I love pro football. I love the war-like essence and the power of this game, but I don't know how it's going to survive. I don't know how it's going to continue to exist in its current destructive form.
Head trauma. The charts and paperwork on it continue to swell to the negative. Retired players continue to come out with their forlorn stories, revealing awful maladies 'allegedly' triggered by duty in the National Football League. "Onset of dementia." How many times have I heard it in recent years?
And on the field, despite all the fines and warnings and attempted precautions, the concussions, the blows to the head, continue. Wanna know why? Because it's football. The game is high-velocity collision ball.
This past weekend, more victims were added to the blackout list. Arizona's Kevin Kolb and Miami's Matt Moore and Broncos corner Andre' Goodman and Dallas center Phil Costa … and that raw attempt at decapitation made on Cleveland's Colt McCoy in the Pittsburgh game. I watched it live, but you didn't even have to see the play to guess who was behind the executioner's hood. Yeah, him again … James Harrison.
Harrison, the linebacker who lives by the book, the one by Hugo, Les Miserables, which reads, "The guillotine is the ultimate expression of Law, and its name is vengeance."
This head-trauma issue will become more and more prevalent, not less. The latest NFL Collective Bargaining Agreement, which resulted in less contact during team practices and a billion bucks or so for retirees' healthcare, won't stop the flood of overwhelmingly negative stories … and lawsuits … involving the health of former players. The owners can't just negotiate this issue away, or bury it under a glacier of money.
A month ago, I gave a talk about sportswriting to a group outside St. Louis, and there was a little Q&A thing at the end, and one gentleman raised his hand and asked, "What was the saddest thing you ever saw or had to write about?"
Sad? In football? A bit of a strange question.
But actually, I had an answer for him. Two, in fact. Both involved brief telephone conversations I had with two retired players a few years earlier.
In my book, The Super '70s, I did an entire chapter on Cedrick Hardman and the old 49ers' Gold Rush — Hardman and Tommy Hart and Cleveland Elam and Jimmy Webb. Hardman was one of the top sackers of the 1970s, and just as I started the tape recorder he said, "Before we go on, I can never give enough credit to coach Floyd Peters. … You cannot say any of our names without calling Floyd Peters' name. He was the greatest specialist at choreographing the movement of a pass rush. You need to call him, too."
So a few days later, I called Floyd Peters. His wife picked up.
"He's not in the best shape," she said. "He wants to talk, but I'm not sure how much you'll get out of him." I didn't understand what that meant.
She put Floyd on the phone, her husband once a hammering defensive tackle with Cleveland, Detroit and Philadelphia. I got right into the Gold Rush business and the sack talk with him.
"Well," he said," I'm sorry. I really can't remember anything about that."
No? Well, how about Hardman and Hart, those guys … or Bubba Baker, one of your top game-wreckers when you coached the Lions?
"They sound familiar, those names … they do ring a bell … but no, I really … I really don't know anything about those people. I'm sorry, I can't help you there. Anything else?"
No, Floyd. That will be all. Thank you.
That conversation made me sad.
So did the interview I did with Dave Kocourek, the former All-AFL tight end. Kocourek was an unlucky member of the expansion Miami Dolphins of 1966, a team full of characters and rejects, and I was doing a story on the wackiness of that group.
Every question I asked Kocourek was answered the same way — memories of the time he and former Vikings coach Bud Grant had that great day fishing on the lake in Minnesota.
That's nice, Dave, but how about those old Dolphins of '66? What a crew, huh?
"I don't know … but we sure caught a ton of fish that day, me and Bud." Over and over I heard about Bud and the fish and the boat, until I finally understood what was happening.
Kocourek is now part of a 75-person lawsuit against the NFL, citing that the league concealed damning information about the long-term dangers of concussions and head injuries from its players.
Floyd Peters? He died in 2008. Complications from dementia.
So what safety changes should be made to the pro football of today? Not sure. Haven't thought it through yet. But I can tell you there aren't any training exercises out there that thicken up the skull. And that there is no way to put a seat belt on the brain.
I remember hearing one recommendation from Joe Paterno a year or so ago, during one of his midweek Big Ten conference calls. Joe's persona non grata these days, but he was making pretty good sense on that afternoon.
"I've been saying for 15 years we ought to get rid of the facemask" Paterno insisted. "Then you go back to shoulder blocking, shoulder tackling, and you wouldn't have all those heroes out there. … The game has changed. It used to be shoulders; now it's heads."
It would also mean an epidemic of mangled noses and torn lips and busted cheekbones, but maybe in the big health picture the players would accept that trade-off.
"No facemasks? I wouldn't want to watch it," says former Dolphins LB A.J. Duhe. Duhe was from the late 1970s-early '80s NFL, when terms like "cobwebs" and "getting your bell rung" were still part of the medical terminology. Let's face it, contact is going to be made — helmet to helmet, face to face. People hitting people. You can't avoid it. That's exactly what football is.
"I think I was knocked cold once or twice as a pro. One game was against the Vikings and we were ahead three touchdowns or so, so they didn't send me back in. But I imagine if we were only up three points they would've said, 'A.J., you think you can get back in there?'
"The game is meant to be played viciously," Duhe says. "It's too good to be screwed with. Changing a few rules like they have is fine, but guys ultimately have to learn how to protect themselves. They have to understand they could kill someone or even kill themselves with reckless hitting.
"Don't get me wrong, when I had a bead on a guy I wanted to knock the hell out of him, absolutely. But I didn't stick my helmet into the small of his back, or try to jam the crown of my helmet into his earhole. That's what's wrong — too many guys play to kill today. I'm tired of it."
You haven't learned anything new from these paragraphs. I'm only here to give my prediction.
I'm saying that pro football — the crippling, crushing, mass-times-velocity spectacle we feed on today — will be played quite differently in the not-so-far future. I just can't give you the details.
Tom Danyluk is an award-winning freelance writer based in Chicago. His book on pro football, "The Super '70s," is available at Amazon.com. You can contact Tom at Danyluk1@yahoo.com.