Wednesday, August 16, 2017

Rick Cleveland: This is your brain after football.

High school football hits full swing in the Magnolia State this weekend. College football Saturdays are two weeks away. The NFL season kicks off Thursday night, Sept. 7.

It's here. And in this state that has produced the likes of Walter Payton, Jerry Rice, Brett Favre and so many more, football is a huge and integral part of our culture.

This will be my 52nd autumn writing about Mississippi football, and I must tell you that in recent years I have begun to watch the game differently. I still love the sport, particularly the passion of the players, coaches and fans. I love a perfectly thrown pass, a leaping catch, a running back who can cut and accelerate at the same time. I love to watch well-played defense, a group that pursues the football and tackles well in the open field.

I love the strategic decisions coaches must make, and, yeah, sometimes I love questioning said strategy. I love the unexpected, the upsets. I love a drive against the clock with the game on the line.

What I don't love about football so much any more are the collisions, especially those that involve the head and helmet.

In recent years, we have learned more and more about the steep and wicked price aging football players pay for the collisions of yesteryear. One of my recent columns featured Willie Daniel, a former Mississippi State standout who played nine years of professional football with the Pittsburgh Steelers and Los Angeles Rams.

He died in 2015, no longer able to walk or talk or remember anything at all.

Willie Daniel was a fast, hard-hitting defensive back who made his living colliding with big, strong, fast men. Later in life, he had both knees replaced, both shoulders replaced and one hip replaced.

Problem was, you can't replace a brain and Willie Daniel's no longer worked.

Ruth Daniel, his wife, donated his brain and part of his spine to Boston University for a study of former NFL players' brains. The CTE (chronic traumatic encephalopathy) Center there examined the brains of 111 former NFL players. Of those 111, 110 showed significant evidence of CTE, a disease caused by repeated blows to the head that results in myriad problems, including memory loss, confusion, depression and dementia. Those disorders often arise years after the blows to the head have ceased.

Daniel was one of three Mississippians who were part of that study.

Bobby Crespino and Doug Cunningham were the others. All three were successful in their post-football careers. All were intelligent men. All began to suffer memory problems and all the other classic signs of CTE later in life. All had stage 4 (the worst) CTE when they died.

Said Ruth Daniel of her husband: “He was a funny, fun-loving man before the problems started. He was a great guy, so full of life. Everybody loved Willie. It was just so, so sad to see him deteriorate like that.”

The endings were much the same for Cunningham and Crespino, two men I considered good friends.

Their declines were so difficult to watch.

Years ago, I would listen and laugh as Cunningham told stories about running into the likes of feared linebackers Willie Lanier and Dick Butkus.

“I ran into Willie Lanier on Sunday and the next thing I knew it was Thursday,” Doug said. Of Butkus, he said, “Dick Butkus used to hit me so hard I thought he was going to hurt himself.”

Those stories don't seem nearly so funny any more.

Crespino once told me of a game in 1965 when he played for the New York Giants against his former team the Cleveland Browns in Cleveland. Crespino, a wide receiver, ran a crossing pattern and just as the ball arrived, so did Vince Costello, the Browns bruising linebacker. Costello hurled himself at Crespino, hitting him, helmet to helmet. It was a violent, full-speed collision that knocked Crespino out. He remembers nothing of the flight back to New York. He spent the night in a New York hospital. He played the next week.

Such a hit these days, helmet to helmet, would result in a 15-yard penalty and Costello would be removed from the game, fined and possibly suspended. Back then, he was praised for a good hit. Today, Crespino would go through a concussion protocol, which almost certainly would not allow him to play the following week.

This is progress, but football needs more. The penalties for helmet-to-helmet hits need to be stiffened, and players need to be educated better on the inherent dangers of such blows.

This needs to happen at every level of the sport. Sadly, it could happen immediately and still not be soon enough.

Rick Cleveland is a Jackson-based syndicated columnist. His email address is rcleveland@mississippitoday.org.

9 comments:

Anonymous said...

It's good to see that sports concussions are finally starting to get mainstream attention. There was a good documentary on this about 5 years ago called "Head Games." Definitely worth 90 minutes of your time, and it's available on iTunes.

Anonymous said...

Like Rick, I love football. But having tried playing the game years ago, I realize
that football can be a dangerous unforgiving activity that is not for everybody.
Some young men have the physical ability to make the game pay off for them, others
don't and they should find something else to do. Even those who do have the knack
should realize that any sport calling for continuous collisions must be a short-
term activity even if you do make a lot of money. It's hard to give up something
you love, and that makes you rich, but football has it's limitations and the sooner
you realize it the better. I think football still has a future, but not as a 20
year career beginning as a pee wee and continuing to adulthood.

bill said...

Take away the face masks. Better still, put the players back into leather helmets. We'll lose a few until they get used to it, but that will eventually stop all the head to head - and head to anything else - contact.

Anonymous said...

Who would have thought that two 300lb men running head long into each other might hurt?

Anonymous said...

I wish they would compare the brain injuries of rugby players with football players.
They could then get some idea of the impact of hard helmets on a contact sport.

Anonymous said...

Where is that like button?

Anonymous said...

I'd like to see a comparison to soccer, which causes much more frequent concussions. How come they aren't going after soccer with the same vitriol? I wonder why? It isn't because they truly care about the players. If that were the case, if people really cared about concussions, why do I still see little kids banging a ball around with their heads every day on the way home. Do the parents not realize that one round of a heading drill causes more damage than one football practice done correctly?

