ALL THOSE those overpowering hits that bring spectators out of their seats and cause stadiums to vibrate provide thrills that sell tickets. The NFL's popularity has been enhanced by its tough physical presence. It has always been that way.
The public revels in watching the all-out contact, what is considered part of the show. Touch football won't sell. But pro football, offering attention-getting box office appeal because of the all-out physical aspect, is a dangerous business. Disturbing facts supporting such a contention can no longer be ignored.
An extensive survey conducted by the NFL Players Association and put in place by Dr. Julian Bailes, chairman of the department of neurosurgery at the West Virginia School of Medicine, provides a grim report. In an article by Neil Sherman and published in a newsletter for retired NFL personnel, more than half of the 1,090 one-time players participating in the study said they suffered head injuries during their careers.
From 1988 through 1993, the league recorded 445 concussions. Most were said to be of a serious nature. The New York Jets' Al Toon played eight years, and records show he sustained an alarming 13 concussions. Quarterbacks Roger Staubach, Steve Young, and Stan Humphries were sent into what to them and their teams constituted early retirement. The frequency of sustaining concussions could not be minimized.
Some of the former players are saying they have difficulty with slurred speech, hearing, and in attempting to concentrate. What happened in a game of 25 years ago, as an example, can register a residual effect today.
Two former Baltimore Colts linebackers, Don Shinnick and the late Bill Pellington, suffered from what some observers believed to be a form of post-football trauma. Pellington died from what was diagnosed as Alzheimer's disease, and Shinnick is being treated for frontal lobe dementia, a rare brain disorder.
Playing football supposedly had nothing to do with their mental conditions, but there are those who disagree.
Ordell Braase, a Colt for 12 years, says the figures on concussions are disturbing. He's hoping that follow-up information will define how they occurred and if steps are being taken to reduce such injuries. It's his belief that linebacker blitzing, while an essential part of the game, may have contributed to the totals in the report.
"It seems to me there has been more multiple-type blitzing going on in the game," he said. "When we played, we always left a back in position to block for the quarterback, but now, they don't protect quarterbacks to that same degree. Stop to consider linebackers may have a 10- to-15-yard running start on a blitz. This means quarterbacks are hit with far more impact than on a regular tackle."
Braase believes advances in helmet designs have helped the overall safety of all players as protection against concussions. But headgear, as well constructed as it is, can't be guaranteed concussion-proof.
Braase makes another observation, the kind that when it comes from a player is particularly significant.
"I believe if they took three bars off the face mask, players would have second thoughts to how much hitting they were going to do with their faces and heads involved. The face mask may give a feeling of false security in some instances. But, again, there has always been a lot of head-butting going on."
Dr. Barry Jordan, director of the brain injury program at the Burke Rehabilitation Hospital in White Plains, N.Y., commenting on the neurological problems that players are encountering in later years, said: "I think it's a milder form of what we see in boxers - what we commonly called `punch drunk.' Doctors refer to the condition medically as `chronic traumatic brain injury,' or `pugilistic dementia.'"
Such a statement gives every present and former player reason to pause and wonder about the state of his own health ... if he's having numbness or severe headaches, memory problems and confusion.
Frank Woschitz, director of the NFL Retired Players Association, instituted the inquiry on concussions, because he felt it necessary. He deserves to be commended.
"What we didn't know is that having a concussion would lead to problems later in life," Woschitz said. "Our job is to catch these kinds of health problems before it's too late or our players are too far gone. Our ultimate goal is to develop programs to help retired players. ... Our job also is to make current players aware of the risks they may face later."
Some players during the NFL's first 2 1/2 decades, the pioneering years, played without helmets. They did it even in the 1930s and 1940s as represented by Bill Hewitt, a Hall of Fame end for the Chicago Bears and Philadelphia Eagles; Andy Farkas, a running back for the Washington Redskins, and Dick Plasman, an offensive end of the Chicago Bears. Not until l943 did the league make wearing a helmet mandatory.