Tag Archives: concussions

Gordie Howe in a leather helmet

With the NHL playoffs just around the corner — and the Concussion Issue continuing to hover over the NFL — I thought I’d write a quick post about the time, long before it was fashionable, Red Wings legend Gordie Howe wore a leather helmet.

3-29-50 Montreal Gazette p. 19 Howe brain operationThis was during the 1950-51 season. In the playoffs the previous spring, Howe had gone head-first into the boards — the Maple Leafs’ Ted Kennedy was his intended target — and suffered a fractured skull and serious facial injuries. Doctors had to perform emergency surgery to stop a brain hemorrhage.

When Howe returned to action in the fall, he experienced headaches and, once, a dizzy spell. So his bosses convinced him to put on a leather headgear (plastic helmets not yet being in vogue).

“We just don’t want to take chances,” general manager Jack Adams said.  “I’ve wanted Gordie to wear a headgear for a long time and finally talked him into it on the train coming back from Toronto.”

Here’s the best photo I could find of it (from the Dec. 15, 1950, Lowell Sun in Massachusetts). The contrast is poor and the figures a little faint, but you can make out Howe’s helmet.Howe photo with helmet 12-15-50 Lowell Sun

Howe eventually discarded the thing, tough guy that he was. The league made helmets mandatory for incoming players in 1979, his 32nd and final pro season, but veterans had the option of going without them — and Gordie did. Here he is, late in his career, mixing it up with Quebec’s (better-protected) Curt Brackenbury.Howe without helmet, opponent with one

Chris Borland and the future of the NFL

Dan Pompei wrote a piece for Bleacher Report not long ago that began like this:

There are not many footprints on the path Chris Borland has chosen to walk. His approach to the NFL, and life after it, represents a way of thinking that is very different from the thinking of most of his football forefathers.

Fifty years ago, or even 10 years ago, promising players considered the NFL a destination — not a rest stop on life’s highway. They did all they could to extend their shelf life. They didn’t consider shortening it, as Borland has, retiring after a standout rookie season with the 49ers.

But as time — and eras — have passed, so too have perspectives on the role football should play in a player’s life.

Actually, in the league’s first 40 years, many of Borland’s “football forefathers” thought like he did, considered the NFL a short-term gig. Unlike today, the game didn’t lend itself to a long, lucrative career. In the single-platoon era (1920-49), players often played the entire game, or close to it. The travel, too — on trains, buses and even in private cars — was more onerous. Some teams would be on the road for a month or more.

You also could make the case that competition for jobs was greater because there were fewer of them. In 1941, the last season before the war, there were 330 roster spots in the league and just 11 players who were 30 or older (oldest: 33). Last year there were 1,696 roster spots and 331 thirtysomethings (oldest: 42). Nobody ever talks about that when they talk about the early days: that it was harder to break into the league and harder to stay there — which, naturally, led to shorter careers.

Let me throw a few more numbers at you so you’ll get the complete picture. This is how many players in each decade played in all 10 seasons of that decade:

1920s: 3

1930s: 2

1940s: 5

1950s: 18

1960s: 74

1970s: 109

1980s: 92

1990s: 158

2000s: 163

2010s: TBD (but likely more than 163, Chris Borland or no Chris Borland)

From the ’20s through the ’50s, the prevailing philosophy seemed to be: play four or five years if you can, burn off any testosterone left over from college, sock away some dough (provided there’s some dough to sock away) and, in the offseasons — which were quite a bit longer then — try to prepare for your Next Life (in coaching, business, teaching, whatever).

George Halas’ Bears teams weren’t just successful on the field, they were successful off it. Several players, for instance, found the time during the season to go to medical and dental school. According to a 2011 story about John Siegal, an end in the ’30s and ’40s, his “typical day would spin the heads of today’s multimillionaire athletes. He attended Bears practice from 9 a.m. to noon, then headed to Northwestern University for dentistry classes from 1 p.m. until 5. One teammate, fullback Bill Osmanski, attended school with him; Halas had agreed to pay the pair’s tuition in addition to their salary.”

(Of course, clubs were more concerned for the players’ welfare in those days. As the Bears’ 1937 media guide noted: “A form of cod-liver oil is taken daily by the players when cold weather sets in.”)

Time and again, Halas would tell his team, “Football is a means to an end.” And in those leaner times, it was the soundest of advice. No player was so well paid that he could retire on his NFL earnings; he’d better have a Plan B (if not a Plan C).

Tom Harmon during his Rams days.

Tom Harmon during his Rams days.

But beyond that, there was more of an understanding that the human body wasn’t built for such punishment — not over the long haul, at least. Doak Walker, the Lions’ Hall of Fame back, quit in 1955 after just six seasons. Tom Harmon, the first pick in the ’41 draft, played a mere two years (after a lengthy stint in the military) before going into sportscasting. The “indestructible” Bronko Nagurski took the knocks for eight seasons, then decided professional wrestling was a safer — and better-paying — alternative (though he came out of retirement in ’43 when the Bears were shorthanded). None of this was unusual.

