In 1928, a four-year-old boy named Hardy Brown witnessed his father's murder. Shortly thereafter, Brown saw his father's murderer killed at his family's hands. In the aftermath, his mother sent little Hardy to live at a hardscrabble Texas orphanage. He and the rest of the misfits there exorcised their many demons playing football—hard.
After serving in World War II as a Marine paratrooper, Brown attended the University of Tulsa. There, he terrorized opponents and caught the eye of professional football teams around the country.
Blessed with neither size nor speed, the 6', 194-pound Brown mastered the science of violence. His signature technique was an under-the-chin shoulder pop that, by his count, knocked about 80 opponents out cold during his 12-year professional career. In 1951 alone, he rendered 20 other players unconscious. In 1952, he made the Pro Bowl.
The stories the old-timers tell about Brown are horrific. From The Coffin Corner, a publication of the Pro Football Researchers Association, comes this gruesome tale:
"'I didn't really believe the things I'd heard about him, but then I played against him for the first time at Kezar Stadium in '51,' said Joe Geri, then a single-wing tailback for the Pittsburgh Steelers.
'We ran a trap or something and he threw that shoulder into my eye—we didn't wear face masks in those days—and put me down on my back. I was lying there groggy but I managed to ask one of my teammates, "Is it bad?" and he said, "Well, your eye's out."'
It was reported that Geri's eye literally was hanging by a tendon, out of the socket.
'I'm not sure about that,' Geri said, 'but I do know I had to have 13 stitches.'"
In 2010, Detroit Lions defensive tackle Ndamukong Suh pushed Chicago Bears quarterback Jay Cutler to the ground, as Cutler was scrambling for yardage. Suh was penalized for "unnecessary roughness," extending what would be the Bears' game-winning drive.
Suh was later fined $15,000—more than twice what the average player made in a season during Hardy's days—for that shocking display of naked aggression. Suh's two-hand-touch, apparently, was too mean-spirited for professional football.
What happened to the NFL?
In a word, television. In Hardy's days, games were rarely televised, and professional football's popularity as a spectator sport lagged far behind baseball. In those wild pre-facemask days, an NFL fan went to the stadium expecting to see 22 men physically destroying one another.
In the 50s, the NFL occupied a plot of the American sports landscape similar to today's MMA: it had many hardcore followers—but general sports fans found the raw violence appalling. As televisions made their way into every American home, the NFL's popularity grew, but the brutality of the game capped its growth potential.
In 1960, Commissioner Pete Rozelle realized how much money could be made from a league-wide TV deal, as opposed to letting each team negotiate their own. In first competing with, then merging with, the AFL, Rozelle and the league created made-for-TV spectacles like Monday Night Football and the Super Bowl. They became pop-culture TV events that still draw massive ratings.
With each passing decade, NFL football moves farther from its rugby roots—two opposing masses of men, waging a ground war over a line of scrimmage—and toward an aerial game played upright in space. It's less violent, it's more fun to watch...and it sells like hotcakes across all age, gender and racial boundaries.
Off the field, players have become celebrities—not just used car salesmen and product endorsers, but entertainers, actors, comedians and pitchmen. While national debate rages about how "dirty" he is, Suh sells Chryslers by repping hometown high school football and hugging Mama.
When I was small, going to a football game meant sitting in a foul cement cauldron with masses of smoking, boozing, brawling men cursing blue streaks at referees, players and other fans. Now, it's like entering a pristine NFL Disneyland—complete with kids, toys, souvenirs, matching outfits and heart-stopping sticker shock everywhere you look.
But football is still a violent game. With 300-pound behemoths running like deer, even "clean" hits can produce grisly results. Last season, horrified fans had images of Austin Collie spasming on the ground and Stewart Bradley stumbling around the field beamed into their living rooms via big-screen HDTVs.
For all of the casual fans, families and kids that have been drawn into the game, this kind of brutality is both incongruent and repellent. How can you reconcile watching one of Peyton Manning's favorite targets twitch on a backboard with laughing at one of Peyton's silly commercials minutes later?
Moreover, fans are more invested in these players, emotionally and literally, than ever before. The NFL stars of the 60s and 70s have been suffering greatly and dying early; can we continue to worship these players as gods when they're 27 and discard them like broken toys when they're 47?
Brown was discarded like that. At age 67, he had crippling arthritis in that famous shoulder, and suffered from severe dementia. A lifetime of hard living, on and off the field, had taken its toll. For years he entertained masses with his violent play, fueled by personal demons—but he died alone, in a mental institution.
Unfortunately, the popularity of the NFL was built as much on big hits as long bombs; legislating the physicality out of the game alienates the hardcore fans who carried the NFL through its early days to its current success. By courting the mainstream family entertainment dollar, the NFL has made a decision: to stop playing anything that Hardy Brown would recognize as "football," and play a game closer to the one we play in backyards for free: two-hand touch.
Suh comes from an impeccable background. He has a big, supportive, loving family. He is intelligent, charismatic and understands football's proper place in life. He got an engineering degree while at Nebraska; he may work as an engineer after football if he gets bored of counting the eight-digit fortune his children's children will live well off of.
The NFL is trying to create a future where we can celebrate a Suh for his incredible physicality, without dooming him (or his opponents) to sacrifice their productive lives for our entertainment. It's a nearly impossible balance to strike. The league will likely make many more squiggles in the rulebook—and Suh will likely sign many more checks— before they can draw the bright line between entertainment and brutality.