High school football hits full swing in the Magnolia State this weekend. College football Saturdays are two weeks away. The NFL season kicks off Thursday night, Sept. 7.
It’s here. And in this state that has produced the likes of Walter Payton, Jerry Rice, Brett Favre and so many more, football is a huge and integral part of our culture.
This will be my 52nd autumn writing about Mississippi football, and I must tell you that in recent years I have begun to watch the game differently. I still love the sport, particularly the passion of the players, coaches and fans. I love a perfectly thrown pass, a leaping catch, a running back who can cut and accelerate at the same time. I love to watch well-played defense, a group that pursues the football and tackles well in the open field.
I love the strategic decisions coaches must make, and, yeah, sometimes I love questioning said strategy. I love the unexpected, the upsets. I love a drive against the clock with the game on the line.
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What I don’t love about football so much any more are the collisions, especially those that involve the head and helmet.
In recent years, we have learned more and more about the steep and wicked price aging football players pay for the collisions of yesteryear. One of my recent columns featured Willie Daniel, a former Mississippi State standout who played nine years of professional football with the Pittsburgh Steelers and Los Angeles Rams.
He died in 2015, no longer able to walk or talk or remember anything at all.
Willie Daniel was a fast, hard-hitting defensive back who made his living colliding with big, strong, fast men. Later in life, he had both knees replaced, both shoulders replaced and one hip replaced.
Problem was, you can’t replace a brain and Willie Daniel’s brain no longer worked.
Ruth Daniel, his wife, donated his brain and part of his spine to Boston University for a study of former NFL players’ brains. The CTE (chronic traumatic encephalopathy) Center there examined the brains of 111 former NFL players. Of those 111, 110 showed significant evidence of CTE, a disease caused by repeated blows to the head that results in a myriad problems, including memory loss, confusion, depression and dementia. Those disorders often arise years after the blows to the head have ceased.
Daniel was one of three Mississippians who were part of that study.
Bobby Crespino and Doug Cunningham were the others. All three were successful in their post-football careers. All were intelligent men. All began to suffer memory problems and all the other classic signs of CTE later in life. All had stage 4 (the worst) CTE when they died.
Said Ruth Daniel of her husband: “He was a funny, fun-loving man before the problems started. He was a great guy, so full of life. Everybody loved Willie. It was just so, so sad to see him deteriorate like that.”
The endings were much the same for Cunningham and Crespino, two men I considered good friends.
Their declines were so difficult to watch.
Years ago, I would listen and laugh as Cunningham told stories about running into the likes of feared linebackers Willie Lanier and Dick Butkus.
“I ran into Willie Lanier on Sunday and the next thing I knew it was Thursday,” Doug said. Of Butkus, he said, “Dick Butkus used to hit me so hard I thought he was going to hurt himself.”
Those stories don’t seem nearly so funny any more.
Crespino once told me of a game in 1965 when he played for the New York Giants against his former team the Cleveland Browns in Cleveland. Crespino, a wide receiver, ran a crossing pattern and just as the ball arrived, so did Vince Costello, the Browns bruising linebacker. Costello hurled himself at Crespino, hitting him, helmet to helmet. It was a violent, full-speed collision that knocked Crespino out. He remembers nothing of the flight back to New York. He spent the night in a New York hospital. He played the next week.
Such a hit these days, helmet to helmet, would result in a 15-yard penalty and Costello would be removed from the game, fined and possibly suspended. Back then, he was praised for a good hit. Today, Crespino would go through a concussion protocol, which almost certainly would not allow him to play the following week.
This is progress, but football needs more. The penalties for helmet-to-helmet hits need to be stiffened, and players need to be educated better on the inherent dangers of such blows.
This needs to happen at every level of the sport. Sadly, it could happen immediately and still not be soon enough.
Rick Cleveland is a Jackson-based syndicated columnist. His email address is firstname.lastname@example.org.