'Intelligent discontent is the mainspring of civilization.' -- Eugene V. Debs

Monday, January 22, 2007

Life after the NFL 

Back in my youth, I watched a lot of football games. I saw many NFL games involving the great teams of the 1970s, the Pittsburgh Steelers, the Oakland Raiders, the Dallas Cowboys, the Minnesota Vikings, the Los Angeles Rams. With the passage of time, I grew increasingly disinterested, only watching games periodically as the great 49er dynasty of the 1980s and early 1990s faded into history. One of the most concealed aspects of the game is its brutality, the permanent consequences for those who play it most intensely at the professional level.

A few weeks ago, fans of the 49ers marked the 25th anniversary of "the Catch", the last second touchdown in the corner of the end zone that sent the 49ers on their way to 5 Super Bowl victories over 14 years. But, as described by the San Francisco Chronicle today, there was a dark side to this victory:

On the most famous play in 49ers history, amid the din at raucous Candlestick Park, Joe Montana raced to his right and hurriedly scanned the field. He backpedaled to elude three onrushing Dallas players, twice pumped his arm to throw and floated an off-balance pass into the back of the end zone.

Dwight Clark had cut to the middle before abruptly reversing direction. Clark sprinted toward the corner, leaped high, reached both arms above his head and made The Catch, forever cementing his place in 49ers lore.

Twenty-five years later, Montana's left knee is essentially shredded. His right eye occasionally sags from nerve damage. His neck is so stiff, he could not turn his head to look at a reporter asking him questions while he signed memorabilia. Montana, 50, turned both shoulders instead.

Clark, also 50, endures sharp pain every time he lifts his arms above his head -- the exact motion he effortlessly completed on The Catch -- because of a bent screw in his left shoulder and arthritis in his right shoulder. The simple act of turning his head also is a chore, thanks to all those jarring hits on crossing patterns over the middle.

"I hurt," Clark said, "from getting my head squashed down into my neck."

Ron Kroichick, the writer, relates several other alarming individual stories:

Jim Stuckey hardly resembled a broken-down man on Jan. 10, 1982. Soon after The Catch, Stuckey -- then a spry, curly-haired, 23-year-old defensive end -- pounced on Cowboys quarterback Danny White's fumble to preserve San Francisco's 28-27 triumph in the NFC Championship Game.

Stuckey once went on injured reserve with a sprained knee, but he had no surgeries during his seven-year NFL career. He was not as fortunate once he retired from the game -- his left knee steadily deteriorated because of degenerative joint disorder, leading to three operations.

Before long, Stuckey could not bend down to pick up his 2-year-old daughter or lift his left leg high enough to pedal a bike. Stuckey's doctor tried to persuade him to wait on knee-replacement surgery (an artificial knee typically lasts 10-to-20 years), but Stuckey insisted.

He had the operation in October 2000, at age 42. The doctor who performed the surgery said Stuckey had the equivalent of an 85-year-old knee.

"I was 42 and I couldn't do anything," he said. "Hopefully, by the time this (artificial knee) wears out, they'll invent some way to replace integral parts of the knee rather than the whole knee."

Keith Fahnhorst has a more fundamental wish: standing up straight. Fahnhorst, a mainstay on the 49ers' offensive line in the 1970s and '80s, stood tall at 6-foot-6 in 1981, but now he walks hunched over because of spinal stenosis and degeneration of the disks in his neck and back.

Fahnhorst, 54, also totes routine baggage for a longtime offensive lineman: worn, bent hands from years of grappling along the line of scrimmage. Fahnhorst said his left thumb and forefinger remain numb to this day, as they remind him every time he tries to button his shirt.

But the most publicly known extreme instance of the brutality of the game is the tragic story of 1970s Pittsburgh Steelers center Mike Webster:

Mike Webster never made it to his son's 10th birthday party in Lodi, Wis. Lying in a dark room at the Budgetel Inn, some 20 minutes away in Madison, he was bed-bound in a haze of pain and narcotics, a bucket of vomit by his side.

When his playing days were over, Mike Webster barely resembled the man they called Iron Mike.

Webster was often laced with a varying, numbing cocktail of medications: Ritalin or Dexedrine to keep him calm. Paxil to ease anxiety. Prozac to ward off depression. Klonopin to prevent seizures. Vicodin or Ultram or Darvocet or Lorcet, in various combinations, to subdue the general ache. And Eldepryl, commonly prescribed to patients who suffer from Parkinson's disease.

