With considerable work still remaining on the first documentary of his burgeoning entertainment and filmmaking career, former NFL tailback Dorsey Levens isn't ready yet to begin pitching "Bell Rung," a sobering examination of the physical perils of the game that he played for 11 pro seasons, to potential buyers.
When the project is complete, though, it's a pretty good bet that Levens, best known for his standout tenure with the Green Bay Packers, won't approach any of the so-called "family" networks. Think, like, HBO or Showtime, not any of the major over-the-air networks, nor even some cable outlets, like ESPN, where it might otherwise seem to be a natural.
"It's raw," said Levens, who has interviewed current and past players such as Ellis Hobbs, Takeo Spikes, Ronnie Brown, Wayne Gandy, Richard Seymour, Deon Grant, and others, for the documentary. "The language is raw. The emotions and the passion are raw. The anger is raw. It's just . . . well, really raw."
After hours of taped interviews, sessions in which the players address in graphic detail the physical perils and frequently extenuating and debilitating circumstances of a game at which they earn a living, and discussions with leading neurologists and pathologists conducting ongoing studies of head-related injuries in the league, Levens is worn raw as well.
Raw, but hardly oblivious to the culture detailed by the players, or the mindset under which they operate.
After all, he's been there, having played with three teams, rushed for nearly 5,000 yards and scored 53 combined touchdowns rushing and receiving, appeared in a Pro Bowl, participated in two Super Bowl games and started one of them, and been elected to the prestigious Packers' Hall of Fame. Oh, yeah, Levens has experienced injuries, too, so he can connect firsthand with the tales that players relate to him.
Part of Levens' hook is that he has been part of the game, and so players are more likely to candidly discuss their injuries with him. Said Levens: "We're part of the same fraternity. Unfortunately, it's a fraternity, where you pay (your dues) with your body. You're not supposed to, or allowed to, show that you're hurt."
In a recent story on CNN, Hobbs likened his spine to a jelly doughnut, recalling that one of his vertebrae "squeezed out the back" of his neck in a 2009 injury. Grant tells of the "dingers" that he still regularly suffers, despite a specially designed helmet. Former league linebacker Jamie Winborn is afraid to visit a physician for a physical, because of what an examining doctor might tell him. Former Georgia Tech teammate and close friend Ryan Stewart, who once played safety for Detroit and now co-hosts a popular sports-radio talk show here, spoke of using his head and his helmet as a missile when he was playing.
A former player whose identity is mentioned only off-the-record by Levens has suffered memory lapses, recently carried on two inane conversations at once in the presence of the former star running back, is incessantly battling with his wife, who "thinks he is crazy," according to Levens, and displayed hair-trigger irritability.
"The guy," Levens said, "is a mess. It's sad; there's no other word for it."
RB Dorsey Levens
Said Levens: "You see this kind of stuff and think, like, ‘What were we thinking?' The answer is actually pretty simple: We weren't thinking.
"We were just crazy."
Levens, 41 and out of the game since 2006, has apparently been doing plenty of thinking, and planning, since his retirement. Naturally creative, he said, since his childhood, Levens has turned to acting. As a kid, he pursued football and basketball, and now he's chasing his football afterlife. He has appeared in two movies, including "We Are Marshall." In about three weeks, Levens will be in his second stage play, "Stripped," which he co-authored. The play, which will be performed at the Ferst Center for the Arts, at Georgia Tech, revolves around a former NFL player who essentially loses his marriage and his fortune.
It is only semi-autobiographical, said Levens, who has thankfully managed to avoid many of the pitfalls of a subset he said suffered an 80 percent divorce rate after three years and an 80 percent bankruptcy ratio after five years. The play, which is much anticipated here, features Jayden Dorsey, a character Levens created as a sort of compendium of people he met, and experiences he heard of, during his career.
But it might be "Bell Rung," the documentary with the football-appropriate title, that most motivates Levens right now, and occupies much of his time. Given the recent emphasis on head-related injuries in the NFL, the timing of "Bell Rung," motivated in part by the suicide death of former Chicago safety Dave Duerson this spring, is fairly apt. Adding to it, The Sports Xchange spoke with Levens about the documentary on Thursday afternoon, just a few hours after the death of Hall of Fame tight end John Mackey at the age of 69.
The first president of the NFLPA, and a man who battled vigorously to improve the working conditions and benefits for players, Mackey suffered from dementia over the final 10 years of his life.
Levens isn't, by nature, a crusader. But the "Bell Rung" project is one he's embraced and thrown himself into.
"It's really something that we're talking about ‘Bell Rung' today, you know?" Levens said. "John Mackey did so much work in this area. Anything he could say, just seeing him, would be more powerful than anything I'm doing. But, hopefully, with this (documentary), we can raise the awareness. I mean, I don't know the remedy. But I do know this: Every player I talk to, they said that, if they had a son and he wanted to play football, they might let him, but they sure wouldn't push him into it.
"We get into this mindset. We all think we're warriors or something. And in a sense, I guess we are. You know, a man's man. But it's a barbaric game. It's a brutal game. You hear all this stuff now and it's scary. While you're playing, trying to get every season you can, every paycheck, you just don't think about it much. The question is, I guess, is it worth it in the long run?"
Levens, who with the upcoming "Stripped," might not resume filming of "Bell Rung" for another month or two, said he has not heard from anyone at the league office about his undertaking. Nor, with the ongoing CBA talks, he said, would he expect to. He has spoken, though, to NFLPA representatives, and they have been supportive.
His timely documentary, which is expected to be a powerful piece of evidence given the presumed frank approach of the player/subects, might be another chunk of a complicated puzzle.
Like many players who have decried the head-related injuries that have received so much attention of late, Levens doesn't pretend to have solutions. But, while noting that many of the initiatives undertaken by commissioner Roger Goodell in recent years represented a "good first step," he still termed the league stance toward head injuries as "unacceptable."
Rather ironically, despite his football-related injuries, and the "dingers" with which he was confronted during his career, Levens said he sustained just one concussion. It came in his freshman year at Notre Dame, 1989, before he transferred to Georgia Tech, when the equipment managers forgot to pump air into his helmet.
"I came stumbling back to the huddle," Levens said, "and I didn't even know where I was. I didn't know what direction to go. The student managers were all laughing. Me, I didn't know the day, the date, any of that. I remembered my mother's name, and that was it. For whatever reason, even though it's an injury where you forget everything, you never totally forget the feeling of that concussion. That's what I'm trying to awaken people to, I guess.
"If people hear it straight from the guys who have been through it, without any of the usual (stuff), then it might mean a little bit more to them."
Len Pasquarelli is a Senior NFL Writer for The Sports Xchange. He has covered the NFL for 33 years and is a member of the Pro Football Hall of Fame selection committee. His NFL coverage earned recognition as the winner of the McCann Award for distinguished reporting in 2008.