My dad hated football and would always say to me whenever I was watching a game, "That's just like the Roman gladiator games. It's barbaric, bread and circuses stuff they feed the masses to keep them tame and in control."
I was a kid, so I would scoff at him and tell him he didn't know what he was missing, that it was a fabulous game with lots of action and excitement - America's game, for God sakes! - and there was nothing wrong with watching it.
Then I remember seeing the first serious (and sickening) injury that made me think "Hmm...maybe this game isn't so safe after all."
It was when Joe Thiesmann had his leg broken by Lawerence Taylor.
Taylor wasn't trying to hurt Theismann, it was a "clean hit" as they say on the TV that Taylor gave Theismann, but that didn't make the injury any less devastating:
Theismann's career ended on November 18, 1985 when he suffered a comminuted compound fracture of his leg while being sacked by New York Giants linebackers Lawrence Taylor and Harry Carson during a Monday Night Football game telecast at RFK Stadium in Washington, D.C. The injury was voted the NFL's "Most Shocking Moment in History" by viewers in an ESPN poll, and the tackle was dubbed "The Hit That No One Who Saw It Can Ever Forget" by The Washington Post.
At the time, the Redskins had been attempting to run a "flea-flicker" play. The Giants' defense, however, was not fooled, and they tried to blitz Theismann. As Taylor pulled Theismann down, Taylor's knee came down and drove straight into Theismann's lower right leg, fracturing both the tibia and the fibula. Giants linebackers Gary Reasons and Harry Carson then joined Taylor in the sack.
"The pain was unbelievable, it snapped like a breadstick. It sounded like two muzzled gunshots off my left shoulder. Pow, pow!" Theisman said during a 2005 interview. "It was at that point, I also found out what a magnificent machine the human body is. Almost immediately, from the knee down, all the feeling was gone in my right leg. The endorphins had kicked in, and I was not in pain."While initially only the players on the field could see the extent of the damage to Theismann's leg, the reverse-angle instant replay provided a clearer view of what had actually happened—Theismann's lower leg bones were broken midway between his knee and his ankle, such that his leg from his foot to his mid-shin was lying flat against the ground while the upper part of his shin up to his knee was at a 45-degree angle to the lower part of his leg.
It was after the Theismann injury that it suddenly occurred to me that maybe my dad wasn't far from wrong in his criticism of the game.
Nonetheless I continued watching games, enjoying them as many Americans do, with friends on a Sunday and Monday night.
But I paid more attention to the injuries and I could never shake that sick feeling in my stomach that I was watching and enjoying something unseemly.
I saw all the concussions Al Toon had, and the consequences of those concussions which the Daily News described as "sensitivity to light, irritability, the nausea and the lapses in concentration and memory were all part of a severe case of post-concussion syndrome from which the elder Toon was suffering, and which took three years to subside."
I saw Dennis Byrd partially paralyzed when he broke his neck during a Jets game in 1992.
It was after Byrd that I let go of any denial around football about "clean hits" or the football equipment keeping players safe from serious injury.
I continued to watch football for many years after those injuries, but I had a more difficult time rationalizing the whole thing as the years went on.
Finally about five years ago or so, I couldn't rationalize it anymore - there was simply too much evidence that men who played football were suffering life-long damage.
Joe Namath is just the latest player to announce he has brain damage from playing the game.
Late last year, this story surfaced:
Researchers have discovered signs of chronic traumatic encephalopathy, the crippling brain disease, in three NFL retirees, marking the second time on record that the degenerative neurological condition has been found in living players.
Pro Football Hall of Famers Tony Dorsett and Joe DeLamielleure, as well as former NFL All-Pro Leonard Marshall, tested positive for signs of the disease following three months of brain scans and clinical evaluations by researchers at UCLA. A fourth unidentified player was also tested, but his results have yet to be made available.
CTE, as the disease is known, is believed to stem from repeated blows to the head and has been linked to a variety of symptoms, such as memory loss, depression and dementia. The condition has been discovered in dozens of former football players, including San Diego Chargers linebacker Junior Seau and Pittsburgh Steelers center Mike Webster.
Until this year, CTE had never been found outside of an autopsy room, but in January researchers at UCLA announced a breakthrough. For the first time, they had used brain scans to identify the protein that causes CTE in five living former NFL players.
The discovery of a telltale sign of CTE in three more players comes as the NFL faces mounting questions about a connection between football and long-term brain damage. The controversy gained added attention in October when legendary Green Bay Packers quarterback Brett Favre joined a chorus of players who say they’ve experienced memory lapses they attribute to head injuries suffered in the NFL.
In an interview with FRONTLINE, DeLamielleure said that over his 12-year NFL career, he probably sustained “hundreds” of concussions. The former lineman for the Buffalo Bills said he was once “addicted to football,” but today he wrestles with sleeplessness, depression, and episodes of unexplainable anger.
“This is a job-related injury for me,” said DeLamielleure. “There’s no other way I got it. I didn’t go pounding my head into the wall. I didn’t do drugs. I didn’t drink. I didn’t get punched in the head one time. It’s from continuous hits to the head.”
I'm a bad American for this, I know, but I won't be watching football this weekend or any weekend in the future.
I now think my dad was right, football is the modern version of the Roman gladiator games, and really, the only way to watch it is to try and divorce yourself from the reality that many (if not all) of these players will suffer lifelong damage and injuries from playing football.
Guess I'll just have to find something else to do on Sunday when much of the rest of America is enjoying the Super Bowl.
UPDATE: Forgot to mention Dave Jennings, the former Giants and Jets punter, who died from complications related to Parkinson's disease last year.
Parkinson's disease has been linked to head trauma.