Tony Bianco: “How I Got Here”
My name is Tony Bianco and I was born in 1951 in New Brunswick, New Jersey, where the first intercollegiate football game was played on November 6, 1869, with my hometown school Rutgers defeating Princeton, 6-4. My father, a Sicilian immigrant, taught me this historical fact and would periodically quiz me to make sure I had it. At 6 we moved to where my mother’s family lived in Binghamton, NY, where I became a NY Giants fan, “the greatest game ever played” being the first one I remember: Baltimore Colts 23 – Giants 17 in sudden death overtime at Yankee Stadium on the last day of 1958, watched on black and white TV with all the family’s males up Uncle Duane’s apartment. By this time I’d managed to break my left collarbone twice, once on a fall down the stairs in NJ and then in Bingo after having my skinny frame tackled and trapped beneath a pile of older, bulkier cousins. Though I didn’t know it at the time, that could’ve been my lucky break. My doctor, noting the repeat fractures in fairly close succession at such a young age, decreed to my parents that I should never play organized football, and I never did. Of course I played disorganized football, pickup games wherever the guys were playing, which, without helmets and pads, could be even more dangerous in their way. I managed to make it through the rest of my football youth with only a dislocated pinky.
As I grew up, tall and thin, basketball became my main sport, and I was exceptionally fortunate to be able to play for half a century, whereas I never played football beyond the age of 20. Still, football occupied a special place in my life till I was 60. Football was there every fall and winter, as natural as the changing seasons, as I began to work, as I went to Villanova a year, as I hitchhiked to California, met my wife in San Francisco, hitchhiked back with her to live in NYC a couple years; football was there through the (off-season) births and upbringing of our 2 daughters in SF, through my 10 years working for the U.S. Government and 5 with Ma Bell and 9 with Thomson West and 2 with Western Union, and several other jobs that stitched my adult life together; a steady companion with a special compartment in my mind, it was there through the 33 units I earned at night at City College of San Francisco (a national champion junior college football power), through the deaths of my parents and the births of 7 grandkids, 4 of whom are boys.
The paralysis of New England wide receiver Darryl Stingley in Oakland in 1978 had a big impact on me for several reasons. I identified and empathized with him because receiver was my favorite position, and, unlike most fans, I never liked the big layout hit on receivers looking back for the ball, now properly termed “defenseless.” I also knew of Oakland owner Al Davis’s monetary rewards for vicious hits, epitomized by the perpetrator in this case, Jack Tatum. And in a preseason game, which somehow made it worse. Because it happened close to home in the Bay Area, I absorbed a lot of media coverage. When I later learned that New England had no team representative with Stingley at the hospital, I couldn’t believe it. I began to learn that it was a cold, hard business, not just a game. To leave a man like that. But, for the most part, the impact, deep though it was, gradually wore off. 27 years old with a couple decades of football programmed into me, I submerged my conflicted feelings and continued to be a fan. Looking back, I’m not proud of it.
Though as an adult I was a fan of the game and held no allegiance to one team, living in SF and experiencing the tribalistic atmosphere during five 49er Super Bowl victories from 1982-95 cemented me in more firmly as a fan, part of the ritual. Almost exclusively a TV fan, I can remember attending only one regular season and one playoff game at Candlestick. Except for the really big hits shown up close, TV can cushion you from the routine violence, mute it somehow, desensitize you to its cumulative effects, make them appear tolerable to the human body. While TV can take you inside the game in some ways, it can also detach, dilute and deceive. There was a disturbing viewing experience on 10/22/89 when New England running back John Stephens and SF strong safety Jeff Fuller collided helmet-to-helmet, leaving Fuller on the turf in what would be his last play. Beyond the concussion he suffered, he would end up partially paralyzed on his right side, never able to use his right hand normally despite several operations. At first I selfishly hoped he would get up so the game could continue and I could see more football. My concern for Fuller as a person was secondary, until it became clear that this was serious. Though I can’t defend my selfishness and greed for more action, at least I stayed with the traumatic event and felt it, instead of changing channels to another game.
