A few years ago in Destin at the Southeastern Conference Spring Meetings, Steve Spurrier, who’s always good for a quote, talked about today’s game and noted, “The players are bigger, stronger and faster than ever before. The field’s still the same size it’s always been.”
Spurrier had plenty of other things to say that day, things that were more in touch with pressing issues in the Southeastern Conference, so the comment about bigger, faster players and a field that remains the same size hardly created a ripple. I thought about that comment today when reading an insightful piece by Matt Hayes of The Sporting News, who spoke to Arkansas coach Brett Bielema following the retirement announcement by San Francisco 49ers linebacker Chris Borland. Borland, who played for Bielema at Wisconsin, is calling it quits at age 24, citing a desire to live a longer, healthier life.
Borland’s retirement comes at a time when several current and former NFL players are writing it in their wills that their brains be donated to science for the study of concussions and when both the National Football League and college football are trying to rewrite the rules in an attempt to make the game safer. Although concussions are at the top of the concerns list, there are numerous ongoing studies about the knee, ankle, shoulder and back injuries and their lingering affect on players once they give up the game for good.
A year ago, Bielema was ripped to shreds for asking for an 11-second delay before the ball can be snapped once the 40-second play clock is flipped on in the college game. Nobody wanted to believe Bielema’s concern was for the health of players.
Talking to Hayes Tuesday, Bielema said, “We have to protect student athletes to extremes we never thought of before. I just read a study that said players in the no-huddle, hurry-up offense play the equivalent of five more games than those that don’t. That’s an incredible number. Our awareness as a whole has to increase.”
Consider this: Oregon played 15 games in the recently concluded season when you add in the Pac-12 championship game and two playoff games. If the study Bielema cited is to be taken as fact, then Oregon’s athletes played the equivalent of a 20-game season. When you throw in all the increased number of plays Oregon ran off in practice, that’s a staggering thought and makes you question the wear and tear on the athletes.
Now take a moment to consider Spurrier’s statement from Destin a few years back. Players are indeed bigger, stronger and faster than ever before which means they cover ground faster than ever and when they collide with another player the pain is more intense and the chance for injury is greater.
Back in Spurrier’s senior season of 1966, Guy Dennis was considered a monster of an offensive lineman. He was 250 pounds. The best offensive line in the history of the University of Florida was “The Great Wall” of 1984, which featured only one 300-pounder. Across the line it was Lomas Brown (280), Jeff Zimmerman (310), Phil Bromley (255), Billy Hinson (270) and Crawford Ker (285). They were considered monstrous.
When the Gators played Oklahoma for the national championship in Miami in 2008, the Gators lined up like this across the offensive line: Phil Trautwein (310), Carl Johnson (340), Maurkice Pouncey (312), Mike Pouncey (312) and Jason Watkins (310).
It’s not just the linemen who are huge. Last season Florida tailback Matt Jones (232 pounds) weighed more than Mac Steen, who was an All-SEC left tackle at 227 pounds.
The added weight means added strength and more speed. Combine all those things and it tells you the collisions of the 1960s pale in comparison.
Wrote Hayes on Tuesday:
“The more times a 245-pound linebacker and a 230-pound tailback — in the prime of their athletic lives — meet on the field in a violent collision, the more chance there is for destructive injury.”
The destructive injuries and concussions tell only part of the story because typically, the body breaks down. We read the stories about former NFL players whose memories start failing in their 40s and 50s because of all the concussions they suffered during their careers. We hear about Mike Webster, the All-Pro center who had dementia from all his concussions. We read about Junior Seau committing suicide.
A few years back, I got Wilber Marshall to do a feature piece for Fightin’ Gators magazine. Wilber was one of those bigger, stronger and faster players that Spurrier was talking about. He was 232 pounds when he played. Before all the injuries he could run sprints with the fastest backs in the league. When he hit people, they typically went down in a heap and opponents wore the bruises for weeks to come.
