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Thom Loverro: Tougher rules, not tougher players

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Hines Ward, meet John Mackey.

Ward, a wide receiver for the Pittsburgh Steelers, called out quarterback Ben Roethlisberger for not playing against the Baltimore Ravens on Sunday because of a concussion he suffered less than two weeks ago.

Mackey, who played tight end for the Baltimore Colts in the 1960s and early '70s, dwarfed Ward when it comes to toughness.

"I played an exhibition game [in 1964] against the Philadelphia Eagles in Hershey, Pennsylvania, and the field had poor lighting," Mackey told me when I co-authored his book, "Blazing Trails," a number of years ago. "The play was a tight end option. I made my inside move and went right to the posts, and [Johnny] Unitas threw the ball directly overhead. That's the most difficult pass to catch because you can't get an angle on it. I was running upfield as fast as I could, looking directly over my head and then - boom! - I ran right into the goal post.

"I was out of it. I got up and walked over to the wrong huddle. It took about two days before I got my memory back. I hurt from that collision in Harrisburg for most of the season. ... But I don't believe you are a real pro unless you can play when you're hurt, so I wasn't about to sit down."

Mackey suffered a concussion on that field in Hershey - a severe one.

I've never been able to put that story out of my mind.

Mackey now suffers from frontotemporal dementia, with memory, communication and social skills all severely diminished.

It's hard not to think about that concussion and the many others Mackey likely suffered throughout his career.

And it's hard not to think of those injuries without recalling his now-chilling words: "I don't believe you are a real pro unless you can play when you're hurt, so I wasn't about to sit down."

If someone had sat him down, maybe Mackey now wouldn't be a symbol of the fight between retired, suffering players and the NFL over the lack of health benefits.

Maybe he still would be working with the players - just as he did as a pioneering leader of the NFL Players Association - to protect their future.

Somebody needs to.

Ward since has apologized for questioning the toughness of Roethlisberger and for claiming the locker room was split 50-50 on whether he should play. He says he didn't know that a team doctor had recommended that the quarterback not play.

Still, the incident illustrates the kind of locker room thinking that prompted John Mackey to go back out on the field more than 40 years ago.

It's the culture of football - one the NFL says it is trying to change.

The league has issued stricter guidelines for when a player should be allowed to return to games or practices after head injuries. A player who suffers a concussion should not return to action on the same day if he shows certain symptoms - an inability to remember assignments or plays, a gap in memory or persistent dizziness or headaches.

The new standards were drawn up by the NFL concussion committee, team doctors, outside medical experts and the NFL Players Association, according to reports.

The old guidelines, put into place two years ago, said a player should not be allowed to return to the same game if he lost consciousness.

The memo from the league to teams stated that players "are to be encouraged to be candid with team medical staffs and fully disclose any signs or symptoms that may be associated with a concussion."

It is fine that the football business realizes it might be a good idea to take their workers' brains turning into scrambled eggs more seriously than it has in the past.

But it is a small step, and far more significant change is necessary. Players who suffer a concussion should be kept out for weeks at a time, as the Redskins have done with Clinton Portis.

Football has a long way to go before it matches the safety level of boxing, where a licensed fighter can't step into the ring in a state with a sanctioning body for 90 days after he is knocked out.

c Listen to "The Sports Fix," co-hosted by Thom Loverro and Kevin Sheehan, from noon to 2 p.m. weekdays on ESPN 980 and espn980.com.

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