MY BRAIN ON FOOTBALL: Greatest hits and other debilitating memories from a no dreadlocks defensive backfield
It’s all reflective of how pro football has become our pseudo-religion. Why else do you think they play it on the Sabbath? Chris Erskine, LA Times February 4 2016
My mind is going. I can feel it. HAL in 2001: A Space Odyssey
Here it is Super Bowl week so when I read this story from the former NFL star Antwaan Randle El who regrets ever playing the sport, and especially this quote: “Football players are in a car wreck every week,” immediately popping into my mind was that game against Middlebury where the fullback hit me square on so hard I felt like I’d been run into by a VW Beetle.
I want to type a sound effect here but can’t conjure the proper one for such a plowing-into. I only recall: The Middlebury Volkswagen. A Vermont VW. Crushing a little 145 lb Wesleyan Cardinal. The picture is a freeze-framed me, in bent-over tackle position, just for a second. And then nothing.
Never even got the license number.
So this week I decided to get about getting to my football memories before I forget, get everything down before it all goes away, thinking how my time is limited, the mind now at 60 not so svelte and heading for the same kind of problems poor Mr. Randle El is having at 36. And alas, this just in: news about Tyler Sash, who played db for the NY Giants’ 2012 Super Bowl team, found to have the degenerative brain disease chronic traumatic encephalopathy when he died last fall at 27:
Q: Why do so many dbs wear dreads? We never did at Wesleyan.
Would an extra layer of hair have protected me? (I could have tackled guys by them, that’s legal) At my size, nobody believes you played NCAA football, but why would I lie about such a thing now as my brain is shot from so many being smashed intos/run overs (Middlebury memory), so as I said I better get going here and tell you the stories I can. I haven’t been able to see inside my brain, but like HAL and Randle El, I can feel it. I get like these little zaps every so often. They’re hard to describe, stroke spasms or something. On top and on the side, my head hurts.
I see stars more than I’d like to, too. Is this why? Four years in college and four more in high school and before that, junior high football, which makes it nine years I led with my head. Who would do such a stupid thing? But I had to ya see because being smaller than the other guys the helmet is the hardest thing on your body so it works in bringing down ball carriers, receivers, running-oriented small college (DIV III) qbs, even the rare big fat pulling guard/tackle/lineman who get in the way so you lower your “hat” and dive at their ankles.
Because that’s what brings them down. Curtains. End of play. End of the play you just made. Yay!
Did I mention how much fun the game was?
By the way, “hat” is what Coach Bill “Mac” MacDermott in Middletown called your helmet. Much easier and quicker to say, “Gentlemen, get your hats on.” Coach Mac was fond of more prepositional commands like “Gentlemen, take it right on over in there,” but I think “hat” was an Eastern thing. I don’t recall our high school coaches saying that, talking now about Coach Reilly, Coach Clemmer, Coach Bodary, and the great JV coaches we had too like Hansen and Hanson and Itsy Lieberman, all at DCDS, Detroit Country Day School.
Once I did a piece for a public radio show called “Savvy Traveler” where I talked about the game — titling it Footfalls to lend a more autumnally sweet flavor of recollection to it. But I don’t want this to be a flowery “Flowers for Algernon” slow-mo montage of spillage where progressing brain probs eventually have me screaming “BINGO!!” inappropriately (signal the D shouts during an interception to let teammates know to start blocking because we’re heading the other way now), or “DaGammit!” audio stylings from a miked-up Don Meredith, Dallas Cowboy QB on “The NFL 50 Years” lp after he gets picked off. But of course I’ve been reading the reports accusing the NFL of turning a blind eye to evidence that “players were sustaining brain trauma on the field that could lead to profound long-term cognitive disabilities.” And how they’re four times as likely as other men their age to die of diseases like ALS and Alzheimer’s:
I only practiced this collision craft upon an NCAA gridiron, way less dangerous than NFL, which gives me a little more time I figure. But since my brains are on their way outta my head I may as well get going here or at least I keep telling myself (only having repeated myself once so far?)Picture me with ankles shaved and wrapped, jumping off the training table, wrists wrapped too, elbow pads tucked up tight (but not taped on), with a hat with one of those bar cages coming down the front (see JV photo) because my nose’s been broken since 8th grade when we wore only one bar and had to tackle halfbacks like this: FACE FORWARD INTO THIGH PAD COMING FORWARD OOOF!!
