(Like a predawn invasion of the Middle East or a heavyweight championship boxing match, another NFL season is upon us. Some of the strongest and fastest men in the land, many apparently on HGH, will be hurtling themselves at each other on the nation’s most perilous playing fields as if shot from canons, most wearing “protective” helmets with polycarbonate shells that actually enhance brain injury. (Kansas City Chiefs quarterback Alex Smith was wearing a new, more absorbent and spacious model developed by innovative Seattle company VICIS on opening night that is being selectively introduced.) Gone are the games of Twenty Questions: Will Dallas Cowboys’ rookie quarterback sensation Dak Prescott, who sent oft-injured Tony Romo into early retirement and the broadcast booth, suffer a sophomore slump? What really caused those multiple bruises on the neck, arms, legs, and body of his equally sensational teammate Ezekiel Elliott’s ex-girlfriend Tiffany Thompson—bumping into tables as a waitress or the football player himself? Why is Afro-American ex-San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick, he of the silent and dignified Anthem protest, not in a NFL uniform, other than that he mistakenly opted out of his contract? Just how good is preternaturally young Seahawks head coach Pete Carroll’s defense in Seattle? Will the beleaguered body of Pittsburgh Steelers quarterback “Big” Ben Roethlisberger—once credibly accused of forcing himself upon an intoxicated female college student in a niteclub bathroom while his off-duty law enforcement bodyguards stood watch—hold up long enough to take his team back to the Super Bowl yet again? How will frequently battered and recently concussed Buffalo Bills quarterback Tyrod Taylor fare now that his wide receivers have disappeared from the team? Will Jehovah level the City of Angels in 2020 for luring and hosting not one, but two franchises in an eventual multibillion dollar hi-tech luxury stadium to ash and dust? Were any of them answered? But for the bruises, do any of them matter? This is what does.)
“I can speak for a lot of the guys that play the game, we live and breathe and this is what we’re so passionate about. Literally if I had a perfect place to die, I would die on the field.” — New York Jets rookie safety Jamal Adams, at a fan forum July 31, on a question about CTE
Perhaps Sandra Bullock wasn’t aware—or was she? Was Bronx native Quinton Aron, who played him? Was anyone? When the Carolina Panthers announced it was releasing former Baltimore Ravens offensive tackle Michael Oher—the subject of the hugely popular, Oscar-nominated 2009 film The Blind Side that starred the dyed-blonde, raven-tressed, iconic actress as the hulking football player’s real-life rescuer, counselor, and confidant—in July because he had failed a physical, it merited but a small, single paragraph on the back page of a typical major metropolitan newspapers’ sports section. In the official record, the announcement in fine print was terse, like the posting of a handicap for a horse race: Transactions: Pro Football: Carolina—Terminated the contract of offensive tackle Michael Oher. With that, the team was released of any further financial or moral entanglement or complication, like an ER surgeon who’d just pronounced a gunshot victim dead on arrival in a besieged urban hospital as he washed the blood off his hands. Terminated: If Bullock had ever been part of the Hollywood Golden Age studio system, would her contract with, say, Paramount or Warner Brothers, also have been “terminated” when they realized, perhaps, she was no longer a bankable sex symbol because she’s gone past her prime? Was Oher past his prime, the day he was terminated? He was 31, a veteran, but in NFL years, he could’ve been headed for the twilight for sure, so much the easier to excise him like a malignant contusion to be deposited into the Monday morning medical waste bin. The 6-4, 300 lb.+ former Super Bowl champion with the Ravens who’d led the Panthers to the promised land in 2015 protecting the blind side of MVP quarterback Cam Newton as if he were his own grandmother, if he ever knew her, sustained a concussion three weeks into last season after being rewarded with a contract extension for three years and $21.6 million—with $9.5 mil guaranteed—through the 2018 season. He didn’t return, and was still on the NFL’s concussion protocol that prevented him from practicing or playing in games when he was terminated nearly ten months later. At the time of the former Ole Miss All-American’s season-ending concussion last September, Panthers head coach Ron Rivera said, “We just want to see the young man get healthy.”
