This is an interview series in which we ask the plaintiffs of the NFL concussion lawsuit one question (and maybe a few more): Knowing what you know now, if you could do it over again, would you still play football?
In 1964, Gary Larsen was an unlikely 10th-round draft pick out of Concordia College in Moorhead, Minn. In his rookie year he backed up defensive tackle Merlin Olsen, a member of the Los Angeles Rams' Fearsome Foursome. At the end of that season, Larsen was part of a trade that sent eighth-overall draft pick Jack Snow to Los Angeles and Larsen back to Minnesota. The Vikings' front four was soon dubbed the Purple People Eaters, and together Larsen, Jim Marshall, and future Hall of Famers Carl Eller and Alan Page played side by side by side by side in every single game from 1968 through 1973. Larsen played in three Super Bowls, two Pro Bowls, and 149 regular-season games over the course of his 11-year NFL career. He and his wife, the parents of four and grandparents of nine, now live in Lacey, Wash., and recently celebrated their 53rd wedding anniversary. Larsen is one of the more than 4,500 former football players who filed suit against the NFL over concussions and other head injuries.
You go back to the time that I played, back in the mid-'60s and early '70s, we did not have free agency. You know, we really couldn't hold out and see if we could make more money. More or less, the teams paid you what they wanted to pay you, and it was nowhere near what the players are getting nowadays. It's unbelievable. And also, the medical part of it has progressed and gotten better. When we played you got hit and you were groggy and you went over to the sideline and sat down, and you would get an ammonia capsule snapped under your nose. You'd take a few hits of that and go back in and play. I look back and I don't know how many concussions I had. I probably couldn't count them. Every time you made a tackle you got hit, and then helmet-to-helmet play was the thing that you did. You hit the guy in front of you in the face with your helmet, he hit you with his helmet, and that's just the way the game was played. You could hit the guard up the side of the head with your hand. The rules today are entirely different than what we played under.
You stop and think about it, I think the only thing that is the same is the field and the football. The players are so much bigger, so much faster. You know, on our team we had probably two or three guys that weighed over 260 pounds. We didn't have anybody that weighed 300 pounds. Helmets were all different. We wore the Riddell suspension helmet, and the only padding inside the helmet was the U-pad that snapped on and the rest of your head was held into a canvas strap that didn't really offer you any padding or any protection. That was all different.
The way we played, I think, was different. Back in the '60s and '70s I think the crowds loved the defense. That's where we got our name, the Purple People Eaters, and the Rams were the Fearsome Foursome, and Dallas had their name, Miami had their name, Pittsburgh had their name. And people loved that. They loved to watch defense. And what I see today is that they tend to make it a more offensive game. They want to have a lot of scoring, a lot of high-scoring games to draw in the fans and be more exciting, and I think that's probably the biggest part of it, is that they've cut back and penalized the defense. If you watch the offensive linemen nowadays, they're holding on every play. They've got their hands inside. They're grabbing onto jerseys and as long as their hands aren't outside the shoulder pads they can hold all they want. I don't see how the hell they can ever call holding in a football game, because they're holding every play.
You know, when the ball's snapped, the defensive lineman's job is to get to the quarterback, or get to the runner, any way he can. And you didn't smash helmet to helmet every play, but on some pass rushes, you know, you would what they called the bull rush. You would just hit your helmet right into the guy's facemask and try to push him back and collapse the pocket, and I think that probably, to a point, still goes on today. But we could use the head slap where you slapped the offensive guard or offensive tackle upside the head with your hand, you know, to try to get him off-balance or whatever. Deacon Jones, I think, kind of epitomized that move, where he had that head slap and would just move off the ball and try to get around the tackle. But everybody used it. It was just part of the game.
My wife says I'm forgetful and can't remember anything, but I guess that's part of the game also. But, you know, I don't really think about that too much because there's not really anything I can do about it at the point. That is in the past, and whatever happened happened and all you can do is try to take care of yourself.
There's a lot of guys that played, you know, the time I played, that have had a lot of serious problems, that have committed suicide or are in homes. You know, they don't know if they're on foot or horseback. They've lost it all. So I consider myself pretty lucky even if I forget to shut my drawer or something. I just hope that they do something, especially for the guys that have suffered so far.
They've done a lot. They've made the game, the equipment a lot better. They've installed rules that, if they're followed, should cut down on head injuries, as far as no helmet-to-helmet contact. The only thing that I think about is I hope that they don't regulate it so much that it's not football anymore. Football is a collision sport. That's what people come out to see. It's kind of like people that go to car races. You hate to think about it, but they're there to see the wrecks, to see the accidents. And in football they want to see the hard hits. They want to see the people getting hit and tossed up in the air and down. That's what they pay their money for, and they pay a lot of money for it. You know, these owners are making a lot of money having players on the field risking their livelihood. And I can see where they say, "Well, you don't have to play." Well, what player's not going to want to play with the money they're offering nowadays? They're going to take the chance, you know. You take the job and make the money.
I'm 73 years old and I'm still able to find my way out the front door so far, but who knows? It's mainly to protect my family in case something does happen to me in the future. And there would be something there where it wouldn't cause my wife, if she's still around, the hardship, or my daughters and their husbands. I mean, it's something that you hope never happens. It's like insurance. You hope to hell you never collect it, but you've got to have it.
The thing is, the most money I ever made after 11 years in football was $50,000. When they cut me loose from the Vikings that was it. There was no health insurance. There was no severance pay like there is now. These guys are getting $75,000, or whatever it is, for severance pay. I'm going back a few years, but they had in the paper about this tackle for the Seahawks, Kennedy. He was making $250,000 a year just to work out in the off-season. It was part of his contract. What I'm thinking is, if they're paying this kind of salary to these guys now, what kind of money are the owners making? They're all billionaires. They've all got billion-dollar stadiums to play in. Hell, we played in Wrigley Field where we had nails on the wall to hang our clothes on. It was terrible. Tiger Stadium in Detroit, we played there. There were four showers working for 35 guys to take a shower after the game. It's a whole different ballgame nowadays. And they're making so much money. I don't see any problem for them setting up something for the guys that, in my opinion, made the game what it is today.
Knowing what you know now, if you could do it over again, would you still play football?
Yeah, I would. You know, I like the game. I played eight-man football in high school back in Minnesota, and then I went in the Marines and I played two years in the Marine Corps. And then I came back, went to Concordia, played there and then I was drafted out of there in 1964. It's been a big part of my life. It really has.
Rob Trucks was last seen on Deadspin interviewing former athletes about the end of their careers. His oral histories with 49-year-old Americans can be found at McSweeney's, and his latest book is on Fleetwood Mac's Tusk album.