A whole face cage of protection makes a wonderful weapon. I got a bunch of stickers all over the back of it — skulls and crossbones, arrowheads and little footballs, rewards for interceptions and other plays made on the field of play, with the most crunching of tackles made in a game getting a sticker doncha know, some on the sides, too.
The Importance of Numerals
Also you get the air cutting coolly in late October, smells of the greensward, the first sweep my way: Here he comes, a fullback big wide load wearing number 30-something because “30” make them look bulkier, meaning harder to tackle. Like I needed anything harder to tackle. Something to do with the curls of the 3 or the big Zero versus stick figures 1 or 2 makes ’em look bigger? I’m #41 in your scorecard, or #85, or sometimes #21, although at the Division III level you’re probably just looking at a sheet of colored paper identifying our roster. Lem Barney was my idol and he wore #20 for the Lions; I also admired #21 Bruce Maher and #81 Dick “Night Train” Lane. #37 looked cool too in the defensive backfield, back there where safety Larry Fischer played for the Cards. Not the Wesleyan Cardinals. The St. Louis Cardinals. The sheet would say 165 lbs. or sometimes 175 lbs. to strike fear in the opponents no doubt, yeah right, but I went barely 155 lbs. in pads. Maybe. Then add lamp black under the eyes — burnt cork smeared on cheeks, and well, it doesn’t do anything but look cool. Or at least felt cool.
Now playing football at Wesleyan University — The Wesleyan University, please not to confuse with playing at Ohio Wesleyan, North Dakota Wesleyan, Illinois Wesleyan, any of the Virginia Wesleyans, or John Wesley Harding played by Bob Dylan — games were in Middletown, which is in the middle of Connecticut, which is a small time state anyway. Not an SEC, Pac 12 or Big Ten “Legends” division quality of game is going on in front of hundreds of thousands. Picture a “Little Three.” Containing Wesleyan, Amherst and Williams and that’s it. Still, although we don’t play Army or the Naval Academy or the Air Force Academy, we did play the Coast Guard Academy which is down on the southern coast of the state in New London so we called them, “the Coasties.” They were coached by former NFL qb Otto Graham whom we also mocked and had a live bear on the sidelines in a cage which was a trip and could be distracting.
Once for some reason we did scrimmage Army. I wrote about it for the Wesleyan Argus: “Yep, West Point-dang-U.S. Military Academy. Our big old DattCo. bus rolling down Highway 66 heading west to 84, Golden 91 Q oldies in the back, guys asleep cradling textbooks. Connecticut is beautiful in the fall. The maples are the first to go, hinting red out there. Waterbury, Danbury, Kingsbury, Simsbury. We’re just mediocre college kids. Burger huts and blowouts, summer jobs and pre med, good dope, and ‘take care.’ The only genuine feeling left is the game. The field, the crispness of the afternoon, the first sweep your way. Here it comes.” Aside from repeating myself again darn it, here’s something different: During the scrimmage — BOOM! a cannon shot off and all the Army players stopped in the middle of the play, took off their helmets and turned to face a flag at the far eastern end of the field. A 5 p.m. ritual of some kind. It was like playing a religious squad. (This one provided a really good food fight later in their mess hall.)
Life In Division III
Wesleyan is the kind of school where we had music majors at wide receiver, pre-meds playing middle linebacker and longhaired centers who shake it all out at the fifty-yard line opening coin toss. Jewish football players like myself and Ralph Rotman — I think we were the only ones — got to miss practice (boring anyway) because of the high holy days which always come during football season each fall. In my case it caused “Perimeter” Coach Peter “Kosty” Kostacopoulis* to call me out, seemingly shocked by the news:
“Christ Rosey! You Jews got more holidays than the Greeks!”
