Head-to-Head: Discussing the NFL’s new “Brain Culture” with the Older Generation

This is my dad.

He played football back in the 70s.

Tight end, defensive tackle, punter, whatever you needed, he could get the job done. But now, with the onslaught of newfound information on the nature of football and head trauma, I sat down with him to discuss his own hard hits from his career and any worries he may have about his future mental health.

[Originally published 1/13/13]

News of Junior Seau’s brain tests was made public by his family last week and revealed that Seau had suffered from CTE, “a progressive degenerative disease of the brain found in athletes (and others) with a history of repetitive brain trauma…[which] triggers progressive degeneration of the brain tissue, including the build-up of an abnormal protein called tau…[and] is associated with memory loss, confusion, impaired judgment, impulse control problems, aggression, depression, and, eventually, progressive dementia.” In his twenty-year playing career, Seau was never diagnosed with a concussion, yet tests showed he had scar tissue from a previously significant head trauma.

This news comes eight months after Seau shot himself in the chest with a handgun and two years after Seau’s SUV was driven over a thirty foot cliff in California, after a reported domestic dispute. The crash was labeled an accident by Seau, but in hindsight, seems like more of a cry for help. It’s sad that men would be driven to such acts because of a sport they played.

My dad never made it to the NFL, but he was quite a stud about a decade before Seau started garnering national attention–a time when pads were incredibly simple, and the sensibility was to knock your opponent out of the game. All this got me thinking about what my dad felt, knowing he led with his head while tackling for the entirety of his football career. The recent tragedies in the NFL have frightened a lot of Americans, but I wanted to see how the older generation of players are reacting to the news that their once beloved game is now tainted by the possibility of brain disease.

When I got to my parents’ house, after work on Friday, my dad had already prepared a list for me of his hardest hits. From the list, it seems like he and his brother, Steve, have had it out for one another since birth. My dad’s “knocked out” list is events where he knows that he was rendered unconscious. His “hard blows” are times that he was dazed but awake. Now, granted, he has some incidents that include early childhood and the drinking age, but the one reason all this head trauma football talk grabbed my attention was an event that would become my dad’s “ol’ war story” when it came to football–the day his brother, Steve, popped him in his ear hole at varsity football practice (#2 on the “hard blows” list).

The story goes like this: my dad was a sophomore, and Steve was a senior. My dad was playing tackle on defense and was set up by a trap play. Basically, my dad, the naive sophomore, saw an open lane to the running back, but unbeknownst to him, Steve was pulling guard from the opposite side. Before my dad had a chance to react, his older brother hit him directly in his ear. “Oh, I definitely had a concussion,” I remember him saying at our last family Thanksgiving (this story always comes up when there are more than 3 Worsham Boys in any given place). By all accounts, though, this was brotherly love back in the day! “We were told to lead with our  heads, to knock the other guy out,” my dad said, when asked about the change in hitting policy.

This is now a penalty. Any hit above the shoulders is fineable and subject to review from the commissioner. “They’re trying to enforce these rules, [but] it’s just hard to do. You’re gonna have people leading with the head, hitting with the head, defenseless receivers, and what have you–it’s always been a part of the game. In my book, you knock the other guy outta the game, win the game, and go on down the road…The less I knew about them, the more I could inflict pain. I’d shake their hands afterward, ’cause I was forced to. Other than that…”

And inflict pain, my dad did. He played not just both ways, but all three ways–offense, defense, and special teams.

He was consistently among the leaders in tackles and receptions, which meant he rarely sat during a typical small town football game. When I asked him about sitting out for concussions while in games, he simply chuckled a bit. Any athlete can understand not wanting to sit out because of injury. Hell, Alex Smith sat out for a concussion and has, effectively, lost his job this season to a rook who broke the NFL playoff record for QB rushing yards last night in Colin Kaepernick.

My dad recalled one game against their crosstown rival Fox (#2 on his “Knocked Out” List). His senior year, my dad was playing against a linebacker named Robert Jackson, who he described as a flat-footed brick house, who just happened to be the fastest player on the field. My dad played TE and could block as well as catch passes. On one play, he ran head on for Jackson, and Jackson ran head on for him. They hit each other, and my dad described going limp to the ground. “I woke up, and looked up, and he was staring back at me with the same confused face.” They had knocked each other out.

Now, my dad doesn’t remember much, but the drive kept going, with him in it. Well, at least until they reached a fourth down. My dad was in charge of punting, and the coaches wanted the ball out of the hands of the return man.

“Punt it out of bounds, Worsham,” one of his friends said to him in the huddle.

“Run out of bounds?” my dad asked.

That’s when they called a time out to administer some smelling salts to him on the sideline.

“I finished the game, though.”