Who knows what they think of the young man now? In the NFL, used-up players are tossed aside like pairs of old shoes—you may think about them now and then, I don’t know, but it’s only uselessly sentimental. Then general manager Dave Gettleman, who signed Oher to two deals totaling $28.6 million within 16 months of each other, himself was terminated by the organization just three days before the young man was: a news item entitled “Panthers Part Ways With Gettleman” consisted of eight paragraphs in the Los Angeles Times, which shows just where priorities are, even to those who give lip service to the besieged league’s concussion crisis, which, like those crises in Iraq, Syria, and Yemen, seems to reach boiling-point levels each and every day. No, Gettleman wasn’t in the league’s concussion protocol, but he won’t be terminating anyone anytime soon, either.
II Summer Eclipse
If you saw The Blind Side you know, as depicted, Oher was a nice, respectful, soft-spoken young man, a big cub to Bullock’s mama bear. You might not recognize him now, even as himself, I’m not sure. At times, crisis arrives with a glimpse of trouble: In April, much like Captain Kalanick himself, Oher got into it with an Uber driver while riding with friends to a restaurant in the wee hours, ultimately asserting himself by pushing the offending driver to the ground outside of the vehicle and giving him a kick as if trying out a new calling as a punter; he had to be restrained by his posse. Oher, under suspicion of alcohol use, was booked and cited for misdemeanor assault. His case has been continued to October. A life unraveling? It doesn’t take much. Behavioral signs are an initial symptom of chronic traumatic encephalopathy, a diagnosis that can only be confirmed on a laboratory slide in the morgue.
Two weeks before Oher’s termination, the aforementioned Times published a piece by sports enterprise reporter Nathan Fenno that was riveting, essential summer reading. Fenno chronicled the stunning fall of a talented, disciplined young football player from Los Angeles into the depths of darkness, depravity, and despair; for those aware of many of the abnormal mental manifestations like depression, social withdrawal, mood instability, mental illness, and substance abuse, it has CTE written all over it, and it most disturbingly cost a loving football mother her life.
Fenno wrote about De’von Hall, a football protégé who had a close relationship with his mother, Alecia Benson. He possessed the requisite physical skills to excel, but also “a killer instinct,” as an uncle described, and a passion for hitting opposing players within a game that encourages such frightful behavior and a fan base that appreciates it. Hall went from distinguished Cleveland High School in the Valley to Utah State, where an ex-teammate described his abilities on the playing field as a linebacker as “freakish.” By his senior season, subsequent to multiple hits throughout his young playing career (my words), his head coach noticed his mental acuity beginning to fade, and Hall went undrafted by the NFL. He was signed by the Minnesota Vikings that spring but released by the start of the 2009 season for perceived immaturity. He then signed with the Indianapolis Colts, played in four ruthless games as a safety, making three tackles in a two-point win against the Ravens, and was cut in late winter two weeks before the team’s postseason run to the Super Bowl led by league MVP and poster boy pitchman Peyton Manning. He landed with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers where his physical abilities remained eclipsed by perceived mental deficiencies: Always a young man who kept to himself, his self-isolation reached uncomfortable levels that vexed coaches and teammates who routinely discovered Hall alone in the darkened clubhouse behind a door staring at a wall. He told an ex-college roommate he was profusely smoking marijuana and told a mysterious story about hitting his head in an auto accident and having to be restrained and pharmaceutically subdued. The Bucs dispatched him the following summer before the 2010 season but apparently made no attempt to get him behavioral help. Why would they? It was the NFL. Another bizarre vehicular encounter was actually confirmed as Hall was driving home through New Mexico in September and was apprehended for erratic driving that resulted in an aggravated assault with a deadly weapon charge that eventually was pled down to a misdemeanor. The next summer, two weeks after acting queerly at his grandfather’s funeral, his once-promising NFL career came to a swift and ignominious end at the hands of the Panthers themselves: they added soiled clothing to the list of grievances.
