How did David Gergen, a nationally respected dental lab technician, manage to find former National Football League (NFL) players interested in helping him spread awareness about dental sleep medicine? The short answer is they eventually found him.
Prior to his current roles as CEO of the American Sleep & Breathing Academy (ASBA) and president of the Pro Player Health Alliance (PPHA), Gergen coached high school football at an elite level, eventually winning a state and national championship. The achievement attracted attention from NFL officials who asked him to run a coaching clinic with former NFL players.
Players such as Brian Davis, an all pro defensive back with the Washington Redskins and the Minnesota Vikings, and offensive lineman Derek Kennard, who played with the Dallas Cowboys and Arizona Cardinals, received instruction from Gergen on how to coach the fundamentals for youth players.
A bond of friendship developed between Gergen and Kennard, so much so that Gergen eventually confronted Kennard who frequently had low energy during the coaching clinic.
“Derek had big raccoon circles under his eyes and he would lean and close his eyes during breaks,” Gergen says. “I said to him, 'Derek, either you have the worst sleep apnea that I have seen in a long time, or you've been out drinking for about a hundred days straight.'”
Alcohol was not the problem, and the 6-foot 3-inch, 300-pound lineman explained that he simply could not wear a CPAP mask. As it turned out, Kennard had never heard about oral appliances as a treatment for CPAP. What happened next would help hundreds of retired NFL players, while also helping to spread sleep apnea awareness among Americans who take notice when their football heroes speak about medical problems. The ASBA got the remarkable story from Gergen during a chat in late 2018.
ASBA: What happened after you told Derek Kennard about oral appliances?
David Gergen: I took him to a friend's dental office, and we took his bite impressions and I got him a rush from my lab on the oral appliance. We placed a Herbst device and I left on vacation.
ASBA: What was Kennard’s reaction?
Gergen: After a couple of days, I got a call from Derek at about 2:30 a.m. and I figured the oral appliance was not working. I decided to answer the phone and DK said, 'David, my brother died tonight from sleep apnea.' He died with a CPAP machine next to his bed. Derek said, 'We have to do something because so many of my brothers from around the NFL are suffering from this. Without you telling me about this treatment, I would not have known.'
That was the first time Derek had the idea to launch the Pro Player Health Alliance (PPHA), and we did. After Derek and I met and talked, we reached out to Mike Haynes [member of the Super Bowl Champion Los Angeles Raiders and an inductee to the Pro Football Hall of Fame] and he also said, 'Let's do it.'
ASBA: What happened next?
Gergen: We spoke with the Living Heart Foundation, which does NFL screenings. Dr. Roberts who heads the foundation was thrilled and said, 'Yes!' We gave him my background and he also said, 'Let's do it.'
ASBA: Where did the money come for this endeavor?
Gergen: There was no money coming in for us, and the NFLPA [NFL Players' Association] did not even know about us, so I had to fund it all. It's a worthy cause and I was glad to pay for it. We went to a couple of screenings with Dr. Roberts and things were going well. We were finding out that many of these guys had sleep apnea. We were telling them they had it, but we were not yet doing anything to help them, because the screenings were not set up for treatment. I said, 'This is great we're telling them, but we're not yet doing anything to help them.'
ASBA: How did you manage to get the NFLPA interested?
Gergen: Mike Haynes eventually said, 'David, we must go talk with the NFLPA and the NFL Alumni, and maybe we can get some funding.’ We met with the alumni and we talked with Bart Oates [10-year pro who won two super bowls as a center] about doing this. He thought it was great, but at the time could not get the funding.
We reached out to the NFLPA and Andre Collins [an outside linebacker who played ten seasons in the NFL and is currently the director of Retired Players for the NFLPA] in particular. After meeting with Andre, he said, 'Let's take it slow and see how it works out, and we'll go from there.' It went well for a while, and then I got a call from Dr. Roberts and he basically said, 'We really can't do this because we don't have the funding, and the medical doctors did not like the fact that we were treating NFL guys with oral appliances. The MDs strongly recommended a course of CPAP instead.
ASBA: What was the result of this negativity?
Gergen: The program stalled, but then my laboratory got a call from the NFL Commissioner's office, and they said, 'We have a player who has been in a rough situation. One of the teams did not treat him properly and we need you to step in and help him.'
He was an all pro with the Bears and we tested him at the Super Bowl and he came back with an AHI score of 50. Thirty were obstructive and 20 were central. He looked terrible too, and had not been getting any sleep. Initially we put him on auto PAP and then we got a call from the physician in Florida where he lived, and he wanted to also do an oral appliance to keep his pressure down. We treated him with combination therapy. The player actually called and thanked me for the treatment.
ASBA: What was happening (if anything) with the NFLPA?
Gergen: Well, I am persistent, and right about that time, we got a call back from Andre Collins, and he heard about what we did [with the Bears player] and he wanted to resuscitate the program. From that day forward, we have been working with the NFLPA and our program continues to grow.
ASBA: Why has it grown?
Gergen: It is exciting to work with the NFL and its retired players. Football is the number one game in America, and it adds that level of fun. And we have such a high success rate with the former players that Andre Collins at the NFLPA is very pleased with the sleep apnea program and how it has flourished. And that is where we are at today.
ASBA: How many retired players have you tested and treated?
Gergen: We have tested and treated about 1,200 NFL guys. We have a recent screening in Dallas on Nov 17 at Baylor Hospital. Dr. Harry Sugg and Dr. Ed Hobbes were the participating dentists, and both are diplomates of the ASBA.
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