I can still remember the hit. I just can’t remember much of what happened afterward.
I guess that gives me something in common with some NFL players. Probably the only thing I have in common with them.
They are the elite, the very best at what they do. And what they do is deliver violence, basically controlled mayhem. And the audience eats it up.
This week we will celebrate the zenith of the mega-money machine that is the NFL. We call it Super Bowl week. It is an economic juggernaut, fueling huge business for bars, delis and chicken wing joints. And that does not even begin to count the real lifeblood of the sport. That, of course, would be gambling. I can’t even fathom how much money chantes hands on Sunday’s game, from office block pools, to the endless proposition bets that form the backdrop to the party, to the actual money wagered on the game itself.
The NFL is big business. And this is its biggest week. It rakes in $10 billion a year, and no doubt Sunday’s Super Bowl will likely once again shatter ratings records.
But there is an increasingly troubling story bubbling just below the surface of the NFL, and football in general.
That would be the effect it is having on those who play the sport, who put their bodies on the line, the modern-day gladiators.
A group of former NFL players is suing the NFL, making the claim that the league failed to adequately warn them of the dangers of concussions. More than that, they also allege in the suit that the NFL concealed those risks once the evidence started to point to a link between the violent game and concussion problems.
I think I once suffered a concussion on the football field. Don’t laugh. I actually played. What the hell a 100-pound kid was doing out there you’ll have to ask my mother. For the most part I played safety, but I also dabbled as a back/wide receiver. My senior year I actually wound up at quarterback. No, we weren’t very good.
On this particular Saturday morning, we were playing Chichester High, getting thumped as we invariably did. Our coach was looking for a play to provide any kind of spark. I happened to be standing next to him at the time. “How about a 12 pass?” I offered. Of course, I knew that rarely called play would result in our then-quarterback, Chally Hassard, throwing the ball to me streaking (or actually just running as fast as I could) straight down the middle of the field.
There was just one problem. I guess the Chi defensive back didn’t much feel like chasing me that far. I never saw the forearm coming. I burst off the line and directly into his forearm as it collided with my facemask.
From that point, everything went yellow. Today we know that is one of the classic signs of a concussion. In 1972, we just called it “getting your bell rung.” I somehow managed to wobble to the sideline, where I felt sick to my stomach. I never saw a doctor, and returned to the game on defense in the next series.
Yesterday, President Obama weighed in on the concussion discussion, saying he would have to think about it if he had a son and he wanted to play football.
My son, easily as big a sports fan as his father, did not play, so I did not have to make that choice.
I am glad, because the truth is I would be torn.
I’ve never had any after-effects from playing football, other than the fact that I still have a huge lump where I broke my collarbone in my senior year, and I can no longer throw any kind of ball overhand after ripping up my shoulder in my junior year.
But I don’t believe I’ve ever had any lingering health issues tied to concussions. I can tell you the contact was brutal. Not just in the games, but in practice as well. When you weigh 100 pounds dripping wet, tackling drills lose their appeal real quick.
What I would miss is not necessarily what happened on the field, but what happened off of it. I think I learned more about life from being part of that team - and that group of guys - than anything I learned in any classroom.
I remain a huge believer that high school sports are a great thing. And it has little if anything to do with the scoreboard.
This Sunday I will watch the Super Bowl. I will eat a lot of junk food. I will raise a glass. And I will always remember the guys I played football with so long ago. I haven’t seen or talked to most of them since we graduated. But we retain a bond that is unbreakable.
Part of that bond is surviving what we did on the field.
And that includes concussions, even if we didn’t know it then.