September 2012, Week 4


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Fri, 28 Sep 2012 23:51:31 -0400
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A Journey to the End of Football

The cradle of quarterbacks in the age of concussions.

Rich Cohen
September 14, 2012
The New Republic

professional football player, paid $500 to man the line
for the Allegheny Athletic Club in Pittsburgh's
Recreation Park. That game, played on November 12, 1892,
was just a scrum in the mud, less sport than brawl. You
took an elbow, spit some teeth, drove on. But who will
be the last pro, the last man to stand in the locker-
room line awaiting his greenies, Toradol, and shots of

Not long ago, such a question would've marked me as a
hysteric, but recent studies into the long-term effects
of the game have given even the most stolid football
fans pause. Professional football, the closest thing we
have to a national pastime-the NFL brings in $9 billion
a year-is on a kind of precipice, with stories about
medical issues suddenly competing for newspaper inches
with the games themselves. It's a dangerous moment, peak
oil time, when, in the nightmare scenario, revenues
spike, spike again, then vanish. By now, even casual
fans can name competitors felled by chronic traumatic
encephalopathy, the Alzheimer's-like disease that's been
found in athletes as young as 17: Mike Webster, the Hall
of Fame Steelers center who spent his last years in a
fog, living in his car; Andre Waters, the Eagles safety,
who, like other NFL veterans, became confused in
retirement, depressed, erratic. He shot himself in the
head in 2006. Dave Duerson, the Bears safety who,
reporting similar symptoms, shot himself in the chest in
2011. In his suicide note, Duerson said he wanted to
preserve his brain for the brain bank at Boston
University, where doctors have pioneered the study of
chronic traumatic encephalopathy.

The worry is not just that people will stop watching the
game-it's that parents will stop letting their kids
play, starving the league of talent. Speaking on "The
Tonight Show," Terry Bradshaw, the great Steelers
quarterback, predicted the demise of football, saying if
he had a son, he would not let him sign up. "The fear of
them getting these head injuries," he explained, "it's
just too great for me." Something similar happened to
boxing, which was once the biggest sport in the United
States. But the country evolved away from the ring,
until boxing became a mirror of its own saddest
character, the nobody, the palooka, the bum.

I did not play tackle football and won't let my sons
play, in part because I fear my Grandma Esther was
right: It will rattle your brains. But I love to watch,
the nastier the better. It's a guilty pleasure that
ranks me with those hawks who dodged the draft a
generation ago. I do play hockey, as do my sons, but
hitting is not the aim of hockey-it's a tactic. In
football, the ball can seem incidental. I like it when
you hit a guy just right ... shake him up so bad you see
little snot bubbles, as Brian Bosworth said. The NFL can
pass as many rules to protect players as it wants, but
the blindside knockout will remain paramount. "We've
proven we have this in teenagers who are getting this
from high school football or youth football," Chris
Nowinski, the former Harvard football player who started
working with the brain bank after suffering post-
concussion syndrome, told me. "The day we can diagnose
them while they're alive will be a day we'll have to ask
the world, `What percentage of kids is allowable to have
this disease from playing a sport?' I challenge anyone
to make that number higher than zero."

As autumn approached, I decided to take a trip to pro
football country, the cradle of the game, a stretch that
begins west of Hershey Park, Pennsylvania, in Carlisle,
where Jim Thorpe played college ball, and runs to
Decatur, Illinois, where George Halas drilled his first
squad, the house team of Staley starch, which would
become the Chicago Bears. I'd become conflicted about my
love of the game. My favorite team has long been the
1985 Bears, which featured the most brutal defense in
NFL history. But as the findings have come in from
Boston, my pleasure has kinked and complicated. By
returning to the sport's early, sacred sites, I hoped to
reconnect with the mythic superstructure of the game,
and test my faith in football.

STARTING IN CONNECTICUT, I followed Interstate 87 west
across the Tappan Zee Bridge, then headed into New
Jersey, Springsteen country, warehouses and weeds
drifting across my windows. If you listen to early and
then mid-Springsteen, you will notice how the amusement
parks of youth turn into the factories where you spend
the rest of your life; how, like a trick in an old
movie, the Ferris wheel dissolves into "the machines and
the spires," the foundry's fiery dynamo. You might
imagine sports being developed on farms or in country
towns, but pro football was popular in the big towns
from the start, its field following the contours of two
things that define modern life: the city block and the
TV screen. Many of the first professionals were miners,
mill towners, dead-end boys. Most began playing
primitive variations of the game on abandoned plots, in
the scrub grass between the factory sheds. Red Grange,
who delivered ice in the summer, humping hundred-pound
blocks up apartment house stairs in Wheaton, Illinois,
said his first taste came with a Sharks and Minnows-like
game, dodging tacklers in vacant lots, racing for the
distant sidewalks. Whereas baseball is a collection of
ancient customs, with a complicated evolutionary
history, football must have started with two big kids
seeing just who could push whom across the grass.
(According to lore, the game began at England's Rugby
School in 1823, when a soccer player, frustrated by slow
progress, picked up the ball and ran.)