But as you can see in the decade-by-decade figures, things began to change in the ’60s. The money got better, the medicine improved, the jobs multiplied — and suddenly you had players staying in the game until they were literally wheeled out on a gurney.

It also could be argued that modern players are more dependent on the game than they used to be — because the job has become so time-consuming, in-season and out. Who today could squeeze in med school classes around all the practices, meetings, weight-room sessions, public-relations appearances and everything else on the football calendar? It’s increasingly hard to lay almost any kind of groundwork for Life After Football. (We won’t even get into the dubious college “education” some of these guys receive, “learning” that sometimes doesn’t equip you to do much more than retain your eligibility.)

In recent years, a time bomb has gone off — the Concussion Issue — and people have begun to wonder whether the game has gotten too hazardous to the players’ health, whether this is the beginning of the end for Pro Football As We Know It. First of all, the game has always been too hazardous to the players’ health. No league has left a longer trail of broken bodies than NFL. It’s more a question of: How much are the players — and the fans who cheer them — willing to put up with? Will the risk of CTE cause young athletes to turn to other sports, or will the fame and fortune of football be too much of a lure? And even if a kid does opt to play the game, will he, as he grows older, try to limit the damage, as Borland did (and as players in the early decades did, though their retirements weren’t always of their own volition).

Then there’s the matter of whether the NFL will continue to be as popular if it takes such a toll on its participants — or whether it will remain as profitable if concussion settlements spiral out of control. You even have folks like Malcolm Gladwell suggesting football will become “a ghettoized sport, not a mainstream American sport” — that it will draw most of its players from the lower economic classes, those who have fewer “options” and “for whom the risks are acceptable. . . . It’s going to become the Army.” (Except, perhaps, in such places as Texas, Ohio and Pennsylvania, where it’s engrained in the culture.)

Here’s the thing, though: David Robinson made over $116 million in his 14 seasons in the NBA – and that doesn’t include endorsements. Yet his son, Corey, is a wide receiver at Notre Dame and may well be headed for an NFL career. In this instance, in other words, you have an extremely wealthy family — and a very intelligent dad, from my experience — who have spawned, of all things, a football player.

I could make the same point about Denzel Washington’s son, J.D., who was a running back at Morehouse College and spent a year on the St. Louis Rams’ practice squad. I ask you: How many NFL players come from more well-to-do backgrounds than Corey Robinson or J.D. Washington?

As long as a sport offers the chance for glory — never mind an eye-popping paycheck — it will attract players across the economic spectrum, I’m convinced. These players might, in the years to come, spend more time weighing the risk vs. the reward, and that’s a healthy thing. But the idea that vast numbers of them will simply stop playing, like Borland, is a bit farfetched. What it figures to come down to, ultimately, is the fans — and whether they, knowing the game’s consequences (loss of motor and cognitive function, etc.), stop watching. That’s when the league will really be in trouble.

But that, too, seems a bit of a stretch. This, after all, is America, the world’s biggest reality show. Pro football can almost be thought of as a spinoff of Fear Factor. Or is it the other way around?

Source: pro-football-reference.com, basketball-reference.com

Former 49ers linebacker Chris Borland: one and done.

Former 49ers linebacker Chris Borland: one and done.

Sound Bites IV

It’s accepted pretty much as fact that, until recently, no one paid much attention to concussions in the NFL. And by “no one,” I’m talking mostly about the league and the media who cover it. So it was a revelation to stumble across a newspaper story from 1953 that went into great detail about a player getting his bell rung.

The player was Billy Reynolds, a rookie running back for the Browns, who was making his pro debut in a preseason game against the 49ers. A summary of his day, according to UPI:

1. He ran head-on at full speed into [the Niners’] Hardy Brown, considered one of the hardest tacklers in the game.

2. He was picked up and carried off the field.

3. He was supposed to go into the game a short while later and never appeared, the Browns using only 10 men for one play.

4. In the fourth quarter, he ran on the field when he wasn’t supposed to, and the Browns were penalized for playing with 12 men.

Our sound bite, though, comes from Paul Brown, the Browns’ Hall of Fame coach, who had the following to say about the situation:

“Billy was completely out of his head after he and Hardy Brown collided. However, he is all right now. We could use him in the game against Los Angeles this weekend, but, just as a precautionary measure, we may not. He must have suffered some sort of a head concussion, although at the time we thought he was just shaken up.

“At the time of the crash, we didn’t think it was anything serious. But the shock to Billy’s system was such that he didn’t know what was going on. Guess we’ll just have to rest him up for a few days.”

The naiveté about head injuries is just stunning, isn’t it? That said, it’s interesting Brown even considered holding Reynolds out of the next game “as a precautionary measure.” Precaution and pro football didn’t always mix in those blood-and-guts years.

And sure enough, Reynolds suited up for the exhibition game against the Rams after just a four-day recovery period. He’s right there in the stats, carrying twice for minus-1 yard:

Browns Rams preseason stats

Sixty-one years later, here we are. Or rather, here the lawyers are, filing suits and working out settlements.