After 17 seasons in the National Football League, Webster had lost any semblance of control over his once-invincible body. His brain showed signs of dementia. His head throbbed constantly. He suffered from significant hearing loss. Three lumbar vertebrae and two cervical vertebrae ached from frayed and herniated discs. A chronically damaged right heel caused him to limp. His right shoulder was sore from a torn rotator cuff. His right elbow grew stiff from once being dislocated. His knees, the cartilage in them all but gone, creaked from years of bone grinding against bone. His knuckles were scarred and swollen. His fingers bent gruesomely wayward.

"He was too sick to come to my birthday party. He didn't even call me and I was mad," Garrett Webster remembered recently. "Now, I understand that there was something wrong."

Ten years later, there is only a faint strain of resentment in his voice. His father, the celebrated Hall of Fame center for the Pittsburgh Steelers, is gone now. Still, the mental snapshots, those harrowing memories, persist of the stoic man they called Iron Mike:

Desperate for a few moments of peace from the acute pain, repeatedly stunning himself, sometimes a dozen times, into unconsciousness with a black Taser gun. "The only way he could get to sleep," said Garrett.

Glassy-eyed like a punch-drunk boxer, huddled alone, staring into space night after night at the Amtrak station in downtown Pittsburgh. "Living on potato chips and dry cereal," said Joe Gordon, a Steelers employee.

A formidable man, at 6-foot-2 and 250 pounds, who sometimes forgot to eat for days -- sleeping in his battered, black Chevy S-10 pickup truck, a garbage bag duct-taped over the missing window. "Sometimes he didn't seem to care," said Sunny Jani, the primary caregiver the last six years of his life.

Writing wandering journals in a cramped, earnest hand so convoluted in their spare eloquence that, upon reading them in his lucid moments, he would be moved to weep. "You had absolutely no idea what was going through his mind," said Colin, his oldest son.

The powerfully proud former athlete, anguished and curled up in a fetal position for three or four days, puzzling over his life, contemplating suicide and, in later years, placing those sad, rambling calls, almost daily in the later years, to friends and family when he couldn't find his way home. "All I see is trees," he'd say apologetically, almost in a whisper.

As summarized in the wikipedia entry about Webster:

It is universally believed that Webster's ailments were the result of damage sustained over his playing career, and some doctors estimated he had been in the equivalent of "25,000 automobile crashes" in over 35 years of playing football at various levels. Protective equipment, in particular helmets, was inferior during Webster's time, and defensive players sometimes employed a "head slap" move that was then accepted although illegal.

Webster's nightmarish post-football life suggests something in addition to the physical destructiveness of the game, the possibility that teams manipulate mentally disordered people to play it:

Barret Robbins may be lonely, but he is not alone in his hospital room. At his bedside lurks the two-headed monster of manic depression. Heavily sedated, stricken with pneumonia and breathing with the help of a ventilator, the massive former pro football player struggles for every breath and, silently, his sanity.

Two years after going AWOL before Super Bowl XXXVII, the off-center former Oakland Raiders lineman is back in a hospital again — with an armed police officer outside his door. If he is fortunate, he will live to again confront his bipolar disorder in hopes of conquering mania and depression, demons exacerbated by his self-medicating use of alcohol and drugs.

This is a tragic story filled with turmoil, heartbreak — and a family's hope for a loved one tormented by the invisible pain of mental illness. In 2003, two days before the most important game of his life, Robbins went on a drinking binge in Tijuana, Mexico, that left him in a psychiatric ward and under a suicide watch on Super Bowl Sunday.

Nineteen days ago, disturbed by a dissolving marriage and his wife's restraining order, the 6-3, 360-pound native Texan was found by police hiding in a women's restroom. In a bizarre confrontation with three officers, the burly 31-year-old was shot in the heart and in a lung. He faces three felony attempted murder charges, punishable by as much as life in prison. His attorney says an insanity defense is appropriate, if needed.

Manic depression is an incurable mood disorder that is treatable with medication — prescriptions that friends and family say Robbins failed to take during his long nights of partying along a strip of bars and trendy clubs in South Beach.

Robbins was fortunate enough to be placed on probation:

Under a plea agreement, Robbins pled guilty to five charges, including the attempted murder charge, and was sentenced to five years probation, ordered to receive treatment for his bipolar disorder, and to avoid alcohol.

There is something perverse about this sport, and one wonders if, centuries from now (or, perhaps, just decades?), it will be considered akin to bear baiting in terms of its depravity. If so, that still leaves the troubling question as to why the sport has been so alluring for so long. What disturbing feature of human nature is brought to the surface and revealed by it?

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