According to Fenno, his post-NFL career involved incoherent speech, distant voices, laughter when mirth wasn’t called for, and emphatically discharged disturbing music lyrics. Then the inevitable fragmented Facebook posts arrived, as if from someone consigned to a mental health facility. Benson was losing the battle for her son, who denied having any issues whatsoever. He took to living in a park, smoked used cigarette butts, and wandered up and down the street. One day he was hit by a bus after straying from the sidewalk. Anyone familiar with South Los Angeles knows people like him, crisscrossing the intersections barefoot like the dazed, disembodied souls of former slaves. He took to black garbage bags and shopping carts. This April, at the culmination of a heated exchange over personal hygiene, Hall stomped Benson, his own mother, to death, as she lie on the floor of her home in an affluent African-American community adjacent to View Park. He did to her bruised, battered face as encephalopathic lesions upon the tissues of the brain, then walked away into the night, where he was apprehended.
This summer, Hall’s legal proceedings came to a halt upon a mental evaluation order for competency to stand trial; his defense attorney doesn’t believe he can. Fenno reported some of his family aren’t sure he’s even aware Benson is deceased. They point to a head trauma Hall experienced as a Colt that seemed to change his subsequent behavior. Ex-teammates at Utah State believe he became a drug addict after a party in Miami during his stint with the Bucs in which he smoked a laced marijuana cigarette: perhaps cocaine or heroin, they surmised. At the time the article was published in early July, Hall resided at the notorious Twin Towers Correctional Facility in downtown Los Angeles. [Update: In an exchange with the writer, Fenno, who admits to being haunted by the story every day and hopes to write a follow-up, said Hall’s next scheduled proceeding will be in two weeks and that the accused murderer, with his acute mental issues, remains in Twin Terrors.] For anyone aware of conditions at that teeming facility, they know it is the external equivalent to the 29 year old’s broken, battered brain. For those mothers who have pulled their boy(s) out of youth football leagues, the unparalleled story must possess a discomfiting affirmation; for those who haven’t, it must be a most expressive cautionary tale.
III Sunset Clause
For anyone who knows the trajectory of a life subsequent to the NFL, one shouldn’t be so surprised, and some aren’t waiting around to find out. Amid the eye-opening exodus of players retiring early over the past two summers, more have followed suit this offseason, although the threatened flood has slowed to a leaky faucet. It may be death through a thousand cuts to the NFL’s reputation, which the league has attempted to uphold with all the tenacity and obfuscation of the Tobacco industry: Their lung cancer and emphysema is now the NFL’s CTE. Wheels are spinning on Madison Avenue, hot Campbell’s soup bowls are a’readyin’, and league reps sound like former ExxonMobil officials denouncing climate change. In late July, researchers at Boston University published a journal article that stated that of 111 donated brains of deceased former NFL players it studied, 110 bore the signature scars of CTE and that, of those, 95 bore it extensively. It was not surprising news, not at all, and not just because many of the donors were known to have exhibited behavioral issues associated with CTE up to and including suicide. Los Angeles Times health and science reporter Melissa Healy, who covered the article, drafted a beautiful turn of phrase when she wrote about how the eyebrow-raising findings might affect agents and followers alike of “a sport that, at its highest levels, has been a showcase for violent hits.”
The same day the article was published, diminutive wide receiver Andrew Hawkins, who lost the second half of the 2015 season to a concussion—that’s eight weeks, announced he was running to the hills before even playing a down for the Super Bowl champion New England Patriots after six seasons in the state of Ohio for the Cincinnati Bengals and rival Cleveland Browns; he also said he would donate his brain to the Boston-based Concussion Legacy Foundation. Hawkins, who complained that his body wasn’t suitably responding to training, had an out: ESPN reported he received a master’s in the Ivy League with a perfect GPA this offseason and is moving on to a doctoral in business and econ. Riddled with injuries and exits at the position, quarterback Tom Brady—who was involved in his own concussion scandal this offseason when the league investigated his Patriots—notorious for bending and breaking NFL rules and hiding injuries—for possibly covering up a concussion he’d sustained last season based on media claims made by his concerned wife, Gisele Bündchen, whom he admitted is profusely begging him to retire—could probably use him. Instead, Hawkins announced on Twitter he’ll be within the protective walls of a studio on Sundays doing a show for ESPN Radio.
