Closer Look: NFL Focuses on Hard Hits, Concussions
The National Football League is paying a bit more attention these days to the problem of concussions and vicious hits to the head as if it might somehow put an end to serious injuries in a brutal game.
Commissioner Roger Goodell fined three players for violent hits in violation of NFL playing rules two weeks ago and warned all players, coaches and owners that any more such head-butting could result in suspensions for players and even coaches.
Meanwhile, the owners continue to wish for an extension of the regular season from 16 to 18 games. If successful, players would be exposed to many more of these high speed helmet-ramming impacts that threaten to cause major brain damage, paralysis or death.
Surely Commissioner Goodell can’t believe that the modern, high speed, big man game of professional football as coached and played in the 21st century is going to be free of any contact with an opponent’s head whether within the rules or outside those rules of play.
As Nate Jackson, a former Denver Bronco player wrote in a New York Times op-ed piece a week ago today, “The truth is that NFL players have been using their heads as weapons since they first donned pads as children. It’s the nature of the sport … When a player is moving forward, his knees are bent and his body is leaning forward, the head leads no matter what.”
And it is not always the victim of the hit or the tackle who suffers the injury when the opponent lowers his head and illegally butts the ball carrier or quarterback or someone else. Sometimes it is the player making the tackle or hit who is injured by lowering his head and ramming it into the body of an opponent.
Such was the very tragic case of the Rutgers tight end Eric LeGrand Oct. 16, who was paralyzed below the neck after he made a hard tackle on Army’s Malcolm Brown, who was returning a kickoff in the fourth quarter at New Jersey’s New Meadowlands Stadium. High school, college and professional football have long histories of such unfortunate injuries. Some players recover to walk again, and some do not.
But football is not a game of patty-cake and never has been. President Theodore Roosevelt threatened in 1905 to have the game outlawed if the colleges playing football did not change the rules to prohibit such extremely dangerous practices as the flying wedge offense that mowed down and trampled over defenders as if they were stalks of corn before a reaper. Teddy Roosevelt was rightfully angered by the number of serious injuries and deaths in college football.
The result was the creation of an organization in 1906 to revise football rules. This outfit became the National Collegiate Athletic Association.
Repeated episodes of head injuries to one person have apparently led to early deaths among retired players, Alzheimer’s disease and suicides, according to recent reports. There have been many famous, crippling injuries suffered by college and pro football players that resulted in a lifetime disability for the victims.
But 50 years ago, one of the most famous or infamous hits ever made in the NFL occurred in the original Yankee Stadium, and the injured athlete eventually survived after a lengthy recovery. Both men involved in the play are still living as octogenarians.
On Nov. 20, 1960, Chuck Bednarik of the Philadelphia Eagles laid out Frank Gifford of the New York Giants with such a serious concussion that the Giants’ halfback not only missed the four remaining games of that season but also the entire 1961 campaign.
When he returned in 1962, Gifford moved from halfback to flanker back or wide receiver. As a pass receiver instead of a ball carrying halfback, he would supposedly be in less peril of getting hit so often.
But ironically, Bednarik made his crushing tackle of Gifford at the Philadelphia 35-yard line when the halfback caught a pass over the middle. After the catch Gifford headed for his right sideline in an attempt to get out of bounds and stop the clock in the closing seconds when the Eagles’ linebacker leveled him.
The Philadelphia Eagles, who had trailed the New York Giants 10-0 at halftime, charged back to a 17-10 lead with two and a half minutes remaining in a battle for first place in the NFL’s Eastern Division. The Giants were in the process of staging a comeback drive in the closing moments when the collision occurred.
Of course, Bednarik’s slam dunk of Gifford jarred the ball loose, and the Eagles’ Chuck Weber recovered to assure the Philadelphia victory.
The hit was completely legal. Bednarik’s head and helmet did not strike Gifford. Circling in on Gifford from the halfback’s right, Bednarik actually made contact when the two were face to face. It may be that Bednarik’s left shoulder and thus a hard shoulder pad caught Gifford under the chin.
They both fell to the ground, and Bednarik immediately bounded up to see that his teammate had recovered the fumble. Gifford lay there flat on his back and out cold.
Anyone can see the Bednarik-Gifford hit on the Internet by searching “Chuck Bednarik” and then clicking on “Chuck Bednarik video”.
Bednarik, who was born and raised in the hardscrabble environment of the eastern Pennsylvania steel mills, served as a gunner on a B-24 bomber for 30 missions over Germany in World War II before entering the University of Pennsylvania. He played both offense and defense in college, 1946-1948, and with the Eagles, 1949-1962, as a center and linebacker. Gifford was an all-American back at Southern California.
Retiring as the last of the NFL’s 60-minute men, Bednarik has long scorned modern NFL athletes for playing either offense or defense and not both ways.
Bednarik was known as “Concrete Charlie” with good reason. Gifford must have felt as if he was struck by a ton of cement. He was taken to a hospital, recovered without an apparent lasting brain injury, eventually retired after the 1964 season and went on to become famous as one of the trio of announcers on ABC’s “Monday Night Football” telecasts.
Bednarik and Gifford have been joined forever as the hitter and the hittee in this famous collision. Both are in the College Football Hall of Fame in South Bend, Ind., and the Pro Football Hall of Fame in Canton, Ohio. But possibly most importantly and most fortunately for each, these two men have survived that mighty collision of half a century ago.
Bednarik at 85 and Gifford at 80 are truly among the lucky ones. Too many NFL players who met on the field of play in that manner are dead or paralyzed. That is why NFL and college administrators must continue studying the long-range impact of concussion injuries if the game is to survive.
Gordon White served 43 years as a sports reporter for The New York Times. His e-mail is sports@thepilot. com.
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