The 'overrated' dangers of injuries playing football Coach gave local fans an unintended reminder

November 12, 1995|By Ray Frager

"CONCUSSIONS ARE overrated."

Thus spake one Rich Brooks, head coach of the St. Louis Rams, leader of men and apparent neurological expert.

What's the big deal, Mr. Brooks was quoted as saying, with all this talk about concussions? It's not really any different from hurting other parts of your body playing football. Just a bunch of media hype, Dr. Brooks said.

Now, I can't claim any of the expertise of the esteemed coach, but my limited knowledge of concussions tells me that the injury occurs when the brain bounces around inside the skull. Pardon me for saying so, but that doesn't sound so good.

Is Mr. Brooks speaking for coaches around the National Football League, throughout the colleges, across the high school spectrum? One certainly would hope not. At the very least, there can't be too many so wrapped up in counter treys, weak-side blitzes and two-minute drills that they wouldn't know how barbaric Mr. Brooks' words would sound.

But as we celebrate the return of the NFL to Baltimore, at least Mr. Brooks did the favor of reminding us of the costs of football, something that might escape our minds as we're entertained each Sunday afternoon by the crashing bodies flying across the screen, clad in those fashionable hues -- available in official, NFL-licensed sweat shirts for only $39.95.

It's a brutal business. Former New York Jets wide receiver Al Toon had a few too many of those overrated concussions and decided to retire before his constant headaches and blurry vision got even worse. Jim Otto, a Hall of Fame center for the Oakland Raiders, doesn't have much of anything left inside his knees that God put there. (You may remember the photograph of Mr. Otto's knees that ran in The Sun with Mike Preston's excellent piece on football injuries last year: They looked kind of like a topographic map done by a second-grader with too much clay.) Dick Butkus, celebrated as the meanest, toughest linebacker ever, sued the Chicago Bears for leaving his legs in such sad shape that he could barely walk.

Despite the toll on the stars, character actors and bit players, football -- especially its professional and major-college versions -- still is quite a show. We love to watch -- baseball's World Series could add the ratings for two games and still not match the numbers that a Super Bowl gets. We love to bet -- what office doesn't have those little pool cards passed around each week? We love to have a team -- how long will the line stretch for season tickets to the Baltimore Browns?

We don't love to think about the pounding our NFL heroes take. When we turn on the TV, there they are again, regardless of how many yards of tape are wrapped around their joints or how many cc's of painkiller they needed to make it onto the field.

Once upon a time, 20-plus years ago, I played football -- not very well -- for four seasons in high school. My mementos are rather inconsequential: a knee that sometimes makes a snapping noise, a shoulder that aches if I stretch it too far in a certain direction and a finger slightly bent at the wrong angle.

Up until three years ago, Dennis Byrd played football, making it all the way to the NFL's Jets. A freak collision with a teammate broke his neck, and it was feared at first that he would be paralyzed. He wasn't: He can walk -- albeit with a limp -- and hold his two young daughters. He also, as a feature on ESPN recently showed, can coach football.

Mr. Byrd is an assistant coach at a high school in Oklahoma. The brutal ending of his pro career hasn't soured him on the game one bit. In fact, he spoke enthusiastically of his love of football, of the fierce competitiveness, of the sheer physicality. He appears to be is passing along that enthusiasm to his young players.

But, you know, I kind of doubt he's telling them that concussions are overrated.

Ray Frager is an assistant sports editor at The Sun.

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