrospinal fluid (CSF) in the brain's ventricles. It occurs if the normal flow of CSF throughout the brain and spinal cord is blocked, causing the ventricles to enlarge, putting pressure on the brain.

“NPH is a condition where the fluid in the brain is not absorbed as well as it should be and accumulates in the brain in a slow fashion,” explains Dr. Vrionis. “A lot of these patients are misdiagnosed with Alzheimer's disease or Parkinson's.”

Treatment involves surgical placement of a shunt, or hollow tube, in the brain to drain excess CSF. This allows the brain ventricles to return to their normal size.

“Once we know for a fact that a patient has NPH, the permanent solution for this particular patient is placement of a shunt,” explains Dr. Vrionis. “A shunt is a device that bypasses the absorption mechanism of the brain and drains the fluid in a different cavity. Typically, the places where you drain it is either the abdomen or the neck, in one of the veins.”

Mr. Schmitt’s reaction when told of the procedure: “I said, ‘This is a lot tougher than playing in the Super Bowl game.’ … Water on the brain really upset me. And then the idea that they're going to drill a hole in my brain and put a drain in -- and everything else. I was honestly scared.”

Dr. Vrionis says the surgery was uneventful. “He stayed one or two days in the hospital. The last time I saw him, he was greatly improving. He was walking better. He was talking better. Overall, he made substantial improvement in his cognition.”

Mr. Schmitt says he’s on way to returning to the golf course and enjoying life with his wife of 60 years, Joanne, and their three children and seven grandchildren.

“I'm looking forward to that because at this stage of the game, I don't play football, I don't play tennis anymore. So, the only thing I can do is play golf. I'd just like to thank them all, not just Dr. Vrionis, but all the care that I got there (Boca Raton Regional Hospital). Dr. Vrionis is such a nice man and a great surgeon, needless to say. I have a lot to be thankful for …”

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