Cue the “old man yells at cloud” Simpsons headline — Hall of Fame coach Bud Grant, who turned 95 yesterday, told the Minneapolis Star Tribune that he thinks the “boring” parts of football, including fair catches, kneels to end the game, and touchbacks, should be removed from the game. Now, to you and I, those things are better known as measures that prevent unnecessary and dangerous injuries and improve player safety, but to be fair to Grant, they were still playing in leather helmets when he was in college. Change is hard.
The nonagenarian coach, who led the Vikings between 1967 and 1983 and again in 1985, suggested giving punt returners five yards and eliminating the fair catch, moving the touchback to the 5-yard line, and requiring that the clock stops if an offensive team doesn’t move at least one yard on a play (which opens up a whole different can of worms for clock stoppage, but I digress). Beloved though Grant may be, this is a bad take — particularly given what we now know about chronic traumatic encephalopathy and its effects on former members of Grant’s Vikings teams.
In 2017, a Boston University study of former NFL players’ brains found the degenerative disease CTE in 99% of the brains studied. This marked a major step in the groundbreaking research journey that has changed the way many Americans view the sport. And four of the 111 brains in the study belonged to former Vikings players who played under Grant’s coaching during their time at Minnesota.
The players were Wally Hilgenberg, Gerald Huth, Grant Feasel, and Fred McNeill, the latter of whom is one of the better-known names in the CTE sphere. His early-onset dementia and ALS (Lou Gehrig’s disease) that led to his untimely death at 63 were brought on by CTE, and he was the first ever patient to be diagnosed with the disease while still living and the first to have it confirmed upon his death.
But the rest should also be remembered. Hilgenberg died of ALS brought on by CTE at 66. Huth died at 77 after severe cognitive issues forced him to leave his insurance job at 57 and go on permanent disability. Feasel died at 52 after suffering from years of substance abuse. And while these tragedies from their careers in the 1960s and 70s were certainly not Grant’s fault, the choice to publicly state that the game should be more physical and risk more head injuries is an insult to these players’ memories, legacies, and families.
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In 2017, Hilgenberg’s widow, Mary, told the Star Tribune:
Head trauma in football is such a serious, serious problem. But if you speak against football, it’s like speaking against somebody’s religion. But how can parents today allow their children to play football? They strap them in a seat belt, but then they drive them to a football field? It doesn’t make any sense to me.
Just this February, in fact, an NFL study found that punt returns and kickoffs cause more injuries and more serious injuries than other plays. While I’d like to give Grant the benefit of the doubt here, there was really no reason to call for more of these types of high-risk plays that risk the athletes’ health and safety. There was found to be a “disproportionate number of concussions” as well as lower body injuries on those plays. Given how many of his former players suffered from CTE, he should be more sensitive to the issue.
So maybe I’m the old man shaking my fist at the clouds here, but with the deaths of his former players caused by degenerative brain injuries in mind, perhaps Bud Grant should keep those kinds of thoughts to himself in the future rather than complaining that he doesn’t see enough concussions live on TV anymore.