Skipping practice drills, sweet. Taking off after junior year to go live on a kibbutz, I don’t know what Kosty made of that.
So why do it? Play all those years? Since I was a kid and my Dad had played at Michigan so you know he taught us the game. We tossed the pigskin first out front in northwest Detroit next to Mr. Krause’s house on the tiny front lawn we shared with him, and then out back when we moved to a bigger house in ’65, in our huge backyard which backed up to a golf course so there were fairways in which to run patterns. Here he taught us to punt, pass and kick and knock each other flying in corduroy jeans and gym shoes until we’d get silly and just roll around in the rough, too tired to stand up anymore, filled with that dizziness where you can eat and eat and never feel full.
Fifty years later I got the permanent lower back problem and a bent right finger forever from a tendon rupture that never bent back and makes my handwriting look like chicken scratch. Not from playing with my dad, and otherwise I got no complaints. Except about the new rules that make the game harder for defensive backs. And every time I read articles about NFL players losing all their faculties making me think of the computer in 2001: A Space Odyssey repeating, “My mind is going…I can feel it.”
First Contact: 8th Grade
At 13, just settling into the three-point stance, leaning forward into some mud — pop goes the middle finger on my right hand, resulting in out-for-the-year plus having to wear a sling for five weeks. That was 8th grade. High school I had some lower back problems — ah those hot bath Saturday nights at home! I got injured the first day at college catching a pass at the end of a hard fling by the qb which knock my baby finger perpendicular to my hand in a hairline fracture. Walt Grokowski the trainer snapped it back into place (Welcome to the next level), wrapped it and I went to meet my parents for Freshman Orientation. But that’s minor; I did play again 9th, 10th, 11th and 12th grade ball and four more years at university.
I remember when I couldn’t decide where to apply so I asked my high school head coach what he thought of Northwestern and he said: “They had a couple walk-ons last season.”
But I meant as a school, because I was going to be a journalist and they had a great J school didn’t they? Turns out Wesleyan was small enough to do sports at the school paper and play intercollegiate athletics. (Conflict of interests; one time I was so embarrassed by a loss, I refused to run an article about the game in the next week’s Argus because I didn’t want anyone to know.)
So when ol’ #30-something is rumbling around end, rushing full-on fullback-like through the ever-widening hole, I go into my crouching low, torpedoing forward patented tackle, ready to roll into his ankles — at this weight my default move although the word default never entered my mind in college. Anyway, you just throw yourself at whatever comes your way. Could be a pulling guard leading the ball carrier to the corner (what they call “the edge” today), but this is when I felt least effective rolling myself up and cannonballing to take out said blocker. No glory, right? However, WHOMP! this time hit head-on by a Volkswagen, I’m sliding off the hood and next thing I know I’m smelling the grass.
Getting your bell rung.
Fresh cut turf like on a summer morning in the sprinklers smell (sucking the grass, grass gets stuck into my mouth, dirt clod divots through the helmet after some hits). On the sidelines it can get sticky with Gatorade spilled all over the place and yellow jackets coming for the Gatorade get inside your helmet and can also be distracting. “Down on the field” are all kinda sensory delights. Like if we play Colby you get rainy Maine coast. Or maybe that was Bates. But there’s a long walk to take through a grove of pines from the Bowdoin locker room to the field with needles to scuff your cleats across. The Berkshires in Massachusetts match the long shadows we cast on the sidelines at Williams or Amherst. Up in the stands students, parents and alumni wave pennants, eat peanuts and drink Schaefer Beer — classmates famously jamming the six-pack cardboard container over their heads and becoming “Schaefer Kings” for the second halves when we play at home.
I must be feeling really nostalgic for my college days in Connecticut, like being back in sweet Middlebury Vermont, way up north in the good ol’ USA which is practically to Canada, but if you play them in September before the first frost it’s still soft, lying on your back to see the Green Mountains way out beyond the end zone gazing past the other team’s huddle and through their goalposts. This comes after a walking/biking workout the other day — the smell of my sweat usually won’t take me back to the way it smelled inside a football helmet in 1977, that smell after you take the helmet off, I mean.
Where I left all my hair.
