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Former NFLer: "Getting Banged In The Head Was Just Part Of It"

Illustration for article titled Former NFLer: Getting Banged In The Head Was Just Part Of It

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?

Duke quarterback Al Woodall was a second-round draft pick by the world champion New York Jets in 1969. He appeared in 31 regular season NFL games, starting 19, and retired following the 1974 season, having spent his entire professional football career as a backup to the oft-injured Joe Namath. Woodall resides in both North Carolina and Connecticut, and is one of the more than 4,500 former NFL players who filed suit against the league over concussions and other head injuries.

I think the NFL was good to me so I don't have any ill feelings, but I did have a couple of concussions. I don't know what's in the future for me, regarding that. I do have evidence of a—I don't know what to call it—it's a meningioma, which is, I guess, a type of tumor. There's no evidence that it can cause any long-term effects, but it's there. And they don't know exactly what causes these, except there is some suggestion that they're caused by head trauma. So I guess what I was doing by joining the suit was just sort of protecting myself against the unknown. I just want to make sure that if something happens then my wife and kids are protected.


I hate to be that blunt about it, but the solution is if you're going to play the game you're subjecting yourself to problems later on, and I guess the way I feel about it is at least the guys that are playing today are getting paid for it. I mean, we got paid very little in relative terms.

You just call it dinged in the head. You got your bell rung. Bell rung is the term used more often than not. I was certainly never knocked completely out, not knocked cold.

Back in the day you got your bell rung, and as soon as you felt capable you went back in. That part of it is drastically different. I remember we played in Buffalo, and it was actually, I think, the last offensive play, which actually I threw a touchdown. And I got my bell rung, definitely, and I was on the ground, got helped up, walked off the field with some help, and that was the end of it. Nobody ever said anything to me. I got on the bus and there weren't any seats left so I was standing in the aisle, and one of the coaches said, "Hey, we've got a guy here that got hit in the head. Somebody let him sit down." I just remember that, and that was about the extent of it.

I don't know how other guys feel about it, but it's not all the league or the doctors. It's not all their fault. We were taught to play with pain, and getting banged in the head was just part of it.


I don't think we have the answer yet. I don't think the quarterback can be an untouchable. The rules to protect them against just out and out violent hits is probably good, but there's got to be a happy medium. I guess the way I feel is it's a physical, sometimes violent game, and that's the way we were taught to play it. And you can't take all of that out of the game. If you do you might as well play touch football, and that's not what the fans pay to see and that's not what the players get paid to do. So I'm not sure what to say there, but I don't think they have the answer yet.

I had another one. But keep in mind, neither one of these was a diagnosed concussion. Nobody even talked about that. I had another one against, it seems like it was Cincinnati. I believe I came out of that game simply because I was having trouble functioning. And if I remember correctly that was a game where Joe was sort of coming back from an injury. And I started, played the majority of the game, and he came in at the very end after I got hurt. You know, you get a lot of things, forearms or slaps to the head. There were no particular rules back then. They'd hit you after the whistle. They'd hit you out of bounds. You know, it was just part of the game.


I have a good friend that played for the Jets. He was an offensive lineman, and he's told me a few stories about headslaps. It'll make your toes curl, listening to it.

I'm glad the league is trying to be more vigilant, more careful. They're taking people out. They're holding them out of the game, out of practice. We're not going to let you play next week because you had a concussion this week or whatever the determination is. But I think all of that is very, very positive to the long-term health of the players. And without players you've got no game.


You know, it's the most popular sport in America, certainly, and maybe even extending beyond America. But the whole thing is you've got to have good players. And if good players are getting hurt you've got to protect them. You've got to do the best you can do to keep them from having any long-term problems. I mean, look at Muhammad Ali. That's just an absolute shame. And the things I hear about Jim McMahon and Tony Dorsett. I mean, his daughter said she's afraid of him, and that's just heartbreaking, heartbreaking.

I do feel fortunate that I'm not in the same condition as those guys. Then again, those guys took a lot more hits than I did. I think I started maybe 20 games or so in the NFL, and so obviously I didn't play as much as Tony Dorsett or Jim McMahon. Maybe that is part of the deal. I don't know what the average lifespan of an NFL player is anymore, but I know it used to be under four years. And so if you're only in the league three to four years, you know, you're subjected to a lot less abuse than if you're in the league for 10 years, 15 years. I mean, that's a long time to get your head beat in.


God knows I certainly I hope those guys are doing okay, but I'm sure some of them aren't.

Knowing what you know now, if you had it to do over again, would you play football?


Yes. I was just talking to a friend of mine about this very subject, and my friend made the comment, "If you didn't think you would get to the NFL, would you do all that over again?" And my immediate response was, "Yes, you would." And the reason you would is because it was indoctrinated in you. Football was part of your DNA. You grew up loving the game, thinking you were pretty good, and we all like to do things that we're good at. There's no question about that. It's a little bit ego satisfying. And we were kids. We don't make adult decisions at 18 years old. You make kid decisions. And the kid decision would've been, "Absolutely. Give me a chance. Give me a scholarship. Absolutely I'll play."

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.

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