Go after the sport that causes the most damage to the most people (generally unsuspecting) if you want me to take you seriously.

Anonymous said...

Soccer will fix itself in a few years. All they have to do is treat heading like they do hand on the ball and tighten the player contact rules. At that point concussions in soccer will be both accidental and incidental.

How do you get rid of the concussions and full body collisions with football?

Anonymous said...

Soccer will fix itself? Bullshit. Again I ask, why isn't anyone up in arms over soccer? It causes way more concussions in way more people than football.Odds are that if your child has played soccer past the age of 7-8, they have sustained multiple small concussions. You don't have to lose consciousness. A correctly executed "head" causes both the whip lash type injury and blunt force trauma. Go after the sport that affects the most people, not just football.

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Wrestling returns, except this time it will be a Battle Royal with Othor Cain, Ben Allen, Kim Wade, Haley Fisackerly, Alan Lange, and “Big Cat” Donna Ladd all in the ring at the same time. The Battle Royal will be in a steel cage, no time limit, no referee, and the losers must leave town. Marshand Crisler will be the honorary referee (as it gives him a title without actually having to do anything).


Meet KIM Waaaaaade at the Entergy Tent. For five pesos, Kim will sell you a chance to win a deed to a crack house on Ridgeway Street stuffed in the Howard Industries pinata. Don't worry if the pinata is beaten to shreds, as Mr. Wade has Jose, Emmanuel, and Carlos, all illegal immigrants, available as replacements for the it. Upon leaving the Entergy tent, fig leaves will be available in case Entergy literally takes everything you have as part of its Trollfest ticket price adjustment charge.

Donna Ladd of The Jackson Free Press will give several classes on learning how to write. Smearing, writing without factchecking, and reporting only one side of a story will be covered. A donation to pay their taxes will be accepted and she will be signing copies of their former federal tax liens. Ms. Ladd will give a dramatic reading of her two award-winning essays (They received The Jackson Free Press "Best Of" awards.) "Why everything is always about me" and "Why I cover murders better than anyone else in Jackson".

In the spirit of helping those who are less fortunate, Trollfest '09 adopts a cause for which a portion of the proceeds and donations will be donated: Keeping Frank Melton in his home. The “Keep Frank Melton From Being Homeless” booth will sell chances for five dollars to pin the tail on the jackass. John Reeves has graciously volunteered to be the jackass for this honorable excursion into saving Frank's ass. What's an ass between two friends after all? If Mr. Reeves is unable to um, perform, Speaker Billy McCoy has also volunteered as when the word “jackass” was mentioned he immediately ran as fast as he could to sign up.


In order to help clean up the legal profession, Adam Kilgore of the Mississippi Bar will be giving away free, round-trip plane tickets to the North Pole where they keep their bar complaint forms (which are NOT available online). If you don't want to go to the North Pole, you can enjoy Brant Brantley's (of the Mississippi Commission on Judicial Performance) free guided tours of the quicksand field over by High Street where all complaints against judges disappear. If for some reason you are unable to control yourself, never fear; Judge Houston Patton will operate his jail where no lawyers are needed or allowed as you just sit there for minutes... hours.... months...years until he decides he is tired of you sitting in his jail. Do not think Judge Patton is a bad judge however as he plans to serve free Mad Dog 20/20 to all inmates.

Trollfest '09 is a pet-friendly event as well. Feel free to bring your dog with you and do not worry if your pet gets hungry, as employees of the Jackson Zoo will be on hand to provide some of their animals as food when it gets to be feeding time for your little loved one.

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This is definitely a Beaver production.


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Jackson Jambalaya is the home of Trollfest '07. Catch this great event which promises to leave NE Jackson & Fondren in flames. Sonjay Poontang and his band headline the night with a special steel cage, no time limit "loser must leave town" bout between Alan Lange and "Big Cat"Donna Ladd following afterwards. Kamikaze will perform his new song F*** Bush, he's still a _____. Did I mention there was no referee? Dr. Heddy Matthias and Lori Gregory will face off in the undercard dueling with dangling participles and other um, devices. Robbie Bell will perform Her two latest songs: My Best Friends are in the Media and Mama's, Don't Let Your Babies Grow up to be George Bell. Sid Salter of The Clarion-Ledger will host "Pin the Tail on the Trial Lawyer", sponsored by State Farm.

There will be a hugging booth where in exchange for your young son, Frank Melton will give you a loooong hug. Trollfest will have a dunking booth where Muhammed the terrorist will curse you to Allah as you try to hit a target that will drop him into a vat of pig grease. However, in the true spirit of Separate But Equal, Don Imus and someone from NE Jackson will also sit in the dunking booth for an equal amount of time. Tom Head will give a reading for two hours on why he can't figure out who the hell he is. Cliff Cargill will give lessons with his .80 caliber desert eagle, using Frank Melton photos as targets. Tackleberry will be on hand for an autograph session. KIM Waaaaaade will be passing out free titles and deeds to crackhouses formerly owned by The Wood Street Players.

If you get tired come relax at the Fox News Tent. To gain admittance to the VIP section, bring either your Republican Party ID card or a Rebel Flag. Bringing both will entitle you to free drinks.Get your tickets now. Since this is an event for trolls, no ID is required, just bring the hate. Bring the family, Trollfest '07 is for EVERYONE!!!

This is definitely a Beaver production.

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