Now is the Autumn of my contentment; my favorite sport is underway.
In 1970, Patrick Killorin sat with me on his living room floor with his Super 8 projector playing on the wall and broke down game film for me. Pat was a two time All-American and former Pittsburgh Steeler. Football became the only sport of which I had some understanding.
Pat and I went to Watertown High School and Syracuse University together, and I was in the Navy while Pat was in the National Football League. He was then my player/coach and later boss for the first two years of 21 seasons that I was with the Watertown Red and Black semipro team as a bench-warming player, equipment manager, board of directors, assistant coach and chain crew. As a player I may have been small, but I was slow.
In recent years, through email and Facebook, Pat and I have discussed at length the problem of brain damage that players may suffer from repeated blows to the head. The NFL will solve this problem or else in a few years kill the goose that lays its golden eggs.
We talked about Willie Lanier’s importance. This Kansas City linebacker wore a unique prototype helmet with an extra layer of rubber outside the hard shell to also protect those players he hit. Despite being the only NFL player so equipped in the 1970s, he suffered no competitive disadvantage on his way to Pro Bowls, the Super Bowl and the Pro Football Hall Of Fame.
Even his helmet is in the Hall Of Fame, and there’s the rub. The NFL may have the solution right under its noses, but representatives will never admit it. To do so would be to admit the connection between repeated concussive blows to the head and chronic traumatic encephalopathy, the condition wherein “Your brain slowly dies.”
Our troops suffer similar conditions from traumatic brain injury. Football players are paid far more with no one shooting at them, yet their average professional career is about four years. And two years out of pro football, 60 percent of former players are divorced, unemployed or bankrupt.
The long-range solution for our troops is halting the endless, winless wars. The NFL could afford to study its solution for what it makes on hot dog sales. It could do brain wave tests on all its players to establish a baseline from a season of head blows, equip all players with an updated version of the Lanier helmet for a season or two and compare the concussion incidence and severity rates to see if there’s a difference.
Commercially available rubber helmet caps are routinely used by many high school linemen in practice. These could easily be painted with team NFL colors and affixed with team logos for game days.
Were the NFL to come out of its denial, do a study along these lines and publish any significant improvements, the change might become permanent. In future years, this lifesaving alteration would filter down to the college, semipro and high school levels.
The NFL could take this leap of faith and save a sport loved by millions. I suspect it won’t.
Greed, denial and the profit motive seem to have their way throughout our society. Too many coaches are emotionally addicted to the loud CRACK! of helmets hitting together, indicating players are practicing hard.
However, FOX sportscaster Dick Stockton and Empire Semipro Football League Commissioner Dave Burch seem to feel that Patrick Killorin and I are on to something, based on recent email conversations. Change will only come when enough fans vote with their feet and wallets — and the TV people are required to issue “Viewer warning/graphic footage” alerts before you watch young men destroying their brain cells.
If both teams on every field were identically equipped as above, the game wouldn’t change but it would be safer. Were the various regional, state and national sportswriters and sportscasters associations to get behind lobbying the NFL along these lines, we might still see football beyond a decade from now. And I’d still be happy.
Roland Van Deusen is a Clayton resident. He served in the U.S. Navy and is a retired counselor.