NFL Concussions and My Conscience

Let’s talk about Reggie Bush.

Football combines speed and strength like no other major sport. You must be able to knock over and/or outrace huge defenders to be an NFL playmaker. This is why the average NFL career lasts under four years—it’s incredibly hard to keep your body strong enough to do it well.

Thus the list of best players often changes from year to year. Once someone like Michael Vick or RG3 or Terrell Owens starts playing really great, they have to give absolutely everything they’ve got, enduring terrible punishment to make big plays. The prime of a career can be just one season.

RG3 last year, right? Young Bruce Willis to Cam Newton’s Arnold Schwarzenegger. Or Adrian Peterson gaining 2,000 yards for the Vikings, willing his team to the playoffs. Remember Randy Moss’s rookie year? Or when Falcons-era Vick won that playoff game in Lambeau? Vick highlights used to be better than “Mad Men.”

My favorite football player in 2005 was Reggie Bush, and he wasn’t even in the NFL yet. On the big-money (wink wink) University of Southern California football team, Bush unleashed what I believe is the best running-back play I’ve ever seen. He has Olympic-sprinter speed, so even when he slows down to put a move on a guy—and his jukes humiliated defenders—he was still blazing so much faster than everyone else on the field. He’d accelerate the whole time, breaking tackles and jumping over guys. He averaged 8.9 yards per carry that year. The average length of his 16 touchdowns was 31.9 yards. Big. Ass. Plays.

(Video highlights!)

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AND YET. The play I think about first when I think about Reggie Bush is this hit he took as a professional on the New Orleans Saints, against the Eagles. Click here for the clip. This is a photo:

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It was such a violent hit, but its immediate aftermath made it sad. Bush stood to walk it off and within two steps was back on his knees, crawling. He was hurt terribly. The guilt I felt watching this hit is more memorable than the joy of seeing him skate around defenders like a demigod at the pinnacle of his magic abilities.

. . . . &*<–

This current NFL season has been really fun so far. Burque league opponents will tell you my fantasy team, Mingo Fuck Yerself, has won seven straight games thanks to Megatron, Jimmy Graham, and an unmatched stable of four RB1-level running backs—Knowshon, Lacy, Fred Jackson, and Giovani Bernard (who just Thursday night broke the best touchdown highlight of the year).

I’m playing the Burque commissioner this weekend, and am leading our game 100.35 to 97.00 as I type this. I’ll remain in first place even if I lose.

Look, do not take a running back in the first two rounds of a fantasy draft. Take the best wide receiver and the best tight end. Take running backs in the middle rounds—rookies and older vets who get a lot of carries.

I am loving fantasy this year. I sit there watching games for hours every Sunday, updating the score on my phone’s fantasy app constantly.

. . . . &*<–

There is this fantastic new book out, called “Slow Getting Up.” It’s by Nate Jackson, who played tight end for the Broncos in the middle aughts. He writes about an injured teammate getting drunk on the sideline during games; about the difference between his weekly salary as a practice-team player ($4,000) and as a member of the official roster ($15,000); about how hard it is for a pro athlete to date but how easy it is to get laid; about camaraderie and friendship among teammates in the face of destructive drama like losing streaks, terrible coaching (Mangini on the Browns), or quarterback controversy (Denver turning on Jake Plummer for rookie Jay Cutler).

And he writes about a practice when he was on a German NFL Europe team:

Players grunt, coaches yell, and pads and helmets crack, creating a frightening symphony of early-onset dementia.

Early-onset dementia.

. . . . &*<–

The PBS show “Frontline” had a blockbuster episode last month called “League of Denial,” about the prevalence of brain injuries in football players and about NFL executives working to downplay the danger. “League of Denial” was full of crazy anecdotes, like former Steelers center Mike Webster, whose mind fell apart after football to the point he was living in a truck Superglueing his teeth into his head and falling asleep by Tasing himself. Junior Seau, an amazing linebacker for the Chargers over the decade I was becoming a football fan, killed himself with a shotgun blast to the chest just three years after he retired. Other ex-NFL players have committed suicide the same way. They do it so their brains can be studied.

Chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE) is a condition football players get from knocking into one another so frequently. Their brains develop spots. The side effects are dementia, memory loss, confusion, depression, and aggression.

When a 21 year-old football player with no history of concussions killed himself, doctors analyzed his brain and found CTE. One doctor tells “Frontline” she wonders if every football player has it.

. . . . &*<–

The Cleveland Browns are playing the despicable Baltimore Ravens as I type this. The Browns are winning. My two-month-old daughter is sleeping in her monkey rocker next to me, wearing the little Browns onesie my badass aunts sent us when she was born. This is great?

A quick check of my phone, and . . . . Yes, I’m still barely winning my fantasy matchup, and I got T.Y. Hilton going tonight for the Colts and beastly Packers playmaker Eddie Lacy going on Monday Night Football. Mingo Fuck Yerself is a hurricane of awesome. This is great?

. . . . &*<–

I see so many head-to-head collisions every Sunday as I watch these games. They happen constantly, hits damaging the brains of these amazing warrior athletes, the gladiators of now.

If I’d lived in ancient Rome I would have watched those gladiators murder each other with swords and spears. The Coliseum’s full whether I’m there or not, right? There’s nothing I could have done to stop the blood in the sand, and they probably put on a great show.

So, what? Keep watching football, right? The NFL is so much fun, and unlike years past the players actually know how much they’re damaging their minds by playing. Maybe that makes it all right.

. . . . &*<–

I want the decision taken out of my hands. The hope is my daughter will get older and we’ll have too many fun daddy-daughter things to do on Sundays, so no time for watching football. Then I won’t have to hear these guys’ heads cracking together so often.

But what if the Browns draft Johnny Football Manziel and he gets them to the Super Bowl? They win the championship, but at the end of the game he takes a head hit so huge it kills him. This far-fetched scenario would be absolutely awful, but there would be a moment when all beleaguered Cleveland fans felt the long-sought joy of truly winning.

It would be sick.

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