Now this: “Heightened risk of death from neurodegenerative disorders” as written in the journal Neurology about repeated blows to the head becoming the major safety issue in former players. I was always told the knees were the first to go. Neurology says they’re still trying to determine the long term effects, which may take a long term of time. But the authors — “from the National Institute for Occupation Safety and Health,” which is part of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention — have done the research on CTE, which stands for “chronic traumatic encephalopathy,” what Tyler Sash of the Giants had, which is “a buildup of proteins in the autopsied brains of former athletes who played a wide range of contact sports. CTE may have been the true primary or secondary factor in some of these deaths.”
Can we get back to the game please? It’s Super Bowl Week dagnabbit!
I just found out there’s a new app designed to help with head injuries during games:
Autumn in New York
is often mingled with pain
Autumn in New York
it’s good to live it again
Billie Holliday sings on Verve Jazzmasters 12
Every year when the leaves turn, I go back to those days playing defensive back in college or running a double-reverse through the open field (now called “in space”) in high school. No, back further now, I’m with my dad and Jimmie, out back going out for passes, running football patterns against each other with my father calling the plays: Go long, do a down-and-out, come back around in a button-hook, or attempt a flag pattern heading for the “flag” in the corner of the “endzone” both of which are marked by jackets placed on the grass. Best was a post-pattern which was cutting left toward the Dutch elm trees, right around the time they all began going down from Dutch elm disease.
Ford Motor Co. sponsored a “Punt Pass & Kick” competition every year and my dad would sign us up, we’d work on our skills for “PP & K” competition because the winner (never us) got to go onto the field some Sunday in November at Tiger Stadium. That’s where our heroes played, even though you may know the Detroit Lions were always bums who broke your heart every season — one year it got so bad we threw snowballs down from the upper deck during another never-crucial Bears game — I remember a player shielding horrible Coach Harry Gilmer with his mammoth oversized rain poncho as we fired away after packing what had accumulated under our benches. Was that in ’67? I know the Lions have only won one playoff game since 1957, but I’m still a semi-serious fan. (Dan Jenkins’ book Semi-Tough reference there for you.)
My point to all this is that your father is your first football coach. And what a great one mine was – Norm played at Northern High (“Eski-Eski-Eskimos!” his cheer to make us laugh) of the Detroit PSL against the likes of Central and Pershing (Hamtramck too), and then in Ann Arbor where he tackled the likes of Tom Harmon, or missed him mostly he told us, as a member of the 1938 Michigan Wolverines. Here’s his name on the roster:
Meanwhile, in our backyard microcosm Jimmie liked to “go out” and I liked defending, backpedalling on the balls of new cleats gotten on Livernois Avenue – the Avenue of Fashion—at Olympic Sporting Goods which was right next door to my father’s shoe store not far from Billy’s Deli and Cunningham’s on the corner. My game was knocking the ball away as it came spiraling in the air, my dad trying to connect with Jimmie. Yes!! Is there any better feeling of accomplishment in the world when you make a play like that? Or even picking it off with a “BINGO!” shout. Bingo also being the whaddyacallit magic code word Vince Lombardi gave Green Bay, which I learned by reading his book, RUN TO DAYLIGHT **. When Willie Wood or Herb Adderly (#24 and #26) came up with an interception, the entire defense reacted to the cry “BINGO” by turning around and blocking for the lucky db or safety who got the turnover. (I read that book in 1963 when I was about eight, memorizing the pictures because it was about the Packers preparing for the Lions, one team going 13-1 and the other 12-2 that season.)
Jimmie my brother turned into a a great halfback (like Packer Jimmy Taylor, Brown Jim Brown; was there a Jim on the Lions besides qb Ninowski?); he wore #40, set records in the 100-yard and scored many touchdowns for the Yellowjackets, as did his sons eventually, my nephews Ben and Harrison, both playing quarterback and wearing #12 for DCDS thirty years later, going through their own concussive events with little protocol except to keep it from the grandparent who first coached us, and from their grandma, of course.