Along the way there were the paralyses of Utley and Byrd in 1991 and 1992, respectively, the ’94 Sports Illustrated (SI) article about the “silent epidemic of concussions” in the NFL, the 2001 SI “Wrecking Yard” study of 870 players revealing that 65% had suffered a major injury, the heat-related death of Korey Stringer a few months later, and the breakthrough discovery in 2002 that the brain of deceased 4-time Super Bowl champion Mike Webster had been confirmed to have a newly-named degenerative disease, Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy (CTE). As fan and SI reader, I knew about all of the above, at least to some degree, but while it gave me pause (especially the paralyses), it did not steer me from my steady and straight course of being a fan. Though this is no excuse, one theory I can put forth as to why is that the events cited were spaced far enough apart that their cumulative effect did not sufficiently move me. Maybe a better theory is that I didn’t want to put them together, didn’t want to be moved. If I condemn the NFL for concealing and denying what they knew about the dangers of the game—and I do—then I must condemn myself for, in a sense, doing the same thing on my own lowly level as a fan, so as not to disturb my ongoing pleasure. Both of us were motivated by greed: The NFL for money and power, and I for more football excitement.
My Catholic-bred sense of morality and ethics were far outweighed by my lust for the game, the thrilling spectacle of it all, the connection to a nation of like-minded fans. Though my qualms were increasing, justification for being a fan against mounting evidence of the game’s excessive and widespread damage and carnage was appallingly easy. “They’re grown men, well-paid and doing it of their own free will. They get lots of fame and glory, numerous business opportunities because of their status, not to mention the women.” (Of course, a convincing argument can be made against each one of these reasons.) I admired their toughness, endurance and ability to play through pain, all at levels way beyond what was required of me in my office jobs and regular family life. While growing up and frequently looking at life through the lens of football, I viewed pain endured as a necessary part of the progression toward manhood. Being very vicarious by nature, I took strength from these guys, felt macho tough by association. Talking about their toughness, constantly endorsing their heroic exploits, somehow made me feel tougher. (Though growing up I watched equal parts pro and college, with a little high school on the side, as an adult 90% of my viewing and following focused on the pros.)
Around late 2006, based on numerous articles I’d read and collected, I decided to write a play about an ex-pro running back who’s dropped out of sight and is rumored to be suffering from post-concussion syndrome and living in an urban homeless encampment. A sportswriter who’d covered him in his heyday and become a friend, decides to find and help him by raising money in connection with a published article on his situation. As I immersed myself in the physical, medical, psychological and financial problems faced by a wide array of ex-players, many of whom I respected greatly, they became less abstract, no longer TV images and names called on radio, and much more real. Outside of a couple ex-NFL players I encountered playing street basketball, these were men I’d never met but was definitely connected to by bearing witness to their skills and performances. Even though I didn’t know them, I knew them. After all, they performed for me as much as any other paying TV fan. My interest in them helped sustain them as they received my endorsements in conversations with others, fans and non-fans alike, and even my criticisms constituted free publicity and indirectly helped to perpetuate their freedom to practice their craft for pay–and I could talk football with a passion. There was a virtual relationship there: We needed each other. If no one watches, listens, somehow follows, there are no games and therefore no pay. Then it has to follow that when a player is seriously injured, brain-damaged, paralyzed, or killed, I have to share in the responsibility, no matter how small my portion.
As I continued to write, the man whose paralysis had periodically haunted me returned to my full consciousness when Darryl Stingley died on 4/5/07 at 55. Andre ‘Dirty’ Waters had committed suicide at 44 in November 2006. If he was dirty, could I be totally clean? I remember telling a colleague at work, “They say he had financial problems down in Florida.” To which he said, “Sure, but is that any reason to kill yourself?” To which I could only shrug. It’s now embarrassing to admit that I couldn’t make the connection to CTE, or even suspect it as a factor. If I, a concerned fan who was educating himself and beginning to write on a directly related topic, didn’t know, what about the average fan who mainly cared about players for fantasy league and gambling purposes? Fantasy Football is a telling term in this whole issue. Problem is, Reality Football ruins it, demolishes it worse than a blindside hit. Kevin Everett was temporarily paralyzed in September 2007, his mobility miraculously, eventually restored, the on-field treatment using experimental cold therapy having played a large part. Reality Football.
