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Brain trust: Visit to Cleveland Clinic shines light on post-football health for Bozeman's Dane Fletcher

Dane Fletcher
Posted at 2:39 PM, Jun 12, 2024

BILLINGS — By his own admission, Dane Fletcher did what he could to mask certain ailments he suffered during a punishing football career.

It was a career that notably included Big Sky Conference defensive MVP honors at Montana State and a Super Bowl appearance with the New England Patriots, but it also included the various injuries that accompany the constant smashing of one's body against someone else's.

A shoulder here. A knee here. A concussion there. Some more serious than others.

Dane Fletcher
Bozeman's Dane Fletcher warms up before a game between the Patriots and Dolphins Sunday, Oct. 27, 2013, in Foxborough, Mass.

"The answer during my whole career was, 'I feel fine,'" Fletcher, a 2005 Bozeman High grad, told MTN Sports during a recent phone interview. "But in the back of your mind you're like, 'Yeah. For the last 11 years all I've done is take shots in the head.'

"But you have billions of dollars in the NFL, and you can't really trust anybody with that information, especially if they find something going on with your brain. I would imagine teams might find that out and potentially not hire you because of that."

Retired now at 37, Fletcher is proactively finding ways to improve his health as well as the health of others.

Fletcher, along with his wife Dani, recently visited the Cleveland Clinic for a full health workup made possible through what's known as The Trust, an NFL Players Association program that provides ex-players resources for life after football.

While there, Fletcher took every test imaginable — from a brain MRI to a heart scan to cognitive tests to nutritional evaluations to a sleep study and more.

Despite having undergone 16 surgeries, Fletcher says his body feels great. But his motivations to be tested were centered around his desire to get ahead of any potential signs of chronic traumatic encephalopathy (or CTE, a degenerative brain disease that studies have shown can result from repeated blows to the head), and to learn about new methods he can employ to help his clients at his Bozeman establishment, a fitness center and training facility called The Pitt.

Fletcher, who still checks in at 240 pounds, won't deny that he has encountered cognitive problems, so what he learned in Cleveland was valuable partly because he took an honest approach to his health.

Dane Fletcher
Ex-Montana State Bobcat and former NFL player Dane Fletcher works out at The Pitt, a training facility he opened in Bozeman in 2016.

"I decided to come clean with everything," he said. "I mean, I saw stars almost every day for 11 years. I've had those micro concussions, and then I had big-time concussions where you're knocked out cold. My short term memory is not good, and my long term memory is even worse.

"I can't recall high school. I have a lot of memory things going on here. I remember things that are very, very important to me, like my kids' birthdays and everything like that, but other things are tough. Really, really hard. So that's why I wanted to get at the forefront of this."

Most important for Fletcher, his brain looks OK; though he says his hippocampal volume has changed, which — translation — can have an adverse effect on memory retention. Fletcher said it is the result of repeated impacts to his head.

Although CTE can only be diagnosed postmortem, Fletcher said he at least now has a baseline for how things look.

"My brain is good," Fletcher declared before joking — "The first thing the neurologist said was, 'You have a really big brain.' And I was tapping my wife saying, 'You're listening to this, right?'"

This winter will mark 10 years since Fletcher played his last football game. It was Dec. 28, 2014, and Fletcher’s Tampa Bay Buccaneers fell 23-20 at home to the New Orleans Saints.

The following season Fletcher rejoined the franchise that originally signed him out of college — the New England Patriots — but he did not play. He spent the last half of the 2015 campaign on injured reserve.

In all, Fletcher appeared in 54 NFL games. A linebacker and defensive end, he established himself on special teams, made key plays on defense and suited up in Super Bowl XLVI with the Patriots.

And that's part of Fletcher's journey, too. Seeing what some of his teammates have encountered after football — teammates he went to battle with — has had a sobering effect.

"I have a lot of teammates in New England that are doing things that are just insane," Fletcher said. "These are not the guys that I played with. We're young, and for us to have a class of guys that have committed murder, suicide, hold ups, holding their family up in their house at gunpoint ... it's really, really scary stuff that everybody needs to take very seriously.

"I've never had these thoughts, but I also don't want to. So if there's anything I can do to get ahead of it I'm going to do that for myself, but also for my my teammates, my friends, my family."

Fletcher opened The Pitt eight years ago as a highly developed training facility for competitive athletes to hone their skills, health and fitness.

Now Fletcher wants to take his gym a step further by incorporating what he learned in Cleveland by adding hyperbaric oxygen treatment, which he said shows promise as a therapy for brain trauma.

Fletcher and his staff at The Pitt have worked to find cutting-edge ways to benefit the gym's membership since its inception, and this could be another example. And it could be a benefit for athletes, kids, military personnel ... you name it.

"I'm a firm believer in how training affects your brain," Fletcher said. "You have to stay involved with working out. I've put a lot of money into our gym with a sauna, cold tub, hot tub, and we just broke ground on a build-out for massage therapy — that pliability aspect of massage therapy.

"But the one that I'm most excited about is the process of ordering a hyperbaric chamber and going into a true protocol for myself and for my own health. I'll test it, and then in the future I want to offer it to whoever needs it, whoever has had brain trauma.

"A lot of my guys are special operators in the military and former NFL guys, so if I could even offer it to those people and just have my own experience to reflect on, it might be worth it."