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FENNO: NFL’s ‘evolution’ commercial opens window to ex-players’ pain

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ANALYSIS/OPINION:

Lost amid the stain resembling Joe Montana and tattooed old folks out on the town and a man who pondered selling his soul for a Mercedes was a 30-second reminder of the problem the NFL can't escape.

Concussions.

The slick NFL advertisement during Sunday's Super Bowl called "Protecting Our Game" never mentioned the word that's roiling football. Instead, a man's gravely voice narrated a kickoff return that started on a muddy field in Canton, Ohio, in 1906 and ventured down the field through changes to rules and equipment and eras.

The feel-good message during the third-most-watched television broadcast in U.S. history was clear: Football is safer, but the game's essence hasn't changed.

That's only part of the story. Three players featured in the NFL's own advertisement pushing safety advances are among the more than 4,000 former players suing the league over head injuries.

There's Ollie Matson.

There's Rick Upchurch.

There's Mel Gray.

Twelve seconds into the commercial, an actor portraying Matson during his days in the blue and gold of the Los Angeles Rams spins onto the screen with a single-bar facemask. Sentimental music and clever transitions and choreography straight out of "Friday Night Lights" — Peter Berg directed the movie and advertisement — can't hide the uncomfortable truth.

Matson, a member of the Pro Football Hall of Fame who also won two medals in track and field at the 1952 Helsinki Olympics, died of complications from dementia in 2011. Illness left him bedridden and unable to speak during the last four years of his life. In December, he was posthumously diagnosed with chronic traumatic encephalopathy, the devastating neurodegenerative disease associated with repeated brain trauma.

Researchers at Boston University told Matson's family the case was the most severe they'd encountered.

"Understand this," Bruce Matson, one of Ollie Matson's four children said by telephone Monday from his office in Houston. "My dad probably had CTE for the last 25 years or so. People just didn't know. We didn't know what it was. It changes their personality to be more reclusive."

The commercial was first introduced during last year's Super Bowl, before the head injury litigation swelled to an estimated third of all former players (at least 40 plaintiffs are deceased). Before Matson's four children joined the litigation in August in a lawsuit that claimed their father suffered multiple traumatic head injuries. Before the December study was released in which Boston University researchers found 68 new cases of CTE, including 33 former NFL players.

The commercial didn't change.

"Even though my dad was suffering from this thing for a number of years, he took it like a man," Bruce Matson said. "He dealt with it because that's the kind of person he was. At the time, nobody knew what was going on. My mother didn't let us know anything for years. ... When it was too hard for her to deal with and wore on her health, that's when we found out about it and were, 'Wow.'"

The son's voice rose. He adores his father. Feels as if his 14-year career has been overlooked. Six Pro Bowls from 1952 to 1966. Rolled up 12,799 all-purpose yards. Once traded for nine players. Lived the right way. Humble. The commercial provided a few seconds of validation when the son caught a glimpse Sunday.

"People are starting to know who this man was," he said. "I wish more people would learn about him because they'd have so much more respect, as opposed to these fly-by-night people who are hitting themselves in the chest and doing these stupid dances after they score."

Football's toll, though, can't be separated from Matson's story. Bruce Matson and his siblings lived the hell of CTE slowly pulling their father away.

"My dad just endured it, endured it," Bruce Matson said.

Ollie Matson's nephew, Art Thompson III, remembered searching his uncle's eyes for a hint of recognition in later years. In Thompson's eyes, his uncle stood larger than life even when confined to bed and unable to care for himself.

"I take offense at people who don't try to consider all the safety that the NFL can put in the game," Thompson said from his Los Angeles-area home. "I'll never forget what football did to my uncle."

The NFL was aware the Super Bowl spot included players involved in the litigation, according to a spokesman, but believes it's a separate issue from the message about the game's evolution. The Sporting News first reported the connection.

In the commercial, Matson spun into Gale Sayers, who morphed into Upchurch, who became the hurdling Gray, then Deion Sanders, in front of a "Prime Time" sign, before Devin Hester dodged a would-be tackler to find the end zone.

"Learn how we're working," the narrator said, "toward a safer, more exciting NFL ..."

The upbeat words hung in the air as Hester raised his hands in celebration while flashes popped around the fictional stadium. A few other words hung in the air, too.

"He had the worst case of CTE," Bruce Matson said of his father, "ever uncovered."

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