This too is now a severe penalty in the NFL. The rules nowadays state that, if anyone on the field shows visible signs of head trauma, then they must exit the field for an evaluation to test their mental capacities against baseline tests done in the beginning of the season.

“We were pretty rough…never really considered the consequences, to tell you the truth. We just had a hell of a time. And, sometimes, we took the blows. We didn’t have the sophisticated helmets. You just got one that was your size, that looked pretty good, and you’d put your chin strap on and go to town.”

My dad told me that one technique he used quite often was the “swat n’ swim” move that he perfected under the tutelage of Larry Lacewell while attending a Barry Switzer football camp.

Back in the day, my dad loved the University of Oklahoma, and the feeling was mutual. He had a burning desire to dawn the crimson and cream and play for the powerhouse of the time, Sooners. Led by Barry Switzer (a career that would end in controversy), OU was renown for their hard-hitting demeanor.

In 1976, my dad attended the Barry Switzer football camp at the OU campus. “The whole time, we never even saw Swizter,” he told me.

But he, apparently, caught an earful from assistant coach Larry Lacewell, who headed up my dad’s lineman training.

My dad described the common move of the day, the “swat n’ swim.”

Basically, when they jumped off the line, their objective was to bash the helmet of the guy guarding you, using your forearm as some sort of prehistoric club. When it was my dad’s turn, he clobbered some guy so hard, it sent him back “a good five feet.”

Technically, he had blocked the guy superbly, but for this drill, he still needed more refinement.

“What’s your name, boy?” my dad recalls Lacewell yelling at him.

“Worsham, sir.”

“Well, Worsham, you’ve got a hell of a swat! But we’re gonna have to work on that swim,” he told him.

And, yes, you guessed it. This too has been outlawed in the League. Nowadays, the swat’s been taken out, and they call this the “swim” move. Any hands to the head (especially QB’s or lineman) result in yardage loss and possible action from the commissioner. Indeed, all that “swattin'” seems to have been for not.

Or, maybe, all that hittin’ and smashin’ really did change these guys.

“Looking back on it now, it really gives you pause.”

Sitting at the dinner table, hovering over some of my mom’s homemade burritos, I could see the heavy bags underneath my dad’s eyes and his receding hairline.

“It’s been a while, having trouble sleeping, not being able to get comfortable a lot of nights. Roll around, toss and turn. Sleep for a little bit, wake up, roll around. Sleep for a little bit, wake up, look at the clock, roll around, and sleep. Wake up before the alarm goes off. Might go two, three nights in a row like that,” my dad said.

The only drug found in Seau’s body after his death was Zolpidem, commonly sold as Ambien, which is used to treat insomnia.

For my dad, he does have some aches and pains, but the amount of which were caused by severe blows to the head through football is hard to tell.

“I chalk most of it up to just being old,” he told me.

But as a son, you can’t help worrying. My parents decided to keep me out of football until I reached eligibility for my school team. By the time I reached eighth grade, I made for a fairly talented receiver, but basketball and baseball were my games. I always took each at bat in baseball as a personal battle, both mental and physical, between me and the pitcher. In my mind, there was no way I would ever submit myself to being struck out by anyone. I had a lot of pride in the batter’s box. And a great on-base percentage.

As my dad described it, “It’s a mano e mano type of thing…I’m going to take you down, and there’s nothing you can do about it.”

Knowing what we know now, it’s easy to say that football causes problems. Done incorrectly, you could die. However, done correctly, you could also die. It’s an unwritten contract every player signs when they step out on the field. My dad and many others like him were guys who were willing to put their lives on the line to sacrifice for others. This trait has never left my dad.

One of my most vivid memories as a child took place, seated in a ’95 Chevy Suburban. My little sister, Tia, was hospitalized as a premature newborn and spent her first three months in a neonatal intensive care unit. Money was incredibly tight, and my dad worked all day just to make it out to the hospital at night on a regular basis. We sat in that Suburban one weekend while my dad went into a pawn shop to sell whatever he could of his prized family heirlooms and personal treasures, just to make end’s meet.

There’s no doubt in my mind that the leadership and commitment my dad learned on the football field transitioned to the oilfield and our family. He has an amazing career and, if I do say so myself, an incredible family.

With all of the science and info out there, my dad does have one regret when it comes to his abusive play in the past. “I wish I would’ve been more dedicated.”

Yes, given all he knows, my dad only wishes, now, that he had tried even harder. This pursuit of excellence is another trait that has never left him. He used to ask me if I would put my signature on the work I did mowing the front yard. Football has forever shaped his will and dedication.

And this is why, despite the risks, young men will continue to pound themselves and others into oblivion–it makes you feel alive, and it teaches you life lessons.

I just wish my dad could get some more sleep.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s