They dragged coolers and lawn chairs across parched grass, wielded Sharpies, wore burgundy and gold beads and anything else that carried the colors: jerseys, high-tops, towels, baseball caps, fedoras, socks and one pair of gold skinny jeans. They aimed telephoto lenses and framed pictures and studious looks and cries of “Let’s go, Skins” at the Redskins Park practice field that baked under the late-afternoon sun last week.
Helmets crunched into shoulder pads over the hum of generators and under the watchful eye of cameras in three cherry pickers filming every movement on the field. Kids chucked footballs behind the throngs straining for a glimpse of Robert Griffin III’s gold jersey, next to concession stands offering hot dogs, pizza and hamburgers.
The NFL’s carnival is back, but I’ll never be able to watch it the same way. Football was as much a fixture in my life as the rest of the country’s. But the flood of concussion lawsuits against the league in the last year — up to 135 suits covering 3,402 ex-players according to a count by The Washington Times — changed everything. The thousands of pages of court documents stick in your mind, not for the legal machinations, but the allegations of lives unraveled because of a game.
More than 240 ex-Redskins have sued, from Art Monk, one of 27 Pro Football Hall of Famers involved, to three founding members of “the Hogs” offensive line: Jeff Bostic, Joe Jacoby and Mark May.
You talk to doctors, lawyers, ex-players and legal analysts, digest study after study and, finally, standing on the sideline on an August afternoon as staffers rush fresh cans of Gatorade to players with sweat-darkened jerseys, each routine hit deposits dread in your stomach. I don’t see a fight for a spot on the 53-man roster; I see a man’s brain rattling around inside his skull like Jell-O.
The hits that scare Dr. Randall Benson, studying traumatic brain injury at the Center for Neurological Studies in Novi, Mich., over the long term are mundane, repeated ones like a lineman’s head plowing into a defender’s chest. A player absorbs 1,000 to 1,500 of the little-discussed subconcussive hits during a season, according to a study by Boston University that linked repeated hits to degenerative brain diseases, such as chronic traumatic encephalopathy, the dreaded CTE.
That’s what I see during practice.
This isn’t about whether the NFL concealed the long-term effects of concussions, as the lawsuits allege, or if the league’s slew of rule changes are enough to protect players since the first poster warning about head injuries was tacked up in locker rooms throughout the league in 2010.
Instead, I think of Stephen Davis. He’s 38 years old with four children. Over 11 seasons, Davis took 1,945 handoffs with the Redskins, Panthers and Rams. Today, he uses a tape recorder to remember basic details of conversations. The results of a visit to a neurologist were “not that good.”
“A lot of things scare me a whole lot,” Davis told me last month, “and it bothers me because there isn’t no telling what day I’ll forget everything.”
Davis’ ears ring, his vision is blurred, “real bad” headaches are common, and driving is hard, not to mention getting out of bed.
And Davis’ plight, even at 38 years old, isn’t particularly unique.
Born in Gaithersburg, Tom McHale spent two seasons at the University of Maryland before transferring to Cornell University and playing nine years as a lineman for the Buccaneers, Eagles and Dolphins.
In a wrongful-death lawsuit against the NFL filed last month in U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Georgia, McHale’s widow, Lisa, claims he began “experiencing cognitive problems such as inattentiveness, depression, paranoia, anxiety, irritability, forgetfulness, confusion, impaired judgment, delusions and lethargy.” McHale died from a prescription-drug overdose in 2008 at 45 years old.
“The man that I so admired had become like a shell of his former self,” Lisa McHale wrote for the Sports Legacy Institute.
After his death, McHale was the second person diagnosed as suffering from CTE by Boston University’s Center for the Study of Traumatic Encephalopathy.
This, too, isn’t particularly unique.
And, so, I dragged one question away from the practice, past the red mud, the dangling credentials and eager television cameras, the fans begging Chris Cooley to sign, the advertisements plastered on the side of the headquarters building and veterans slipping into ice baths: Is all this worth it?