The Pennsylvania Turnpike goes right by Carlisle, but
the tollbooth operator had never heard of Jim Thorpe or
the school he made famous early last century. Thorpe was
16 when he enrolled-it was called the Carlisle Indian
Industrial School then, a Dickensian setup meant to
prepare Native Americans for a life in the machine
trades. It's where Thorpe carried his first football,
began to sprint, hurdle, throw the javelin. Many still
consider him the best athlete the United States has ever
produced. The school is a military base now. At the
entrance to the gym, I stood before a statue of Thorpe,
Greek in style, the athlete holding a discus as a lesser
man might hold a remote control. He was ruddy, with
pocked face and coarse hair, and a body that went to
seed in his middle years, but pictures at Carlisle show
him in his youth, dark-eyed and strong, seated with
young Native Americans a generation removed from Sitting

The stadium where Thorpe played survives, a grassy field
overlooked by a grandstand of the old looming
variety-you half expect to see a tycoon in spats leading
Little Lord Fauntleroy to seats by the rail. White men
filled the bleachers on Saturday afternoons, excited to
watch Indian teams fight, a spectacle that, a few
decades before, could only be seen in a Wild West show
or in an actual battle. Across from the field is a house
identified as the former residence of Glenn "Pop"
Warner, one of football's founding fathers. Thorpe was
the star of the first great pro team, the Canton
Bulldogs; he was also the NFL's original commissioner.
He gave the league a uniquely American identity: Whereas
baseball descended from fey British games like rounders,
pro football began with a big Indian gamboling across a
field, not unlike the fields of Little Bighorn. By
enlisting Thorpe, the league linked its game to the
Plains Indians and the Oklahoma Territory where Thorpe
was born, the Frontier where Huck and Jim will always be
free. The creators of the NFL were terrific mythmakers.

The violence of football was the violence of a new
continent, its heroes defined by typically American
characteristics: rugged, manly, tough; the good players
ignore pain but the great ones like Thorpe thrive on it,
even love it. He was a sad figure when he played for
Canton, the gold medals he had won in Stockholm at the
1912 Olympics having been stripped by the Olympic
Committee, which claimed that a summer of semipro
baseball had invalidated his amateur status. He was
drunk a lot of the time. In his later days, Thorpe, who
worked as a bar-room bouncer, a ditch-digger, and an
extra playing Indians in B-movies, was a premonition of
all those broken gridiron heroes who could find no perch
after their last down had been played. There has always
been an implicit bargain for football players: they
trade tomorrow for right now, handing their middle years
over to their youthful selves to devour in the course of
a few seasons. Thorpe represents both sides of this
trade: the unstoppable power but also the broken down
bear of a man who can kill you in his delirium without
half trying. He is all the addled, Impala-driving heroes
of the recent past who each day find it a little harder
to remember exactly where to turn when it's time to go

THE ROAD TO PITTSBURGH leads through tunnels and past
towns, Appalachia, mountain hollers where the sons of
miners have yet to hear of Halas's modern T-Formation.
The city appears all at once, revealed like the payoff
of a magic trick, a scrim of bridges and buildings
stained to a deep mottled rust. I spent an afternoon at
the Heinz History Center, in a wing dedicated to the
sporting history of Western Pennsylvania. The first room
is centered by a life-size statue of Franco Harris, the
Steelers running back, catching a ball deflected off a
helmet. Harris ran it for a touchdown, leading his team
to a playoff win over the Oakland Raiders in 1972,
starting a run that did not end until the Steelers won
four Super Bowls. Considered one of the greatest plays
in NFL history, it's known as "The Immaculate
Reception," the religious nature of the pun being no

The first pro leagues began here, in sooty towns that
stud bituminous mountains, first as a recreation for
workers, a diversion between shift whistles, then as
factory squads that became competitive to the point of
cheating, which meant ringers playing under assumed
names, paid under the table, until those teams outgrew
the mills and the leagues were organized. The Packers,
who joined the NFL in its second season, are now the
last of the factory town teams, preserved as a reminder
of origins. The league is not unlike Don Quixote, a book
written as a parody of a library of romantic literature
that's ceased to exist. The books are gone, but the joke

I made two stops on my way out of Pittsburgh. Beaver
Falls, the birthplace of Joe Namath, and Aliquippa, the
hometown of Mike Ditka. Johnny Unitas worked on a road
crew there. It might be the bleakest place I've ever
been. Once the booming home of J & L Steel, it began its
decline when the mill closed in the 1980s. Just about
every store on Main Street is boarded. The people who
remain appear trapped. The high school is on a hill
above town. The football field is in a valley below,
ratty, rocky, surrounded by row houses built for workers
who died a generation ago. In such places, it can seem
people have just one thing to offer: their bodies, which
they fed to the factories and feed to the game.

