- The Washington Times - Thursday, September 1, 2005

Modern football, we tend to forget, was born in a funeral parlor. The carnage was so great in the early 20th century — 18 deaths in the 1905 college season alone — that Teddy Roosevelt threatened to ban the sport if it didn’t clean up its act. Indeed, TR probably deserved a second Nobel Peace Prize for summoning athletic bigwigs from Harvard, Yale and Princeton to the White House that year in an attempt to stop the slaughter.

On their way home on the train, the dignitaries drew up an agreement in which they acknowledged that “an honorable obligation exists to carry out in letter and in spirit the rules of the game of football relating to roughness, holding and foul play, and [we] pledge ourselves to so regard it, and to do [our] utmost to carry out these obligations.”

Four years later, 33 players were killed on college gridirons.

I mention this not to diminish the death of San Francisco 49er Thomas Herrion but to point out how comparatively safe football is now, how far removed it is from its “Six Feet Under” days. It’s only natural, after all, for people — some people — to overreact to such a tragedy. One observer, drawing a line from 335-pound Korey Stringer, the late Viking, to the 330-pound Herrion, wondered whether the game itself weren’t to blame for putting such an emphasis on bigness. (As if the NFL were in any position to halt human evolution; last I checked, homo sapiens weren’t getting any smaller.)

Yes, football is a nasty sport, the pro game particularly so. But since the days of Teddy Roosevelt, its guardians have always done what they could to make it a little less nasty. They’ve responded to fatalities and serious injuries not by sticking their heads in the sand but by instituting real reform, which has irritated the Neanderthal element but kept the turnstiles turning.

This past NFL offseason is a perfect example. The Competition Committee decided the horse-collar tackle, as practiced by the Cowboys’ Roy Williams and others, was too hazardous to the ball carrier’s health; so the owners outlawed it — just as they had criminalized, in previous years, the head slap, the crackback block and assorted other wicked inventions.

Contrast this with the behavior back in Roosevelt’s time. At the luncheon that day in 1905, Harvard coach Bill Reid recalled in his diary, Teddy spoke of a player on one team “being padded up because of a supposed injury, when as a matter of fact the man playing in the corresponding position on the same team was the man that was hurt. This was simply to see if they could not get the opposing side to attack the well man rather than the injured man.”

And you think football is dangerous today?

Well, of course it is. One behemoth crashing into another is an invitation to an insurance claim. But that isn’t what killed Thomas Herrion, as far as we know. Herrion was a casualty of competition, not football, an athlete pushed beyond his physical limits by exertion and, perhaps, Denver’s mile-high altitude. It wasn’t especially warm that night; he didn’t play all that much of the game either. No one this side of Nostradamus could have foreseen what happened to him.

His death was eerily similar to one that took place at Comiskey Park in 1948. That night, too, the player — Chicago Cardinals tackle Stan Mauldin — was in no apparent difficulty as he trudged to the locker room. Soon after he got there, though, he collapsed and eventually died of a heart attack.

“What was really sad about that was that his wife [Helen] was pregnant, and he didn’t know it,” one of his teammates, Mal Kutner, once told me. “She was going to tell him after the game … was going to surprise him. So Stan Mauldin Jr. was born nine months after Stan died. And later he played at the University of Texas, just like his dad did.”

Soon afterward, the Cardinals arranged for the entire team to get checked out at the hospital — “so your wife or your family would have some assurance you wouldn’t have an aneurysm or something,” another ex-Card, Bob Dove, said. About half the players declined. They didn’t want to know. Dove went down and got himself X-rayed, though, just to be on the safe side.

“I remember I was laying on the table, and the [doctor] says, ‘See the space between here and here? You’re in good shape, Bob.’ ”

Mauldin was an athletic, tennis-playing, two-way lineman, not a mammoth, earth-moving offensive guard. He weighed 226 pounds, more than 100 less than Thomas Herrion. But in the heat of a September evening, after a taxing game against the soon-to-be-champion Eagles, his body simply broke. It’s a shame. It’s life. It’s sports.

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