What my father taught me paid off. He schooled us well, I mean I think we had skills, we were well-coordinated (big word then) enough to make plays well with the pigskin with others. Overcompensating for size is what all little guys do to make it up the athletic levels — the great Kirby Puckett of the Minnesota Twins said pretty much the same thing upon entering the Baseball Hall of Fame.
Playing both ways was standard — split end and defensive back — in high school, and then in intercollegiate ball in Middletown I got to play split end as #85 against Princeton pre-season my sophomore year and caught a td. But I switched to D after that game, eventually switching numbers too, to #41 junior year. It was late October during my senior year when the Cardinals headed up the #91 turnpike into Massachusetts for a “tilt” (eastern term for a game) against our rivals, the Ephman from Williams College who were good every year it seemed, despite having worst nickname in the history of sports. We could sometimes beat the Lord Jeffs of Amherst***, the Bantams of Trinity, the something-or-others from WPI (also known as “Woopie,” Worchester Polytechnic Institute, mascot “Gompei the Goat” I just found out via Google), and the Coast Guard Coasties — but rarely did we ever beat Williams. Except in this clear crisp day in the Berkshires, perfect football weather, we had them beat, rolling up 28 points by the 4th quarter.
Life In A Perimeter
My position on the defense was called “Wide Half” – meaning, I defend the wide side of the field, depending on where they place the ball, the point on the field the offense begins their four downs, the line of scrimmage marked on either hash mark (See top photo of Andrus Field). Years before hash tags, chalked hash marks indicate yardlines, a total of one hundred on the field. At Wesleyan this position was pronounced, “wide haahf,” because Coach Peter “Kosty” Kostacopoulis was from Maine. On the short side of the field, Sean McKeown played “Shot Haahf.” The entire defensive set up was called “The Perimeter” and you can figure out how Kosty pronounced that. Mac, Herb Kenny, Hap Clark and John Biddiscome were also Easterners.
(Michigan’s defense for years featured a “Wolf Back” and a “Monster Back,” but I didn’t know anybody with a “Perimetah.”)
Being small but quick (quickness in football is genuinely valued; one’s lateral movements called into play constantly), I was able to rush up and make a play, usually a tackle, or I could dart over to a receiver the quarterback was throwing to. Being little means you dive onto the turf a lot, flinging yourself at the knees of halfbacks coming up the field with the ball and what is called “a head of steam.” A rolling tackle can give you a great feeling of “upending” somebody, often times offenders who’ve gone into the air and caught a pass and are still coming down with it. (Players are so skilled today you see them jumping over defenders like me who come balled up and bulleting at them to interrupt forward progress.) Actually, it’s the only way I can get a big guy down; once, I rode the back of a 6-foot-6 Amherst tight end named Swiacki I think it was out of bounds and that just looked silly.
Sacrifice your body.
My favorite all-time tackle was back in Michigan during a JV scrimmage against Goodrich HS, this big back came bumbling around end –#30? — and Bob Rosenthal playing linebacker and I hit him low (me) and high (Bob) and the three of us flew out of bounds as one. Gathering ourselves to get back up, we looked at each other, Bob and I, both spitting, “Cool!” through our mouth guards like we’d perfected the absolute smoothest takedown play. Textbook it was, and we still email about it today.
(The worst tackle I ever did not make was in college, where you go down into a crouch and the runner goes right around your butt? Talk about looking silly, on the game film the coach runs back and forth purely for his amusement the following Monday.)
Anyway, in college, affected by crazy crowd noise, crazy campus band, and sometimes just the glint of sun off cars pulled up to tailgate beyond the end zone could send me into space outs. On the D, late in the game, sometimes I’d be so banged-up I couldn’t bend over to re-tie my cleats let alone make any plays. You’re just way too winded to be very effective. (“4th quarter’s ours!” went the cheer at basketball games, but in football you kinda hope the play goes the other way.)
This is no fun at all. But you never leave the field because you never know if you’ll get sent back out there.
