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Knocked Cold and Loving It

The opening of NFL training camp put me in mind of an encounter in a different field. On a routine doctor visit, I was answering the usual questions. “Do you smoke?” the doctor asked.  I said, “no.” “Never did?” she persisted. “Nope,” I replied. “And never will?” she asked meaningfully, leaning forward. A little weary of the interrogation I said, “well, Doc, I’ve been trying to start, but I’m having no success.” Not a smile; not even a twitch. Next she wanted to know if I’d ever lost consciousness. “Nah,” I said. “Never got knocked out?” she continued. “Nope....” But then remembering, I told her I’d played football for six years. She gave a little smile along with syllable that sounded somewhere between “hmmm” and “aha!”

The response revealed concern, insight, and a change in perspective. Physicians have long heard ex-football players complaining about creaky backs and shoulders, stiff necks, aching knees and knuckles; but recently, the sequels of concussion have been much in the news. This June, 2,000 former professional players sued the NFL for the long-term effects of serious head injuries, charging that the League knew the dangers of head trauma but misled players by minimizing or concealing these risks. We can expect there will be hell to pay one way or another. It used to be, though, when you played football, you more than likely got knocked out. And it was somewhat likely that you’d get knocked out more than once. Such was the heedless culture of the game. As for treatment in the bad old days, if you got clocked the coach held up two fingers—it was always two fingers. When you came to, he would ask you to count how many. If you guessed right, you were advised to “run it off.” If not, and if it was practice and not a game, you’d sit out a few plays. Headaches and nausea? “Whad’dya expect?” the coach would growl, “you’re playing football, not tiddlywinks….”

These days, good coaches recognize the symptoms after the squishy human brain has sloshed against the hard inside of a human skull. You might guess that the chances of sustaining a second head injury are about the same as the first time. In fact, after the initial concussion, your chances are four times greater. Also, it takes less force to inflict the second injury. As a result, many American high schools established elaborate protocols that guide treatment for mild brain trauma. These require an injured player to sleep for longer intervals, abjure schoolwork and challenging video games. Then, slowly, the recovering player works up through a program of increasingly more demanding exercise and mental effort. Only eventually will this player return to contact sports and full cognitive challenge.

Changes in the game of football itself, such as rules against “spearing” and superior helmet padding may even help prevent concussions now. I say “may” here because protective equipment holds its own unintended consequences: high tech padding that increases the survivability of high impact also encourages high impact. Watch a vintage film and you’ll see the ball runner warding off tacklers with a stiff arm, defensively—try that move against one of today’s behemoths and the tactic will invite a broken bone. Players lower a well-padded shoulder, which makes the game more spectacular; the collisions audible and memorable. But is the game safer? That question is still up in the air.

With some justification, critics indict this intense American game for its culture of violence. But as an ex-player, it’s the enduring competitive culture of football that interests me most. Two feelings stood out more for me. First, I found playing the defensive position that we used to call “monster man” intensely fun and liberating. This regimented contest nonetheless allowed the monster man unequaled opportunity to rove and afforded special opportunities to make a play. No college scout would ever have given me a second look, but that didn’t diminish the fun of deflecting a pass and the pure glee of sacking a quarterback. For a lineman like me, one of football’s anonymous toilers, the possibility of bearing the local teen-idol down to the turf offered compensation enough. Secondly, if the game didn’t teach bravery exactly, or teach it in the hokey way that fight songs promised, football however taught endurance and forbearance—immunization against fear and timidity. To use an old-fashioned word, full contact football taught “fortitude.” If you couldn’t find the resilience to abide the pain that every play brought alongside the glee, you found another game. Tiddlywinks, perhaps….