“Whatever you do, don’t let him play football.” I spoke those words in 2010 after an exciting playoff game, still very much naturally high from the game (no drink or recreational drugs since ’77), the last ones spoken to my son-in-law at the end of a discussion about his son’s, my grandson’s, first experiences with youth sports, soccer and basketball. Football got me high, indeed, as I yelled and announced the game, provided additional crowd noise, called mock signals and audibles, lined up in 3- and 4-point stances, fired out as I acted out plays in my living room, diving on the couch, falling to the floor, tossing short sideline routes to myself with a real ball, keeping the toes in, sacking my wife onto the bed if she happened by, mimicking players’ movements and mannerisms, lining up with my arm swinging as I prepared for the game-deciding field goal, a full-out immersion in the theatrics of the game—the fun I had a major reason it took so blasted long to kick the habit. High as I was, those words had a loud resonance. If I said them with such strong conviction out of concern for someone I love, then they must sum up my real, bottom-line assessment of the sport: It’s just too damn dangerous.
So that was that. I clearly and definitively knew my feelings now. I’d read the comparisons to the colosseum many times, even used by several players themselves, and who could know better? Sadism with a side order of masochism, death was involved in this dirty business, just as in Rome, only it was often painfully slower and almost always kept out of sight. When I say ‘business’ I refer not only to the NFL, but other pro leagues, college (which, of course, is pro football), high school and youth football, because the League with its incessant promotional machine is the driving force keeping football in the forefront of American consciousness and creating desire in young males to enlist in the business’s multilevel developmental apparatus, which is essentially at no cost to the League. Like a player who should now know better, I shook off big hits and serious injuries to forge through the 2011 season, despite Dave Duerson’s suicide in February 2011, despite knowing that he’d shot himself in the chest intentionally to preserve his brain for examination—no doubt about CTE this time. Despite John Mackey’s death in July 2011 after a long, tragic decline caused by dementia. Mackey, a player, a union leader, a man I admired as much as any I’d witnessed. (That run after catch against Pittsburgh, almost superhuman in his refusal to go down as nearly every defender on the field took a shot at him.)
Addiction is not too strong a word. You put that on top of cultural indoctrination and mass societal approval, which are part of the addiction, and it takes considerable strength to overcome. Imbued by it all, pushed forward by the constantly renewable energy of the machine, I kept going in the same direction I’d always gone. How do you end it? People who knew me knew football was a part of me, an integral facet of my identity and enthusiasm for sport and life. I would have to swear it off publicly, disavow, explain myself. There could be friction with those still inside the church, maybe even a sense of betrayal. The analogy is not far-fetched, especially since football fervor is almost religious—maybe even more transcendent and important in many ways for many people.
Junior Seau committed suicide by shooting himself in the chest in May 2012—that was it. A former 20-year veteran beloved by millions, his intensity, desire and all-out effort epitomized what football should be about. Something larger died with him. In a radio interview, former NFL quarterback Sean Salisbury, a close friend, spoke passionately about his loss and that of Junior’s family, about his guilt at having not reached out far enough, about how much love and goodwill Junior had spread, how he would hug and kiss player-friends he hadn’t seen in a while—and on the lips. His death sent shockwaves throughout the league and spurred many ex-players to call helplines: “I think I’m OK, but now I’m not so sure…If it can happen to Junior…” This was the tone of those calls. A critical mass had been reached and I could not support the sheer weight of it all taken together. Ethically. Morally. I could no longer endorse the game with my words and actions.
Seau’s death emphasizes a recurrent theme that emerged in the preparation of this website: Devastation of not only the players but their family and friends, especially the mothers and wives, who tend to store more of the family’s pain and grief (not to minimize the impact on men). Whether young boys, teen boys and young men play football is substantially a women’s issue, especially since 45% of NFL fans are women. The NFL knows that if mothers continue to say no to letting their sons play at the current increasing rate, the league will be hurt financially as youth interest decreases, as the game’s stature and importance declines, and eventually from a diminishing pool of available players. This is why the league is targeting mothers, soliciting them to physically participate in demonstrations of programs like Heads Up tackling, trying to convince them that football is safe and fun. Of course there’s fun, but it will never be safe, no matter how many times commissioner Roger Goodell says, “We’re doing everything possible to make the game even safer”—not “less dangerous,” which would be much more accurate. Malcolm Gladwell says the game will become increasingly ghettoized as educated, affluent parents steer their sons away from the brutality of football to other sports and activities, leaving only poorer families willing to take the risk out of financial need.