Cardinals vs Ephmen
That’s probably why on this one Saturday up in Williamstown I gave up two touchdown passes in the last four minutes okay, and so even though we ring up 4 tds of our own, the Cardinals lose 35-28 thanks to me. How? They snuck a couple of curl-ins just across the goal line — hook patterns, I guess you’d call ’em today? Killed us. They’re very tough to defend – an offensive player running straight at you suddenly stops and turns back to a ball already in the air and coming straight at him. But no excuses, I cost us a big game. On one of the last weekends I’d ever play.
The prior spring I’d dropped out of college to live on kibbutz, a farm in Israel where the orchards and fields and dairy are all run as a socialist commune with everybody working together, dressing in the same blue work clothes and carrying no money ever. This is when I kind of stopped caring about the whole dog-eat-dog competition-first winning and losing thing that football seasons seem to thrive on.
My father said something very Samuel Beckett once. We were perusing the sports pages of the Detroit Free Press, a daily ritual morning noon or night, and pointing to the standings of our professional baseball, football, basketball and hockey teams, he explained, “You know, you can never make up a loss.”
The All-Important Loss Column
Sad but true. He was talking about the “all-important loss column.” Most wins win. Losers walk to the other end of the field when you play touch football and get scored upon. (Yes, the “wild card” now means additional statistics are tallied in addition to wins and losses in determining playoff teams.) But that discovery hit me hard as a youth.
And I really did feel horrible, letting my teammates down in giving up those two touchdowns in Williamstown. In fact I remember I didn’t even shower after the game, I just changed out of my uniform and left the locker room before anyone else quick as I could. I was near to sulking on the team bus before it headed back down the turnpike to Connecticut but something sent me wandering back to the gridiron. To perhaps just sit the stands and let whatever fading sunlight was left warm me.
The sod turned upside down all over the field seemed undisturbed as an abandoned battlefield. Except down at one end was a man playing with two kids. They may have been his sons, maybe a son with his friend. I don’t know, it didn’t matter. The man sent the two boys out for passes, one catching while the other defended. In his big thick New England sweater, jogging slightly to one side and pitching the pigskin forward into the end zone, he reminded me of my father. My brother catches it. I tackle him. We fall into the grass…Touchdown!
I shivered. The gloaming, right? Then came a warm tingle – one of those ineffable moments you get a few times in life if you’re lucky when everything connects past-present-future and you learn why exactly you’re doing the thing that you’re doing, no matter how you’re doing it, as long as you get to do it? (A Dylan line comes to mind, from 1974’s Blood On The Tracks: “Life is sad life is a bust, all you can do is do what you must/You do what you must do and you do it well…”)
Like on an acid trip where even though everyone tells you not to look in the mirror, you look in a mirror, and see your brother’s face and your father’s face and grandfather’s face and the entire history of your family’s face appear illuminated over yours in there, telling you the story of your life. Approaching death?
The next Saturday that fall was our last game and do I need to tell you? Of course I played just about the best I ever did, stealing two passes to tie the school interception record in a 44-0 drubbing of our cross-state rival, the Trinity (“Trin Trin”) Bantams in Hartford.
I guess this was a lot about wanting to remember my first coach. Thank you Dad. As I head toward dementia at possibly too early an age, never let it be said that football doesn’t teach wonderful lessons.
Enjoy the game, everybody!
* Peter Kostacopoulos recorded over 400 wins in 27 seasons as head baseball coach at Wesleyan.
** Anniversary edition of book about Packers vs Lions in 1963: http://www.amazon.com/Run-Daylight-Vince-Lombardis-Packers/dp/1476767173
***Amherst U. has changed its nickname: “Lord Jeff, as he is known here, lost the support of students who saw him as a symbol of white oppression for advocating the wiping out of Native Americans by giving them smallpox-infected blankets more than 250 years ago.” But the little cardinal continues to fly forever…
Stabler’s Brain: Oakland Raider QB Ken “the Snake” Stabler, who died at 69, with video and diagram:
A site for sore pro players: http://www.dignityafterfootball.org
END ZONE is a football novel by Don DeLillo from 1972 but I didn’t read it until I finished playing college ball and maybe you shouldn’t either: http://www.amazon.com/End-Zone-Don-DeLillo/dp/0140085688