Is It Worth It: Concussions and Other Crippling Injuries on The Gridiron

Derek HartCorrespondent INovember 2, 2010

NEW ORLEANS - OCTOBER 31:  Zach Strief #64 of the New Orleans Saints drops a pass in the end zone while Ryan Clark #25 of the Pittsburgh Steelers watches during their game at Louisiana Superdome on October 31, 2010 in New Orleans, Louisiana.  The Saints won 20-10 over the Steelers.  (Photo by Karl Walter/Getty Images)
Karl Walter/Getty Images

I recently read in the Los Angeles Times' sports section about a local high school football player who's in a life skills program geared toward people with special needs because he suffered a near fatal head injury on the field.

The young man had bleeding in his brain and was in a coma for about a week after sustaining a second concussion during a game.

Not only was he forced to relearn how to walk, dress himself and go to the bathroom, he now has the mentality of someone half his age, all because of what happened to him on a football field.

In the spring of 2001 Sports Illustrated had a story called "The Wrecking Yard", which focused on how former National Football League players, many of them household names, have to deal with being cripples after their glory days as Steelers, Giants and Bears were done.

It gave me a big dose of reality to read about legends like Earl Campbell, the bruising Houston Oilers running back and former Heisman Trophy winner who, as a result of nerve damage, can't raise his foot to take steps. He has to drag himself up staircases due to excruciating arthritis in his hands, and he can no longer walk long distances.

This was a sports icon of my childhood, so one can imagine how I felt to have discovered that.

I was also flabbergasted to read in that same article about a Hall of Fame legend, Johnny Unitas, being unable to use the right hand that threw touchdown passes in a record 47 consecutive games over five seasons for the then-Baltimore Colts.

He couldn't hold or pick up anything, and also had both knees replaced before passing away a few years ago.

The piece also mentioned how Joe Jacoby, a vital member of the Redskins' "Hogs" offensive line during the 1980s, has severe and constant pain in his knees, lower back and ankles in addition to not being able to bend over.

Former New York Giant Harry Carson was also written about; after leading the Giants to Super Bowl glory along with Lawrence Taylor in 1987, he suffers from headaches and memory loss and, in his own words, doesn't "...think as clearly as I used to. Nor is my speech (and) selection of vocabulary as good as it used to be," due to the multiple concussions he sustained during his 13-year career.

What shocked me most of all in the SI story was former then-Los Angeles Raider offensive lineman Curt Marsh.

After a mere six years in the NFL, retiring well before his 30th birthday, and after having more than 20 operations, Marsh has not only had both of his hips replaced, his right leg was forced to be amputated above the ankle after the Raiders' physician misdiagnosed it.

Sounds scary, doesn't it?

Please understand that like millions of others across America, I'm an avid football fan, particularly of the college kind, though I was into the NFL as a youngster.

I know all too well that football is the nation's top spectator sport, with countless millions of dollars spent either watching it or betting on it every weekend from late August through January.

I'm also well aware that professional football's championship game is usually the country's most watched TV show on an annual basis, and in certain parts of this land 20,000 fans and boosters watch 16 and 17 year-old boys battle with each other while using the pigskin on Friday nights. 

If you don't believe me, check out Friday Night Lights, the book, the movie, and the TV series, sometime.

So when I hear about guys like Campbell, Jacoby and Marsh becoming cripples, or kids becoming virtual vegetables like Brad Ebner, the high school player mentioned earlier, or Eric LeGrand, the Rutgers player who was paralyzed from the neck down during the their game against Army this year, as well as the life span of ex-NFL players being shorter than the average American male, I can't help but ponder...

Is a scant few years of gridiron fun and glory really worth a lifetime of debilitating pain, or worse?

Many guys would say yes to that question, that they'd do it all over again even if they knew the risks involved, due to the charge they get from running around on 100 yards of grass (or field turf) with crowds ranging from up to 20,000 to over 100,000 at certain colleges screaming their heads off for them.

Not to mention all the lovely ladies, a large number of them wearing very short skirts and waving pom-poms—fawning over their every move.

Although I enjoy the gridiron game as much as anyone, including the pageantry of the marching bands, the cheerleaders, the pre-game tailgating and the camaraderie that goes along with all of that, there are times when I'm not quite sure if it worth it.

I'm not always sure if being a football hero is worth suffering multiple concussions to the point of permanent memory loss and lack of brain function.

I'm not always sure if being a football legend is worth being unable to grip anything or walk without a walker.

And I'm definitely not always sure if being a football god is worth having part of your leg amputated.

I know that football is a violent game by nature, that excruciating pain and crippling injuries are part of the package, but these tragedies that I've mentioned here make me think.

With the players being stronger and faster than ever, combined with the collisions and hits that are given and taken on the head and other places, debilitating injuries and concussions leading to comas and worse will undoubtedly continue.

What gets me is that fans will spend a few moments lamenting on how unfortunate it is when it happens, then go right on being fanatical to the point of needing to get a life about the Ohio State Buckeyes and the Dallas Cowboys.

They will even go so far as to go to divorce and inheritance court, bitterly fighting over who gets the season tickets; that has actually happened in Washington and Green Bay.

Is it all worth the while?

Even though I am a football fan and will probably always be one to some degree, I'm honestly not 100 percent positive that it is.


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