SETH HAYNES, 16, sophomore with Kingston HS (TN), broke his neck going for a tackle on the first play of the game on 10/18/13. He collapsed to the ground and was crying when head coach Brian Pankey reached him. Teammates hoped it was a stinger. Haynes underwent a 5 hour surgery to repair vertebrae in his neck, and was awake and talking afterward, able to move his hands and feet. His teammate, Daniel, said, “He’s the one that likes to joke and have fun.”—“Football Player Breaks Neck”, WVLT Local8now.com 10/21/13, Casey Wheeless.
“X’s and O’s (A Football Love Story)” is a multi-leveled, kaleidoscopic play co-authored by KJ Sanchez and Jenny Mercein (daughter of ex-NFLer Chuck Mercein), and directed by Tony Taccone at Berkeley Rep (through 3/1/15). Based on exhaustive sociological research and interviews with ex-players and their wives and families, it tackles all of football’s pressing issues head-on, informing and educating in a highly entertaining and dramatic way. It examines America’s increasingly conflicted relationship to the sport so deeply enmeshed in our culture and the fabric of who we are. There’s an engaging blend of monologues and dialogues, differing perspectives and debates, along with illustrative visuals and game footage, covering the medical, financial and racial issues surrounding the sport. Greater weight is brought to the proceedings by ex-49er and 2-time Super Bowl champion Dwight Hicks, now an experienced actor, who has dealt with many of the related issues in reality.—Personal attendance at the play on 1/21/15.
FUZZY THURSTON, 80, guard with the Baltimore Colts and Green Bay, 1958-67, died on 12/14/14 after suffering from Alzheimer’s and cancer. The 6-time NFL champion was a pulling guard on one of football’s most famous plays, the Packers power sweep under head coach Vince Lombardi. Born in Altoona, WI, his laborer father died when Fuzzy was 2. His mother, Marie, struggled to support the family and sent Fuzzy to live with an aunt in Florida for a time. He attended Valparaiso on a basketball scholarship and did not play football till his junior year. Long a popular figure in Green Bay, after his playing days he owned a chain of taverns around Wisconsin. Fuzzy’s #63 Bar & Grill in Green Bay remains a gathering spot for Packer fans.—“Fuzzy Thurston, Big Broom in the Packers’ Great Sweep Play, Dies at 80”, NY Times 12/15/14, Bruce Weber.
Boston University neuropathologist Ann McKee says that brain damage can lead to amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS), a disease that strikes 1 in 100,000 people in the general population, slowly destroys muscles, and usually leads to death by respiratory failure. McKee says toxic proteins that form after brain trauma and lead to depression and dementia may also cause ALS. HBO Real Sports said it is aware of 14 NFL retirees afflicted with ALS, also known as Lou Gehrig’s Disease. At least 8 Canadian Football League players have been diagnosed with the disease.—“Boston University study by Ann McKee finds link between concussions and Lou Gehrig’s Disease”, NYdailynews.com 8/17/10, Michael O’Keefe.
TOMMY MASON, 75, running back with Minnesota, LA Rams and Washington, 1961-71, died on 1/22/15. The first draft pick in Vikings history suffered multiple concussions during his career and was part of the “88 Plan,” a program that provides up to $88,000 per year for care for former players suffering from dementia or Alzheimer’s.—SF Chronicle 1/23/15, AP.
Twenty-four high school football players between 16 and 18 years old who had never had a concussion wore helmet-mounted accelerometers, which tracked how often and how hard they were hit, during every practice and game. Based on this data, the players were divided into 2 groups, 9 heavy hitters and 15 light hitters. Using an advanced brain imaging technique known as diffusion tensor imaging (DTI), researchers looked for changes in the white matter of the players’ brains. White matter is made up of millions of nerve fibers that act like communication cables connecting various parts of the brain. DTI measures the movement of water along these nerve fibers, known as fractional anisotropy (FA). In a healthy brain, the movement of water is even and has high FA. More random water movement and a drop in FA suggest brain abnormalities. Although none of the players sustained a concussion, by the end of the season the players in the heavy-hitter group had more significant decreases in FA in certain parts of the brain than those in the light-hitter group. It is not now known if these effects heal over time, such as a bruise on the arm, or if there are permanent long-term effects. Dr. Christopher Whitlow of Wake Forest Baptist Medical Center is the study’s author.—“High School Football Tied to Brain Changes, Even Without Concussion”, HealthDay.com 12/1/14, Mary Elizabeth Dallas.
Mike Ditka, who spent 35 years as player and coach in the NFL, said he wouldn’t want his child to play football. “I wouldn’t. And my whole life was football. I think the risk is worse than the reward. I really do.” A 2014 Bloomberg survey found that 50 percent of Americans don’t want their children to play football. Ditka also confirmed to Bryant Gumbel of HBO that drugs were “plentiful” during his time in the NFL. Gumbel would also not want his child to play football.—“NFL Hall Of Famer Mike Ditka: I Wouldn’t Want My Child To Play Football”, Huffington Post 1/18/15, Maxwell Strachan.
DOUG CUNNINGHAM, 69, running back with San Francisco and Washington, 1967-74, died on 1/13/15 from complications of dementia in Jackson, MS. A fine runner with blazing speed and shifty moves, he’s a member of both the Ole Miss and Mississippi Sports Halls of Fame.—“Ex-49ers running back Doug Cunningham dies in hospital at 69”, SF Examiner 1/14/15, AP.
PAUL FARRELL, 17, center with Blake HS (MD), was temporarily paralyzed when he collided with 2 players during a kick return in a game on 10/25/13 and fell flat on his back, hitting his cerebellum on the ground. “Waking up it was terrible. I saw a pitch black atmosphere. I had trouble…breathing.” Head coach, Tony Nazarro, held his hand, but knew that Farrell could not feel it. He spent a month in the hospital and thought he would never walk again. He was told by doctors that he could never play contact sports again because another hit could further damage his spinal cord and result in permanent paralysis. Farrell was able to walk one month later and became an assistant coach with the team.—“Blake player learns to coach after injury”, WUSA.com 10/10/14, Diane Roberts & Allison Frick.
Including playoffs, some San Francisco Bay Area high school football teams play 16 games, the equivalent of a full NFL regular season schedule. Many others, depending on when they’re eliminated in the playoffs, play 13 to 15 games, as many as many college teams.