Wilber played 12 years in the NFL and won a Super Bowl ring with the Chicago Bears and another one with the Washington Redskins. He played healthy and he played hurt. During his career he suffered debilitating injuries to his shoulder, knees, ankles and back. He played through more concussions than he cares to remember. The last 6-7 years of his career he didn’t play a game without some sort of painkilling injection.
His reward? He’s permanently disabled and spent more than 10 years battling the NFL for total disability benefits before he won his lawsuit in 2008.
When I did the interview with Wilber, he talked freely about his injuries and the pain that will never leave him. He played the game because he loved it and because it enabled him to take care of his family. He considers each of the injuries the price he paid so he could take care of the people he loved.
But he does wish more attention had been paid by the people in charge of the game to player safety.
Tuesday I thought back to all the years I’ve written about college football. I covered my first college game in 1966 for the McComb (Mississippi) Enterprise-Journal. Alabama went undefeated that year but the people who voted on the national champions awarded a co-championship to Notre Dame and Michigan State, who played to a 10-10 tie. Alabama’s offensive line barely averaged 200 pounds per man yet the Crimson Tide manhandled Nebraska in the Sugar Bowl, 34-7. Nebraska’s offensive and defensive lines – considered monstrous – averaged barely more than 230 pounds per man. I bring that up because I don’t recall the kind of devastating injuries we see today.
Nor do I remember the kind of injuries we see today in the 1970s or even the 1980s, but I have seen the serious injuries increase almost yearly in the last 25 years. Why? Think back to what Spurrier said. Bigger, stronger, faster and the field is still the same size.
I love college football but I’m concerned about the game. I see the size and speed of the players and wonder how much of what we see is natural evolution, better strength and conditioning techniques and improved nutrition? I also see some of these bulked up players and wonder how much is the result of better living through chemistry, particularly when I read how athletes are constantly in search of that chemist who has the next generation of undetectable performance enhancement drugs?
Bigger, stronger and faster players make for a faster and more athletic game that is highly entertaining but would fans still watch the game if the players weren’t quite as big, strong or fast? Are the colleges and pros doing enough to police the use of performance enhancing drugs or are they turning a blind eye to something they know is going on because they don’t want to lose a competitive edge?
I remember the helmets and pads we played with back when I played the game and I marvel at how much better it is now, but at the same time, when I see all these billions of dollars pouring into the college and pro games and the investment being made into making players bigger, stronger and faster, I have to wonder when we’ll see an equal or greater investment into better equipment and player safety?
Instead of seeing players wearing state of the art equipment made with some of the energy absorbing materials that can stop bullets in their tracks at point blank range, I see players taking the field without pads that protect the knees and thighs. I see uniforms that expose biceps. Bulging biceps may look very cool, but after all the stories about biceps tears in recent years, I have to wonder why coaches let their players take the field without some sort of protection.
I see coaches on the sidelines arguing and screaming about targeting penalties and I hear the fans in packed stadiums screaming their lungs out and shouting obscenities at the referees who dare make a call that can protect a player from another concussion.
One of the reasons I love football is that it attracts such incredibly gifted athletes but I have to wonder are we heading toward a wholesale exodus from the game by these same gifted athletes because they’re convinced not enough is being done to promote safety?
It’s something to think about.
Two-part question: Do you believe that college and pro football are investing enough money into making the game safer? Do you think that a safer game is a less entertaining game?
Everybody remembers Procol Harum for their 1967 megahit “Whiter Shade of Pale” which was based on Johann Sebastian Bach’s “Orchesteral Suite No. 3 in D Major.” Of their singles, “Whiter Shade of Pale” sold the most copies and made it to #5 on the Billboard charts. I actually liked their 1972 single “Conquistador” best among the songs they released. This was off the band’s “Procol Harum Live in Concert with the Edmonton Symphony Orchestra” which made it to #5 on the Billboard album charts.