Messing With Our Heads: A Former Player's LamentS

With the brains of football players now a matter of national concern, writer Michael Oriard, a former Chiefs offensive lineman and a cultural historian, worries about both his own fate and the NFL's.

A few weeks ago I was asked to comment on Carson Palmer's remark that, sooner or later, someone was going to die on a football field. I repeated then what I have figured out over many years of reading and writing about football: that the threat of serious injury has always been fundamental to football's appeal. It makes the players' risks and thus their courage real, their athletic skills immensely more impressive. Each season sees football fatalities, but rarely in the NFL and never on the field due to a blow. The last person to die in an NFL game was Detroit's Chuck Hughes in 1971, but from a heart attack, not a violent collision — coincidentally four days before my Kansas City Chiefs played the Lions on Thanksgiving Day. I still remember the eerie feeling, as I trotted onto the field, knowing that someone had died there just a few days earlier.

Though rare, sudden violent death has always been a possibility in football. Research is now suggesting that the accumulation of little hits can be as dangerous as big ones, with death coming in slow-motion, after years of dementia, rather than suddenly. And everyone who played may be at risk, not just the extreme cases whose grisly stories make for sensational reading.

The occasional tale of a Mike Webster or John Mackey has always grabbed me, but it has also always seemed an extreme case. The recent deluge of reports on the research on the brains of former NFL players feels altogether different. Malcolm Gladwell's comparison of football to dogfighting in The New Yorker didn't jolt me — that bit of melodrama was for rhetorical effect. The grisly accounts of the final days and later autopsies on Webster, Terry Long, Justin Strzelczyk, and more than a dozen others were more jolting, their cumulative effect overwhelming. Chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE), of which I'd never heard until a few weeks ago, suddenly seemed the NFL's version of the Black Death.

But what has really jolted me is the less sensational, more mundane research by Kevin Guskiewicz of the University of North Carolina's sports concussion research program. For those who haven't yet read about it, Guskiewicz and his team fitted sensors in the helmets of UNC players through which they could measure the impact (or g-force) of every blow to the head. The magnitude ranges from small to more than 100 g's, the equivalent of a head hitting a windshield in a 25 mph collision (without a seatbelt). Even in practices without full pads players received blows with g-forces in the 50s, 60s, 70s, and 80s. A typical lineman suffered 31 blows during one day of training camp (I'm guessing that that meant two practices). A similar study at the University of Oklahoma determined that linemen experience blows of 20-30 g's on every routine play. And they add up: one neurologist reports that Mike Webster, the first of the former players to be diagnosed with CTE, "endured probably 25,000 violent collisions during his career."

I've been reading these reports less as someone who has been writing about football for many years than as someone, 61 years old, who played a lot of football a long time ago. And as the father of a son who has played more recently. The research on the later consequences of early head trauma raises the possibility that my son and I, too, might have tiny bombs planted in our brains with fuses of indeterminate length.

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That's overly melodramatic, too, and I have not been brooding over my future and my son's ever since I encountered Guskiewicz's research. But I have been thinking about things that I thought I knew but now know in new ways.

As I've suggested, I don't believe that I am seriously at risk. I sometimes find myself walking downstairs, only to discover that I've forgotten why I was going, but so do my friends who never played football. We laugh about these "brain farts" as we laugh about our prostate exams and sigmoidoscopies, the routine indignities of getting old. Not the early signs of dementia. But reading about the new research has me sorting through my football memories like a lapsed Catholic returning to the confessional after 40 years. Let's see, I was never a starter in the NFL, only a backup center and special teams player, and I didn't play like a wild man on the "suicide squad." (I was attending grad school at Stanford in the offseasons, after all, not hanging on in the NFL until they had to carry me off the field.) I cannot recall a single diagnosed concussion, but I vividly remember a forearm to my head from Atlanta's Tommy Nobis on a kickoff ... and my head-rattling tackle of a Bronco kick returner on another one ... and, oh yeah, the Bengals' Mike Reid really rang my bell in a practice before the College All-Star Game in 1970 ...

I also have to remember that little hits add up, too, and the brain doesn't discriminate between hits in practice and hits in games. Mike Webster suffered 25,000 hits? My total would be a whole lot smaller. But if I figure 10 games and 30 full-contact practices for each of four college seasons, 20 games and 40 contract practices for each of five seasons as a pro, plus 20 days each spring in college and 20 days in training camp for all nine seasons, that's a conservative estimate of 700 days of contact. Add another 60 days for each of four seasons in high school, and the total comes to about 840 days of contact football. How many hits each day? If I estimate, very conservatively, even 10, the total would be 8,400 (of varying g-force). Not 25,000 but still a lot.

