I have been a fan of NFL football since 1962; yes I’m that old. My favorite team was the Green Bay Packers and because I was five years old at the time my favorite player was Paul Hornung who just happened to wear number five. However, the Golden Boy wasn’t the only player I admired.
Among my favorites were Ray Nitschke, Jim Taylor, Dick Butkus, Mike Curtis, Jack Lambert, Ernie Holmes, Mike Lucci, Alex Karras, Deacon Jones and Conrad Dobler. All of these guys had one thing in common; they all played smash mouth football. They could dish it out and in turn, take it as well.
Football is a tough sport and players get injured. They are assured of a lifetime of aches and pains. They understand that they will probably never play at 100%. There is a pervasive attitude that anyone who sits out with any injury short of a broken bone is some kind of wimp. Football is a game played by tough guys.
I loved football. Especially smash mouth football. Or at least I thought that I did. Then something happened.
In the NFC Championship game, Chicago Bear quarterback Jay Cutler left the game with a leg injury that turned out to be a second degree MCL tear. He was immediately labeled a quitter, a baby, a pussy and a few things that I won’t repeat.
These attacks came from fans, players and members of the media. NFL stars, past and present were taking shots at the Bears star. Players like Maurice Jones Drew, Derrick Brooks and Fran Tarkenton were seemingly standing in line to question his manhood.
I was stunned. Not because Cutler’s toughness was being questioned, but because I found myself defending him. Remember, Cutler is a Chicago Bear and I don’t particularly like Chicago Bears. Especially petulant douche bags like Jay Cutler.
But right is right. Who knows how bad his knee was? I certainly didn’t.
In the week following the game, I engaged in several facebook “discussions” regarding Cutler’s virility, always taking the Bear quarterback’s side.
I even participated in a rather heated debate regarding the subject on my friend Pat Hegewald’s RapidDraft.com Fantasy Lunch show heard on BlogTalkRadio. In the end, we agreed to disagree.
Even though I felt that I was right, I was a bit confused. Was my love for tough, smash mouth football fading?
After listening to the Cutler discourse rage for over a week, it finally hit me. Maybe Cutler was scared. Maybe he didn’t want to end up like Dan Hampton, Willie Wood, Jim Otto or worse yet, like Mike Webster or Darryl Stingley.
Let me explain. These are all former NFL stars that have suffered a myriad of physical problems because they played smash mouth football. Some more so than the other. Here’s what they got for being tough guys.
For example, Hampton endured 10 knee surgeries (five on each knee) and had two more just after finishing his 12th NFL season in 1990. After his contract expired after 1989, Hampton signed a 1-year deal for $850,000 to play the 1990 season for the Bears. This final contract was incentive based, if he played he got paid, if an injury forced him to the sidelines he would not.
Wood is currently living in an assisted care facility and has had many operations as a result of his being injured during his NFL career. He has had replacement knees and replacement hips, dementia and forgetfulness, and his current NFL pension of a little over $1100 per month is just not enough to pay all of his bills.
Wisconsin native Otto punished his body greatly during his NFL career, resulting in nearly 40 surgeries, including 28 knee operations (nine of them during his playing career alone) and multiple joint replacements. His joints are riddled with arthritis, and he has debilitating back and neck problems.
One time, Otto nearly died on the operating table. He also fought off three life-threatening bouts of infections due to his artificial joints, and during one six-month stretch, was without a proper right knee joint because he had to wait for the infection to clear up before another artificial one could be implanted.
After retirement Webster suffered from amnesia, dementia, depression, and acute bone and muscle pain. He lived out of his pickup truck or train stations between Wisconsin and Pittsburgh even though his friends and former teammates were willing to rent apartments for him. Webster was only 50 years old when he passed on.
In a preseason game against the Oakland Raiders at Oakland Coliseum on August 12, 1978, Raiders defensive back Jack Tatum hit Stingley. As Stingley and Tatum collided, Stingley lowered his helmet, which collided with Tatum's shoulder pad. The hit compressed Stingley's spinal cord, breaking his fourth and fifth cervical vertebrae. He eventually regained limited movement in his right arm, but spent the rest of his life as a quadriplegic.
Although controversial, the hit was not a violation of NFL rules at the time. No penalty was called on the play.
On April 5, 2007, Stingley, at age 55, died at Northwestern Memorial Hospital in Chicago after being discovered unresponsive in his home. His death was attributed to heart disease and pneumonia complicated by quadriplegia. The Cook County Medical Examiner listed Stingley's cause of death as an accident.
I realize that no one forced any of these tough guys to play in the NFL; it was a choice they made. They decided to play smash mouth football. Regrettably, because of those choices, they are all crippled or worse.
I understand that violence in the NFL is part of the equation. However, it's still just a game, with rules and referees. Unfortunately, life is not a game. It is precious and all too short.
Maybe I don’t like smash mouth as much as I used to. Until next time…from the booth.