American football is game of hard hits and exciting break away runs. It’s also a game of devastating, debilitating injuries. Not just those injuries that are physically impairing, but damage to soft tissue and brain and spinal injuries are becoming more apparent in light of the concussion litigation recently settled between the families of former players and the NFL.
Hits to the head have always been an issue but the outcry began building in the 90s. It seemed that every week players in one position or another were being hit so hard they did not know where they were. Troy Aikman of the Dallas Cowboys began wearing a chin strap with extra padding to protect him from the hits he was taking. During one game in New Orleans he was hit so hard he was convinced his team was playing the then-St. Louis Cardinals in St. Louis. When Aikman announced his retirement in an emotional press conference, the reasons were many and very few doubted his frequent trips to the sideline due to head shots was near the top of that list.
Over the last few seasons, rules were put in place that cracked down on high hits, specifically helmet to helmet and hits to a defenseless player. It seems with the implementation and enforcement of these rules, more players are coming up with lower extremity injuries from hits than before. It could be, of course, that because of the new rules we simply notice it more now, but the past few weeks have seen a disturbing number of players sent to the sidelines and off the field because of hip, knee and foot injuries caused by low hits.
In an interview from September, NFL Commissioner Roger Goodall said concerns about low hits resulting from high hit rule enforcement is not new. Such concerns were taken into consideration while the rule was being considered and toughened up. Strict protocols are now followed and spotters are on site at each game to review every play in order to alert the sidelines should a player be injured. Adrenaline can mask pain and injury and players may not become aware of anything amiss, especially with cranial injuries.
Fans protest many of the calls but supporters insist we cannot be too cautious when it comes to protecting these players from life threatening and life altering injuries. I personally never allowed any of my three sons to play football, despite my love of the game, for fear of some injury that could see my child crippled or worse.
In all of NFL history there are only a handful of players –too many by anyone’s count- whose deaths can be directly attributed to on-field injuries. Two professional players died almost immediately after injuries sustained during game play, both during the AFL/NFL era.
Kansas City Chiefs rookie Stone Johnson suffered a broken neck while trying to block a kick return . Johnson dove into a Houston Oiler on the return and fell to the ground motionless. He was partially paralyzed from the injury and died at 23 years old on Sunday Sept 8, 1963.
Another rookie, also of the AFL/NFL-era, Howard Glenn of the New York Titans died hours after a game in October 1960. Doctors on site firs thought Glenn was suffering from heat exhaustion, and packed him in ice to try to cool his body. Once he died however, the medical examiner reported that cause of death was from a broken neck.
It was thought that the injury was initially sustained during a game in Dallas a week earlier, but the medical examiner at the time stated the mortal injury most likely occurred during the game directly before Glenn’s death. Glenn apparently showed no physical sign of injury when examined in the locker room, but died after being transported to the hospital.
These two tragedies have not repeated themselves on the field of play since the 1970 merger and rebirth of football as the NFL. The continuing effort to protect these payers from the nature of this game we all love so much goes on. It is a game of hard hits and fast action. It is also a game of risk, and minimizing these risks is in every one’s best interest.
Commentary by: Brandi Tasby