What happens to such a place when the world changes?
When an economy, which had been about bodies and brains,
gives way to an economy about brains alone? In
Aliquippa, you realize that the violence of the sport is
not something that evolved but was one point of the game
from the beginning, the hitting being a cure for every
kind of mood, the way, when you are so low you have to
reach up to touch bottom, nothing beats getting drunk,
going to town, and picking a fight with a man twice your
size. For some, the pro football's appeal is the aerial
assault, the ballet of receivers getting both feet in
bounds, but for many of us it's the stone-age pleasure
of watching large men battle to the point of exhaustion.
In its best moments, the game captures what it's like to
be alive in a world filled with assholes, friends, and
enemies, and some help you, and more hurt you, and there
is a place for teamwork and intelligence, but the winner
is usually the person who can stand the most and take it
the longest and get back on his feet just once more than
he's been knocked down.

THE COUNTRY OPENS UP as you cross into Ohio, the gloomy
mill towns giving way to corn and silos, farms that
stretch to the horizon. The Pro Football Hall of Fame
had my car in its tractor beam, was collecting me,
pulling me in. Why Canton? Because that's where the
league was really formed, in the showroom of Ralph Hay's
Hupmobile dealership in 1920, the team owners, Halas
among them, sitting on the running boards of the sedans.
The exhibit begins with a statue of Thorpe, continues
through displays of old equipment: cleats, jerseys,
football pants, and, most tellingly, helmets, which
evolved from none at all to leather, plastic, then
whatever space-age material they're made of now.
Ironically, football may have gotten more dangerous as
helmets have improved: in part because the helmet itself
has become the game's most devastating weapon, in part
because a man who feels invulnerable plays with the kind
of abandon that results in nicknames like "the human

Canton's holy of holies is a dimly-lit circular room
lined with busts of the anointed, starting with Sammy
Baugh and Curly Lambeau and ending, for now, with Cortez
Kennedy and Curtis Martin. I compare the mood in this
room, where grown men, in their jerseys, wander among
stone heads, somber, serious, even a little sad, to the
mood at national memorials, the Lincoln Monument, say,
where we bear witness to some crucial American moment.
As I've hinted, football is a religion, a shared history
of victories and defeats. It's all some people care
about. Perhaps the sadness in the Hall comes from the
sense that even religions, especially pagan ones, can

When I called a few old-time gridiron men, they spoke of
football as "already gone," their sport having evolved
from the ball control game of their youth into a kind of
"basketball on grass." The phrase "already gone" was
striking, as it seemed to suggest not just changes in
the game but the death of the hardscrabble towns that
gave pro football its first ethos. These men were
dismissive of new rules meant to protect quarterbacks
and receivers. The crack-back block, the forearm shiver,
the clothesline, the head-slap that sent stars turning
not unpleasantly around your helmet: getting hurt's
always been a part of it, they explained. Have the
injuries gotten so much worse? No one really knows
because no one bothered to examine the veterans of the
'33 Giants or '46 Bears or '64 Packers who became
bewildered or angry in retirement, or made a spectacle
of themselves at alumni dinners. They did not count them
because they did not know, and they did not know because
they did not care: football was just another risky job
in a nation filled with them, and a better, more
interesting life than that of steel mill welder (Ditka's
father) or coal deliveryman (Unitas's father). Danger
was the not unreasonable cost of playing the game. Why
do you think both sidelines go ghostly when a man stays
down? Because each player knows it can all be over in a
moment, not just the game, nor the season, but
everything. It's one of the truths that makes football
more tense than other sports: The stakes are high and
the pain is real; the only true thing on a TV schedule
loaded with reality shows.

Talking to the old timers came as something of relief,
for they approved of my love of big hits. I used to hope
the Bears would lose the coin toss so their defense
would come on first. I wanted to see the other team not
just beaten but annihilated, their quarterback too
intimidated to even look downfield. In your mind, the
opposition becomes the enemy, and there's nothing more
satisfying than seeing your enemy humiliated. Yes, it's
just a game, but for the few hours it takes to play, it
feels like justice. I was afraid this suggested a flaw
in my character, a deficiency, but the old-timers
reassured me. It doesn't make you a psychopath, they
said, it makes you a fan. Football is violent by design.
It became a sensation because of television, yes, but
also because it expressed certain truths about American
life: the dangers of the mines and mills, dirt,
struggle, blood, grime, the division of labor, the all-
importance of the clock. But we've changed, which is why
white middle- and upper-middle-class fans recoil at the
cascade of injuries that can make ESPN resemble the
surgery channel: not because football is different, nor
because the injuries have gotten so much worse, but
because we've become increasingly careful as our society
has become increasingly safe; we've lost our tolerance
for risk. Football is the perfect game for the country
America used to be.

The sun was going down when I left the Hall. There was a
gridiron near the entrance, the kind of field I would've
quarterbacked all over when I was a kid, running my
brother through the classic patterns: the buttonhook,
the post, the down and in. And yes, there were kids out
there in the gloaming, playing with the same wild,
loose-limb joy I remembered from identical evenings 30
years back. I went over in the hope of talking my way
into the game, and I walked slowly and just as
deliberately as Johnny Unitas heading to the huddle,
head down, going through each play in his mind,
conjuring, as if by determination alone, that last
winning drive. I realized that they were kicking a
soccer ball.

Rich Cohen is the author of The Fish That Ate the Whale:
The Life and Times of America's Banana King. This
article appeared in the October 4, 2012 issue of the


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