Recently the front page of a local paper caused me to wonder if football has come to the point where the term “sport” can be used only loosely. Before you rush for your phones or warm up your emails to attack me, please understand that I am a true football fan. But I can even relate (on a small scale) to the agony a contact sport like football can cause in later years, which raises the question: Is football really a sport, or just a physical beat down?
I played football, and though I wasn’t a great player, I was good enough to play varsity at every level. When I attended college and suited up for my first spring practice, it was suggested by my coach that I carry my 170 pounds back to the locker room and wait for basketball season.
Even so, I have a knee and hip that sends me scurrying for the pain relief medicine every time arthritis visits. However, this story isn’t about me. I only want to point out my degree of empathy for those who suffer the long-term tax placed upon their bodies as payment for their days of athletic stardom.
If you are a true fan you may remember Reggie Williams, the Cincinnati Bengal’s all-pro linebacker during the late 1970’s and early 1980’s. Williams so distinguished himself, that he was elected National Football League (NFL) Man of the Year. Despite his contribution to the sport, the NFL is treating him like he is persona non grata. He has undergone 24 knee operations in an attempt to correct the damage he received playing the game.
According to Williams, he is being treated like an NFL discard. In his words, “They have fought me on everything, including sending me a band aid.” Since 2005, Williams has suffered from many health problems, including multiple knee replacements and a bone infection. This, to the tune of hundreds of thousands of dollars out of pocket.
His workers’ compensation claim is being fought by the Bengals. This man was once encouraged to apply for the job of NFL commissioner and now he is being treated like a pariah. The sad thing is the number of former players who are being treated like discards.
In the latter part of the 1960’s (back in the day), my wife and I lived in Los Angeles. We became friendly with Norman Bass, brother of Rams running back Dick Bass. We got together with Norm and a few other friends on an average of once a week to play board games and dominos. As a result of this relationship with Norm, I became friendly with Dick. This friendship brought on a little chastisement from Pop (Sam Lacy).
After we moved back to the Baltimore area, I was a regular visitor to the Baltimore Colts press box with my dad. We were at a game where the Rams played the Colts. I was quite aware of the neutrality rule when in the press box, but when Dick broke through the Colts’ line for a large gain, I jumped out of my seat and bellowed “Go Dick!” I got the hairy eyeball from Pop, and the message was clear.
In 2006 when I got the word that Dick had died, I was saddened to lose an old friend. Norm maintains that Dick was secretive about his ailments, but he was sure it was due to the beating he took on the gridiron.
One of the greatest running backs of my lifetime was Earl Campbell (Skoal Brother!). The last time I saw Earl was in a feature on TV, and from the waist down he was incapacitated. This isn’t much of a surprise because during his playing time with the Houston Oilers, he was the offense.
Those of you who were around during the Colts glory days will remember John Mackey. The loudspeaker at Memorial Stadium was constantly crackling, “Unitas to Berry or Unitas to Mackey.” John died last year after spending the last few years of his life with dementia. This, the result of concussions.
There are many horror stories from ex-gridiron greats, and you wonder if it is all worth the price. These are just a few cases that make you ask the question, “Is football truly a sport?”
If you are a fan of Another Viewpoint, you have my wife and good friend Jack Olender to thank for prying me out of my chair and back to the keyboard. Thanks, Jack.