Perhaps proving that 31, Hawkins’ age, is the new 41, 22-year-old Su’a Cravens, projected starting strong safety of Washington, left the team two weeks ago and is moving toward early retirement after a series of injuries, believe fretful teammates, whom, according to ESPN, he walked out on with the farewell, “Peace Out”! “Cravens leaves ‘Skins stunned, future in doubt,” the Los Angeles Times headline screamed. (Stubborn Washington majority owner Dan Snyder still insists on calling the team by the overtly racist moniker R—, as if it’s just another plague upon the league to be buried.) The 2nd-round pick from USC tore a meniscus three plays into the exhibition season and missed three games at the end of last season with a biceps bruise after earlier missing two after suffering a concussion that he claimed altered his vision. Cravens was criticized for allegedly not taking his rehab from the biceps injury seriously enough and was reportedly nervous about coming back from the knee injury. It’s also been reported ownership talked him out of retirement and otherwise placed him on the colorfully named exempt/left squad list that essential gives him a 30-day time out to think about his options. Many, including his head coach, teammates, and observers, are likening his walkout to “personal issues,” but it seems there’s only one issue going on to me: injuries. Whether the mercurial young man with the Hawaiian heritage who once had to be talked out of leaving ‘SC after a new coach changed his position returns or not, precedent has already been set by the twentysomething players who have preceded him out into the pasture the last two seasons. [Update: Cravens’ 30 days and 30 nights are up; he is ineligible to play this season. “We sincerely hope Su’a uses this time away from the club to reflect upon whether or not he’d like to resume his career in the National Football League in 2018,” Washington stated. “The last time I talked to him was when he informed me that he was leaving,” head coach Jay Gruden said.]
Some players can deal with injuries, others can’t. It’s the league’s culture that glosses over them and makes them routine. After all, there are touchdowns to be scored, and billions to be made. Some players value other aspects of life more than football. The Boston University study found that the more one plays the more pronounced CTE becomes. In addition to four in high school and three at Mississippi, Oher played seven complete seasons plus the concussion-shortened one last year in the NFL, putting him right at the 15-year mean of the study. His dismissal from the Panther’s roster may be a blessing in disguise; it may also have come too late.
IV The Blind Side
The Carolina Panthers’ odds to make the Super Bowl after week one stand at a respectable 25-1, up from a preseason 28-1, on VegasInsider.com. There is no over/under, as far as I’m aware, on how many injuries, concussions, or missed games quarterback Cameron Jerell Newton will sustain; if there was, I imagine, bets would be placed. After all, it’s a lively wager: Newton, who had to be consoled by his head coach after a disappointing performance in the team‘s opening 23-3 win over the San Francisco 49ers, got rattled and hummed to much fanfare last season. In short, he took a ’lickin, and at 6-5, 245 lbs., largely kept on tickin’. In March, he had surgery to repair a partially torn rotator cuff in a shoulder that may be only mildly less marginalized than Roethlisberger’s, who’s injured his four times and has seven seasons on him; it’s a lingering issue from late last season and he is still questionable to play Sunday because of it. The former Heisman Trophy winner and 2011 first overall NFL draft pick sustained a concussion earlier in the season the week after Oher left the field, apparently for good, with his and missed the following week’s game. Two years prior, after ankle reconstruction surgery in the spring, the controversial former Auburn star, whose father was involved in a pay-to-play scandal with a Mississippi State booster, missed games after suffering a hairline fracture of a vertebra and, separately, two fractures in his back from an auto collision. Even without the concussion and the hits to the head, pain is Cameron’s game, and the engaging young man is seemingly heading for a difficult retirement. He’s an athletic quarterback who sustains damage while trespassing outside the pocket, but even when’s he’s in there, he’s vulnerable. After all, Michael Oher won’t be there to protect his blind side. Then again, who will?
(Blindsided: Business Insider, CBS Sports, CNN, Dallas Observer, ESPN, Los Angeles Times, NFL, New York Daily News, The Boston Globe, The Charlotte Observer, The Guardian, The New York Times, The Washington Post, VegasInsider, Wikipedia)
(Nathan Fenno’s feature on De’von Hall:
© 2017 John Tyler/24 Hours