I once knew little, and cared less, about the toll football takes on the brains of those who play the game for a living. My perspective changed with a 1990 phone call.
I was working in Chicago at the time, preparing a story on the 50th anniversary of the Bears obliteration of Washington for the 1940 NFL championship. It was Bears 73, Redskins 0, still the most lopsided score in the history of the league.
After 50 years, many of the players were dead, but a handful remained in the Chicago area. I tracked down the home phone number of one of the 10 different Bears players who scored a touchdown at Washington’s Griffith Stadium.
When a woman answered on the third or fourth ring, I explained why I was calling. In a tone I interpreted as regret, she told me her husband was unable to share any thoughts about his career.
“He doesn’t remember where he was in 1940,” she said. “He doesn’t remember where he was this morning.”
When Dave Duerson, another member of a famous Bears championship team, committed suicide in 2001, inroads were being made in researching the link between football and brain injuries. Duerson fatally shot himself in the chest. His last request was that his brain be donated to the Boston University School of Medicine, where doctors eventually determined the former Pro Bowl safety had sustained severe brain damage.
Progress on preventing such tragedies as the Dave Duerson suicide has been slow and difficult, fraught with subplots requiring intervention of lawyers and judges. But there’s been progress.
With the assistance of the players association, a league that once tried to keep its athletes in the dark about brain damage developed a protocol system that demands possible concussion victims undergo an immediate evaluation.
Which brings us to last Thursday night, when the Seahawks’ Russell Wilson took a hit to the head that appeared to faze him. The referee ordered the quarterback off the field and into the tent.
Wilson returned after one play. If there was an evaluation, feel free to presume it went something like this:
“You all right, Russ?”
“I’m fine, doc.”
The sight of Wilson popping out of the tent a few seconds after he entered the tent endeared him to those hard-core fans bemoaning how the new proceed-with-caution rules are threatening to turn the NFL into a flag-football operation.
Here was Prince Valiant, durable and determined, announcing to the world that concussion-protocol evaluation is a silly sideshow.
“I got smacked in the jaw pretty good,”
Wilson said afterward. “I wasn’t concussed or anything. I felt completely clear.”
That Wilson is the toughest of cookies is beyond dispute. That Wilson is not licensed to practice medicine also is beyond dispute.
Admirable as his quick return to the huddle was, Wilson’s “evaluation” mocked a process established to protect him. The NFL is conducting an inquiry that could end up with the Seahawks paying a $150,000 penalty.
Hoo boy. A franchise owned by one of the wealthiest persons on the planet might have to cough up 150 grand, and I can only imagine the sleepless nights that financial hardship entails.
More fitting would a one-game suspension of the player who dismissed a concussion-protocol evaluation as a waste of his precious time.
Since that heartbreaking phone conversation with the wife of a Pro Football Hall of Famer in 1990, I have been a staunch supporter of the players on the issue of brain trauma. The owners covered up the facts for too long, then agreed to a settlement for too little.
But the players, seemingly united in their loathing of Thursday Night Football, can’t have it both ways. They can’t lament the quality-of-life consequences of participating in full-tilt collisions four days apart, and then disregard the protocol designed to monitor the effects of full-tilt collisions four days apart.
Russell Wilson figured he was OK to return after one play. Dave Duerson, who had that same kind of rugged self-assurance, could share some insight about its pitfalls
If he were alive.