I'm guessing that a lot of former NFL players are running similar calculations these days. Based on how I feel today, I think I'm okay, maybe in part because I have a long neck, wholly unsuitable for an offensive lineman, that perhaps ironically protected my brain. I suffered a pinched nerve in the spring game my junior year at Notre Dame, and for the next six seasons I had to be careful not to use my head recklessly to avoid recurrences. I experienced maybe a dozen "stingers" every week anyway, but now I wonder if those meant the force of the blow was being conducted to my cervical spine, rather than to my cranium.

My physical legacy from 18 years of tackle football is a messed-up spine: disk protrusion, spinal stenosis, degenerative disc and facet disease, etc., in both the cervical and lumbar regions. I have extended bouts of sciatic-nerve pain on my right side and femoral-nerve pain on my left, and pain and numbness from neck down my right shoulder and arm. Surgery is in my future, but for now I'm managing my issues with lots of stretching, exercise and staying fit. If my inconveniently long neck was indeed a shock absorber for blows to my head, I count myself lucky. I'll take my spine over a damaged brain any day.

Linemen of my generation were smaller, 255 to 280 pounds or so, not 300 to 340 (I played center at 242, medium size for a quarterback today). When the rules for pass-blocking changed in 1978, allowing offensive linemen to extend their arms and open their hands, linemen began growing larger, as sheer bulk and upper-body strength became assets. Linemen of my generation blocked more with our heads, but linemen of the following generations have been bigger and stronger, their collisions more violent. I wonder if younger NFL retirees will prove to be more afflicted with CTE than players of my generation.

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As a father, rather than a former player, the research suggesting that football can do long-term damage to even high school players is particularly chilling. My younger son, who played football, proved to be susceptible to concussions, getting more or less one per season from about the sixth grade through high school. Lots of parents know the routine: I would awaken him every few hours through the night to ask him his address and phone number, then let him fall back asleep after he delivered the correct answer. Fortunately, he never played for a coach who tried to get him back onto the field before our doctor had cleared him. His mother and I are not obsessing about the possibilities of long-term effects, but given parents' unlimited capacity to worry about our children, that would change the moment he started complaining about headaches.

For now, I'm grateful that I did not face a decision whether to tell my son that he could no longer play football after receiving, say, his second concussion. I know from my own youthful experience and from watching my son and his teammates, as well as from my reading, that football can provide self-validation for boys and adolescents. Whether the needs it serves are biological or social and cultural, football's power derives at least in part from the fact that it is "rough." I've long thought that younger brothers (like both my son and me) were particularly drawn to football as kids; and I've seen in my own community that some of the smallest boys in their classes are among those who switch from soccer to football in the fifth grade, when football starts. Through high school, football can be a useful puberty- and testosterone-management tool.

My son is now 25; the issue is no longer our family matter. (And I don't even want to think about the circumstances that would make me wish I had known when he was in the sixth or seventh grade what we are now learning about concussions.) What do today's younger parents with sons who want to play football do with the knowledge that numerous small blows can have dangerous cumulative effects? If I can presume for a moment to speak for conscientious parents in general, we know that we cannot protect our kids from every possible danger, nor do we want to keep them from all risk-taking or prevent them from becoming self-sufficient. But we do want to protect them from foolish, unnecessary and excessive risks. Will it one day make as much sense to keep your son away from football as it does to strap your toddler into a car seat? For now, the degree and magnitude of the risks from youth football are still uncertain. But the more we learn from researchers, the riskier it seems.

I have no reason to be angry. I have no reason to feel betrayed. I'm not inclined in general to play "what if" with my past, or to brood on what's happened as if I could still change it. In any case, I have no symptoms of cognitive impairment. I'm not inclined to headaches, and my memory lapses seem normal for my age. Because I played too few years to qualify for an NFL pension, I have no history in retirement with the NFL or the NFLPA, let alone a history of denied benefits to which I feel entitled.

But I feel enormous sadness for teammates and other former NFL players who are not as fortunate as I still appear to be. And the future of football seems uncertain right now. The Congressional hearing on brain damage to NFL players will not resolve the crucial questions about just how dangerous football is. For now, parents have more reasons than ever to be wary of letting their sons play football. And the NFL has to worry not only about potential liability for the disabilities of former players, but also about the game's future. One of Roger Goodell's worst nightmares has to be the possibility that football will come to be regarded as boxing is today: a potential and very violent path to celebrity and wealth that only the most economically desperate would consider and that the vast majority of Americans find unpalatable.

We need much more research — on large number of former players, over a long period of time — to know just how dangerous football is to the human brain. Knowing the answer might be a blow not only to the NFL but to all lovers of football. But continuing to not know might be considerably more painful for those who play the game.

Michael Oriard is a professor of English and associate dean at Oregon State University, and the author of several books on football, including Bowled Over: Big-Time College Football from the Sixties to the BCS Era, just published by the University of North Carolina Press. He played football at Notre Dame in the late 1960s and for the Kansas City Chiefs in the early 1970s.