Frank Gifford I'm Not
A headline this past week informs us that the late Aaron Hernandez, convicted murderer and all-star tight end for the Patriots, suffered at the tender age of 27 from Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy (C.T.E.), the clinical name for a degenerative condition caused by concussions, ostensibly from his life in football.
Renting me a car at Enterprise the attendant, an immigrant Nigerian and graduate of and soccer player for Central Connecticut University in New Britain, engaged me in small talk. I reported (maybe the word “bragged” is more accurate) that I had played football against his alma mater (Hillhouse in New Haven) sixty-nine years earlier. The fellow’s response would have been unimaginable in 1948: “Weren’t you worried about the physical injuries that sport causes?”
Well, no, not then. But, yes, now. My parents never so much as hinted (or if they did, I chose and choose not to remember) that Bobby should forego his passion for tackle football. They even paid for my shoulder pads and high-top cleats… the better for me to triumph on sandlots in the neighborhood.
I did play high school football. It was a drastically shortened career, limited by my birth near the end of the year (thus pitting me against children often a year older) and a series of physical injuries. But I played in several games and played well enough (think of tackling Joe Kryla, star quarterback of Iona Prep). My Stamford S.H.S. classmate Peter Cosentini generations later remembered me getting up off the turf at Boyle Stadium after the Kryla tackle spitting the grass out of my mouth.
College football was more of the same. I performed with sufficient competence in my freshman year and in scrimmages the following fall to start at fullback for Williams College in 1950. My primary assignment was to get in the way of the defensive end so that our star half-back could gain ten yards. I must have gotten in the way on a sufficient number of occasions. We went seven for eight that season, losing only to Princeton, 66 – 0, the one game (I add in all humility) in which I did not play.
That season was the end of it for me. September 1951 in a preseason scrimmage against Middlebury I tore the inside meniscus of my left knee, was out for the rest of the season, and, for all practical purposes, the rest of my life. Fifty years later, plus another torn meniscus in 1957 on the basketball court of Fort Hamilton H. S. in Brooklyn, I underwent bi-lateral knee replacement surgery.
Thank God and Dr. Shutzer’s skill, I can walk.
Which takes me back to mom and dad’s silence, Frank Gifford (he was listed in the newspaper article on Hernandez as another victim of CTE), and the car rental attendant’s question. To which I replied, filled as I was with thoughts about my grandsons, that, no, I have not encouraged them to play. But I would not have prevented them had they insisted.
Excelling in that most violent of major sports has served me and my male ego very well over the years. Mostly as a big plus in those endless male conversations about sports, if only because of the unstated understanding I had been there and done that… which, of course, is a big plate of baloney.
I always assumed during my young years that excelling academically was my God-given right. But what I really wanted was the approval of my boyhood jock friends for whom athletic prowess was everything. Football provided me with that.
I asked a friend, and natural athlete with every implement he put his hand to, from a putter to a Louisville Slugger, why he never played football. His answer: “My parents are Jewish.” Which explanation means Jewish is a synonym for “wise” or “prudent.” For me his answer is also ironic, because the only time I’ve ever been unconscious, except from a surgeon’s needle, was from a shoulder in my solar plexus in a practice scrimmage from Al Shanen, high school classmate, all-state guard, and Jew.
Where this meditation on football violence is leading me is troublesome. It is leading me to the conclusion that the NFL, which enjoys popularity and prosperity Knut Rockne never imagined, may be on the way out. Unless something can be done to stop the epidemic of CTE. Better cushioned helmets might help. Restricting the manner of tackling to prohibition on head contact might help, although I am told the concussion occurs when the head hits the turf and bounces. More restrictive rules, like limiting the number of running plays in any sequence of four downs, or prohibiting linemen from touching an opponent’s headgear, would probably diminish the appeal of the game for those who cherish its controlled violence.
But… either find some mitigation of CTE or get accustomed to watching Latin American baseball on Thanksgiving Day afternoon.