So that’s how I got here, an outline of who I am, and have been, in relation to football. It’s been a complicated metamorphosis from fervent fan to fan to non-fan to opponent of the game. When I first talked about this change in my life, I would often begin sentences with, “I know it’s a great game, but…” I no longer believe that introductory phrase. It cannot be a great game if it causes death, suicide, paralysis, brain and neck and spinal injuries, dementia, CTE, ALS, Parkinson’s, along with other major injuries in numbers and degrees far beyond the reasonable level of acceptable risk of the other main sports combined. It cannot be a great game if those in authority at many levels of the game use, misuse and abuse male bodies, often beyond human limits, and then discard them—and then refuse to give them disability compensation and proper medical coverage for their extreme sacrifice—and then fight them with an overwhelming legal arsenal backed by a limitless supply of money, which wouldn’t exist without those same players, fight them in many cases to their deaths. “Delay, deny and hope they die,” is how ex-Minnesota Viking Brent Boyd described the NFL’s approach to disability and monetary claims from ex-players. It cannot be a great game when many players need drugs to make it from game to game, and often to get through any given game, frequently pressured by management to take them and play injured (most everyone is injured most all of the time) to keep their jobs, drugs often dispensed illegally by trainers and not doctors, addicting some players who sometimes don’t realize they’re addicted till they leave the game and the steady supply stops, ruining their lives and, by extension, those of family members. The totality is insupportable.
And this is without even considering the off-field condemnable actions, extensions of the game’s violence, some of it attributable to reduced impulse control connected to different degrees of brain damage suffered on-field, plus alcohol and drug and steroid use, amongst an array of complicated social factors. Aaron Hernandez, Jovan Belcher, Anthony Wayne Smith, Rae Carruth, Darren Sharper, Josh Brent, Michael Vick, “Pac Man” Jones, Plaxico Burress, Ray Rice, Adrian Peterson…A whole separate website could be created around the issues of NFL-related violence, domestic violence, child abuse, sexual assaults, various other felony assaults, public and private endangerment with weapons, stalking, DUIs and intoxication manslaughter, animal killing and cruelty.
The mayhem continues. George Montgomery, 43, running back with Arizona State, 1989-93, committed suicide by shooting himself at the end of July 2014 and was found to have CTE. Kosta Karageorge, 20, offensive lineman with Ohio State, committed suicide the same way at the end of November 2014 after having told his mother that his head was “messed up from concussions.” Adrian Robinson, 25, linebacker with Pittsburgh, Denver, San Diego and Washington, 2012-13, committed suicide by hanging on 5/16/15 in Philadelphia. Herschel Walker, 53, running back with Dallas, Minnesota, Philadelphia, and NY Giants, 1986-97, has said that he played Russian Roulette with a loaded gun more than once.
I’ve heard it said that if any parent directly subjected her or his son to the physical, and sometimes mental, abuse he will endure in football, that parent would be guilty of child abuse. As for high school and college football, is the purpose of learning institutions to enhance the brain or damage it? The most detailed study of a high school team I’ve come across, by Purdue University, found that up to half of the 21 players’ brains tested at the end of a season had brain areas that no longer functioned (as compared with MRIs done before the season)—and none of these players had been diagnosed with a concussion during that season. College football has more concussions than any sport.
The range of available information and the full extent of it is staggering, almost beyond comprehension. Every player’s story, every study and survey seems to lead to yet more stories and occurrences, more important and relevant information. Danger is always lurking, building constantly, percolating beneath the surface, endless. For example, Navy running back Will McKamey died of a traumatic brain injury in spring football 2014, and just before that Cal lineman Ted Agu died in February 2014 after “an extraordinary” team training run. Off-season deaths.
I’ve tried my best to assemble and summarize a representative body of factual work based on reliable sources, most of them established news organizations, major universities, research institutions and the like. I used Wikipedia for pro and college player particulars, such as age, teams played for and which years. I’ve credited my main sources for each player story and the institutions that did the studies and surveys.
If I had the power to pass one law, I would make the New York Times video on high school player Kort Breckenridge required viewing for all parents considering allowing a son to play football, and for those who already have sons playing–and this is a story with a relatively happy ending.