Legendary retired powerlifting coach Billy Jack Talton remembers Julian Bailes never shied away from smashing his head against opponents when asked as a high school sophomore guard and linebacker for Natchitoches Academy.
Some 30 years later, Bailes found himself at the forefront of a push to make football safer and raise awareness of its dangerous concussion risks. The former Natchitoches Academy All-State linebacker turned neurosurgeon ended his playing career after a neck injury at Northwestern State, but his passion for the game never waned.
“I think football has a responsibility to answer these questions and find a successful conclusion or answer to the problem we’re dealing with,” said Talton, who left Natchitoches after one season as a head coach and coached Louisiana Tech to 22 national powerlifting titles. “We’ve gone through an evolution.”
He remembers conversations with Bailes about how the powerful forces of even relatively benign football collisions could damage the human brain, long before it became a national health concern.
Bailes, a LSU medical school graduate, began his contributions early when the Pittsburgh Steelers made him one of the first neurosurgeons to work as an NFL team doctor at every game from 1988-1998.
That position helped convince Bailes to take a job as a neurosurgeon at Allegheny General Hospital after completing a fellowship at the Barrow Neurological Institute in Phoenix under world-renowned neurosurgeon Robert Spetzler. He calls Bailes one of his favorite graduates and said Bailes put in most of the work on a number of critical articles they co-authored for medical journals.
“He’s talented,” said Spetzler, who also co-edited a book titled “Microsurgical Carotid Endarterectomy” with Bailes. “He’s got a terrific personality, and I think he’s really good for sports because he’s focused on minimizing repetitive head trauma.”
Bailes took over as Professor and Chair of the Department of Neurosurgery at West Virginia University, where he also worked with the Rockefeller Neuroscience Institute and served as head doctor for the school’s athletic department, focusing primarily on football. It was during that time he performed the research eventually chronicled in the 2015 feature film “Concussion.”
Those efforts began when Bailes called Bennett Omalu, the Nigerian-American forensic pathologist who first discovered Chronic-Traumatic Encephalopathy in the brain of deceased Steelers center Mike Webster. The two doctors raised serious questions about the dangers of football, challenging the NFL to acknowledge its players faced severe long-term mental health risks and drawing the ire of fans averse to changing the game.
Bailes spoke to NFL officials at the league’s first concussion summit in June 2007 and played a key role in the implementation of return-to-play protocol in all 50 states and internationally. The NCAA and NFL have prioritized constantly evolving new rules and concussion policies based on the research of Bailes and others.
He serves as a football consultant at all levels, from longtime positions as Chairman of the Medical Advisory Committee for Pop Warner football to neurosurgical consultant for the NCAA and the NFL Players Association. Talton said he’s unsure of what the sport’s future should look like, but his opinion would be significantly influenced by Bailes’ judgment.
“I love football,” said Bailes, who won a state championship his senior year at Natchitoches Academy. “It was never about trying to end football or diminish football. It was about bringing what we knew was the truth and making reforms to keep players safe.”