Ray Rice, Roger Goodell and journalistic hyperbole

The unconscionable conduct of a handful of NFL players — Ray Rice and Adrian Peterson most visibly — “has mushroomed into the biggest crisis confronting a commissioner in the NFL’s 95-year history,” ESPN.com reporters Don Van Natta Jr. and Kevin Van Valkenburg wrote the other day.

And they make that claim more than once in their investigative piece on embattled Roger Goodell — and how he and the league fumbled the handling of Rice’s domestic-violence case. Toward they end, they again call it “the worst crisis in NFL history,” adding, “some league sponsors, most notably Anheuser-Busch, are jittery.”

Worst crisis in NFL history. That certainly takes in a lot of territory. Also, if you’re going to use words like “biggest” and “worst,” it helps to define your terms. If by “biggest” and “worst” you mean “loudest,” you’re probably right. Nowadays, with social media and the 24-hour news cycle and nonstop sports chatter on TV and radio, everything is louder. But that doesn’t make the subject of the noise any more momentous. Our airwaves are a huge vacuum. Something has to fill it. The beast must be fed.

But if by “biggest” and “worst” you mean “most threatening to the league” — as far as its financial well-being and/or place in the sports hierarchy are concerned — the current crisis doesn’t even make the Top 5 all time, and pales in comparison to a few. You want a crisis? How about these:

● The Great Depression. When Black Thursday struck in October 1929, the NFL was in just its 10th season. Its success was by no means assured. College football was still far more popular, and baseball, of course, was king. On top of that, the pro football player wasn’t exactly considered a Shining Example of American Manhood. (More like a mercenary lout.)

Then the stock market crashed and, well, what do you think that was like? Do you suppose it might have been a bigger deal than what’s going on now with Rice, Peterson and the rest? By 1932, the league had shrunk to eight teams — three in New York, two in Chicago and one Boston, Portsmouth (Ohio) and Green Bay. Five cities, that’s it. And two had populations of less than 50,000.

In the late ’30s things began to get better for the NFL — as they did for the rest of the country — but it was touch and go for a while.

World War II. Yeah, let’s not forget that. With so many of its players in the military, the league thought about shutting down in 1943 — only the Cleveland Rams did — and some franchises were merged to keep them viable. As the war went on, teams were so hurting for manpower they suited up a few 18-year-olds and talked retired players like the Redskins’ Tiger Walton, who had been out of the game since 1934, into making a comeback. (Only 12 of 330 draft picks in 1944 played in the NFL that season.)

“If the war had lasted a little longer,” Bears Hall of Famer Sid Luckman once said, “the NFL might have gotten down to the level of semi-pro ball.”

The American Football League. Sorry, but a decade-long battle with a rival league (1960-69) — a league that mounted the most serious challenge to the NFL’s monopoly — strikes me as a much bigger crisis than L’Affaire Rice. Competition from the AFL increased salaries dramatically, forced the NFL to expand earlier than it would have (to Dallas, Minnesota, Atlanta and New Orleans) and hurt profit margins. And in the last two seasons before the merger, the AFL’s Jets and Chiefs won the Super Bowl. The horror.

Steroids. We tend forget what a stir the steroid epidemic created in the ’80s. It wasn’t just a health issue, it was a competitive fairness issue. Let’s face it, nothing riles fans quite like the idea of cheating – and it’s damaging when such a cloud hovers over a league. Once the problem came to a head, Commissioner Pete Rozelle dealt with it quickly and decisively, but only after years of whispers and denial.

Concussions. When all the votes are in, I wouldn’t be surprised if this crisis — which is far from over — turns out to be far worse for the NFL than the recent rash of misbehavior. Indeed, if anything brings down pro football, it will be the growing suspicion that the game is simply too dangerous, that the physical cost isn’t worth the financial gain. That doesn’t mean the league won’t continue to exist in some form; but it’ll be seriously diminished, and it won’t attract nearly as many of the best athletes.

One other crisis is worthy of mention, even if it doesn’t crack the Top 5. In 1946 New York police uncovered an attempt to fix the NFL championship game. This led to two Giants players being banished from the league and, naturally, much negative publicity — at a time when the rival All-America Conference was trying to gain traction. As difficult as life is for Goodell, I doubt he’d swap places with Bert Bell, the commissioner in ’46. (The AAC, after all, was a worthy adversary that gave us the Browns and 49ers.)

Anyway, that’s six crises in the NFL’s 95-year history I’d rate ahead of the one we’re now obsessing about. And I’m sure I could come up with several more if I wanted to think about it a bit longer. But I’ve got other blogs to throw on the fire, other fishy statements to fry.

So I’ll finish here: Crises aren’t bigger nowadays because the NFL is bigger; they’re actually smaller, generally, but for the same reason: because the game is so firmly established. It was in the early years that you had to worry. A crisis back then was like a baby running a temperature. The league hadn’t built up the immunities it has now.