Sunday Slant: Remember those who sacrificed

As the collective bargaining talks continue, the two sides trying to divide $9 billion have to remember the players whose own memories are failing. Those who built the game into the extremely profitable business it is now should be supported in their time of need, and this past week provides front-and-center evidence.

The hits keep coming.

In a league that celebrates the big hits with weekly segments highlighting the most violent bone-jarring collisions, the result of those hits often fade into the shadows. Men in full pads stand and celebrate the violence, and it's admittedly part of what makes the NFL the best viewing sport in the world.

But if fans could only see with any regularity the effects of those hits 30 and 40 years later, the celebrated sentiment might change. Not immediately, because the mass and force of NFL players meeting in the middle of the field is part of the athleticism among the best of the best. But shortly after seeing Troy Polamalu lay into a receiver or Ray Lewis stop a running back dead in his tracks, visions of yesterday's heroes in today's predicament might enter the consciousness of fans if they saw the alumni of the 1960s and '70s with any regularity.

Forty years ago, it was Vikings linebacker Wally Hilgenberg, not Lewis, meting out hammering hits that almost surely had an effect on his post-football career. After suffering from ALS, amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, for two years, Hilgenberg died in 2008.

Hilgenberg, whose brain was sent to Boston University after his death so the effects of concussions could be researched, is far from the only former Viking suffering. Fred McNeill, another linebacker from the Vikings' first two decades of play, is suing the Vikings under California's worker's compensation law and will be the feature of an ESPN report on "Outside the Lines" Sunday at 8 a.m. on ESPN2.

McNeill was officially diagnosed with dementia in July 2009 and was the subject of Viking Update's "Where Are They Now?" series for the February 2011 issue.

"Fred is a brilliant man," his wife Tia told Viking Update during a phone interview for that story. "His doctor has told me that he tried covering this up for a long, long time. He didn't know what he was feeling. He just knew he wasn't being very productive and that he wasn't right. I can only imagine his frustration."

Other Vikings alumni of McNeill's era share that frustration. They are a proud lot that offers no excuses. They didn't like to admit pain or vulnerability during their playing days either. Short sleeves in cold weather and popping dislocated shoulders back into place were just some of the norms of the times.

The rigors of their playing days have left many of them stiff and hobbling in their 50s and 60s. They knew some of that when they signed up for the NFL life, despite many of them needing other jobs during the offseason to support their families. What they didn't figure on was the sport robbing them of their sensibilities later in life because of hits to the head.

"I'm happy to be alive," McNeill said for the magazine article. "I have been fortunate in a lot of different ways. I was in a position where I was making pretty good money. I was an attorney for over 20 years. The biggest case I resolved was a $2.5 million class-action suit."

"… Right now, I'm in the position of shutting down my office. Essentially I'm trying to get more assistance because of the impact of playing football."

The stories off McNeill and Hilgenberg are sad, for sure, but they are far from alone. The last week was a stark reminder of that. Former Colts great John Mackey died after dealing with dementia for a decade. When he still had his mental faculties, he was a leader on and off the field. He was the first president of NFL Players Association during the trying times when the AFL and NFL were merging and later his deteriorating health helped form the "88 Plan," named after his jersey number. It's a program that pays $88,000 annually toward care for former players suffering for dementia if they are in assisted living and $50,000 if they are living at home.

It's a necessary program, but when the NFL is coming off a year in which it was hailed as a $9 billion business, it should be looking to take much better care of those who sacrificed their memories and their futures for those who helped build it into the sports entertainment mecca it is today.

Former Packers running back Dorsey Levens, barely into his 40s, has seen a lot of modern-day players continue to make the health sacrifices of the NFL generations that came before him. Some of those tales will be told in a documentary, "Bell Rung," Levens is working on.

"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," Levens told The Sports Exchange. "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?"

Before Hilgenberg was diagnosed with Lou Gerhig's disease, he continued to preach the passion of the NFL's tough men of his era and question whether today's players were still that tough.

"I question, number one, if they are physically tough enough, and secondly, even more so, if they are mentally tough enough to have played the game with us," Hilgenberg told Viking Update Magazine. "You can be a great physical specimen, but you gotta have heart and you gotta have a head for the game.

"Back then it was really a game. Play hard, blood and guts and play to win. We didn't care about television. We cared about our opponent. The game has really become so theatrical. It's showbiz today and it was a game back then. To me, that's the difference."

Levens' documentary sounds like it will have plenty of evidence that today's players are still playing through the physical and mental pain.

According to The Sports Exchange, Eagles cornerback Ellis Hobbs compared his spine to a jelly doughnut for a story on CNN and former linebacker Jamie Winborn is afraid to visit a doctor because he doesn't want to hear what the results that a physical might show. He's not alone. That same proud but so-wrong sentiment has come from other NFL alumni.

All the evidence brings this conclusion: NFL players, both past and present, not only put up with the inherent violence of the game but have a pride about it. The hits and physicality are part of what separates it from other sports and contributes to the entertainment level. But while current salaries continue to escalate, it is high time the plight of those whose brains have been affected by their passion of the past becomes a priority in the collective bargaining talks and they are taken care of. The evidence is mounting too quickly and too often to ignore. The last week's news screams of it. Those who can't remember should not be forgotten.


Tim Yotter is the publisher of Viking Update. Follow Viking Update on Twitter and discuss this story on our subscriber message board.



Viking Update Top Stories

\r\n\r\n","mobileBody":"The hits keep coming. In a league that celebrates the big hits with weekly segments highlighting the most violent bone-jarring collisions, the result of those hits often fade into the shadows. Men in full pads stand and celebrate the violence, and it's admittedly part of what makes the NFL the best viewing sport in the world. But if fans could only see with any regularity the effects of those hits 30 and 40 years later, the celebrated sentiment might change. Not immediately, because the mass and force of NFL players meeting in the middle of the field is part of the athleticism among the best of the best. But shortly after seeing Troy Polamalu lay into a receiver or Ray Lewis stop a running back dead in his tracks, visions of yesterday's heroes in today's predicament might enter the consciousness of fans if they saw the alumni of the 1960s and '70s with any regularity. Forty years ago, it was Vikings linebacker Wally Hilgenberg, not Lewis, meting out hammering hits that almost surely had an effect on his post-football career. After suffering from ALS, amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, for two years, Hilgenberg died in 2008. Hilgenberg, whose brain was sent to Boston University after his death so the effects of concussions could be researched, is far from the only former Viking suffering. Fred McNeill, another linebacker from the Vikings' first two decades of play, is suing the Vikings under California's worker's compensation law and will be the feature of an ESPN report on \"Outside the Lines\" Sunday at 8 a.m. on ESPN2. McNeill was officially diagnosed with dementia in July 2009 and was the subject of Viking Update's \"Where Are They Now?\" series for the February 2011 issue. \"Fred is a brilliant man,\" his wife Tia told Viking Update during a phone interview for that story. \"His doctor has told me that he tried covering this up for a long, long time. He didn't know what he was feeling. He just knew he wasn't being very productive and that he wasn't right. I can only imagine his frustration.\" