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?
"Wild" Bill Cody was a fifth-round draft pick out of Auburn in 1966. He spent the vast majority of his pro career in New Orleans on defense and special teams, but played his first season with the Lions and his last, 1972, with the Eagles. Cody, now 69 years old, lives with his wife in Fairhope, Ala. He is one of the more than 4,500 former NFL players who filed suit against the league over concussions and other head injuries.
We were taught back in those days to "put your bonnet on 'em." That was kind of a term that the defensive coaches liked to use. You know, "Stick 'em." And so we did, and I guess we were pretty good at it. And now I think we're kind of paying the price for it.
It wasn't that I didn't get knocked out occasionally when I was in college. I remember one time against Florida when I went and sat on their bench. But I just feel like the hits that we took when you're in the league and people are faster and bigger and on and on, I just feel like a majority of my problems are really from my professional days. I guess it's just the nature of the game. You put money out there and you do things that maybe you ordinarily wouldn't do when you weren't getting paid for it. Maybe you do some things without thinking that much about it. And you don't want somebody to beat you out, so you want to be the toughest guy, you want to hit the hardest, you want to ring people's bells. That's that competition, and it's certainly evident in professional ball. I'd like to think at Auburn we were pretty aggressive and we had some outstanding players and we won a lot of games, but when you get up there into pro ball it is extremely competitive. You've got the best from all over the country. The competition is really there and so you've got to put on a show. You've got to be as good as you can be, and I think sometimes you get a little reckless. I know I was a little reckless.
My neurologist, when I told her that I can remember details about football games that I played during my pro days and my college days, she said, "Yeah, you remember what you remember." And I have a tendency to repeat that to people who ask me. You remember what you remember.
I mean, I can't remember what I did yesterday, day before, unless somebody starts talking to me and starts explaining what we did, whether it's my wife or my friends, and then it tends to click a little bit. But I'm always saying, "I'm sorry. I'm sorry. I just can't remember that. I can't remember." I keep apologizing to everybody around me.
Just about two years ago I got in my car and I went to the wellness center. I go there every day. And I left the wellness center and—I don't know—15, 20 minutes later I pulled over and I called my wife and I said, "I have no idea where I am." She says, "You've been going there for..." It's only like four or five blocks from my house. And she says, "Go to the next street sign and read me the name of the street sign," and I did and she walked me home but, you know, that got my attention. I can't even navigate in my own neighborhood. And so she immediately made me buy a GPS. She won't let me go anywhere out of town unless she's going with me, or it's the same place I've been over and over. Like, I can go from here to New Orleans. It's only two roads. You know, I hit the interstate and that's it. But when I get to New Orleans, if I don't have a GPS, I am totally lost and I lived there for years.
The normal doctor you go to, the physician, I told him, "I'm struggling with this memory issue," and I think he referred me to this particular doctor. I think that's how it got started, but it seems to me that was two or three years ago. You know, I wear these chemical patches every day and I'm told, "Well, it's not going to bring your memory back. It's going to keep it from getting any worse." It's called Exelon, or something very close to that. I don't know what it does. I wear them, but here today I forgot to put them on this morning and I forgot two days ago. I get up and they're right there on the counter and I just don't even think about it. And I've been wearing these things for a couple of years. I brush my teeth every day. I don't have a problem with that. But that thing I stick on my chest, that sticky paper or whatever it is, I just don't think about it.
I do have concerns. I don't express them to a lot of people. I see where some of these ballplayers over the years, you know, tend to do things that a normal person doesn't do, and in some cases it results in killing themselves. And when you hear all this and you see it on TV and you see it in the news, you think, "Damn, I've had those kind of thoughts." I mean, those things, you know, hopefully they just fly in and fly out, but you just feel like something's not right. And you just wonder, down the road, where that's going to lead. It puts you in kind of a defensive posture. You know, if I didn't have a pretty good marriage I probably wouldn't be married long because I do have tolerance, but in some cases I know I don't have any tolerance and that's gotten worse. I get very upset about different things when maybe it used to roll off my back a little bit. Things bother me a lot more. And when I forget what I was supposed to do or what I did yesterday, I get real upset because it's frustrating.
It isn't like putting money in my pocket's going to make any difference, but I think... I hate to refer to it as the principle of the thing. I used to express that to my children: "Well, it's the principle of the thing." You know, this helmet issue, all these people who have all these injuries and conditions, like myself and some probably a lot worse, something needs to be done about that. And it ain't like money's going to cure it, but it needs to make a point. The principle of the thing is they need to do something. Do you outlaw hitting helmet to helmet? Well, you can outlaw it, but I'll guarantee you can't control it. That ain't going to control it. It's football. You know, "If I don't stop you they're going to get rid of me, so I'm going to put you down any way I can and suffer the consequences later. You can't hurt me. You can't hurt me. I'm indestructible." Well, I'm telling you now, at age 69 and looking back and the conditions and the things I'm putting up with, you can hurt somebody.
I just got this book called League of Denial, and I read a chapter last night. I can't tell you right now what I read, but I read a chapter and then at the wellness center this morning somebody asked me, "Well, what did you think of that book?" Well, I don't know. I read a chapter and I don't know what I read. That's what bugs me.
I owned an automobile agency for a number of years, and I'd like to think I didn't have any mental issues. I had some physical issues. I've had 16 surgeries. So I've had some physical injuries thanks to football, but I think it's caught up with me. It's caught up with me, and I honestly don't think it's because I'm 69 years old or 66 years old. It's just that it's finally caught up with me.
In a way that was kind of a manly thing. I hate to refer to it as a manly thing. You know, "I'm going to bust your ass." And I'm on defense, so if I'm going to tackle you I'm going to brace myself and I'm going to stick you. And that was the way we did it. Coaches promoted it. Players promoted it. When I was playing for the Saints, I was the captain of the special teams and they allowed me to grade the films. On Tuesday we watched the films of the game, and they allowed me then to award the money for the biggest hits. And so on Mondays I'd go in there and sit down and watch the film and pick out the big hits. We called it rathole money. It probably wasn't more than 20 bucks, but I passed out that 20 bucks and guys thought pretty well of themselves: "I knocked the hell out of that guy. Got myself 20 bucks, and I'm going to go out here and buy myself two or three six-packs and I ain't going to tell my wife nothing."
I've got some friends that are a lot older than I am and they played professional football. They seem to be fine, but I don't remember now who they played for or what kind of circumstances. I just remember that in college, and particularly pro ball, you put your helmet on him, head to head, bing bang bang, and it was kind of funny. You know, they'd wake you up with some smelling salts and tell you to get on back in there. "How many fingers do you see? Get on back in there." It was all funny, fun and games.
I can't believe a team doctor would have no knowledge that you can't take a guy that's been knocked out, laying on the field, carted off the field and, you know, a few minutes later get on back in there. You know, they're not letting that happen today. Well, they let it happen for a long time. Did it take all that long to learn what concussions were all about? I don't know.
You know, that's all we can do is second guess.
Knowing what you know now, if you had it to do over again, would you play football?
Knowing what I know now, no. Nor would I let my kids, or my grandkids. That's knowing what I know now. I mean, there are other sports that don't have all these head injuries. I haven't heard any tennis players complaining about getting hit with a tennis ball and having a brain problem. I'm not trying to be facetious, but if I knew then what I know now, I probably wouldn't. Unfortunately, you know, it's done. What's done's done. Now we try to figure out a way to make it more livable.
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.
Photo via AP.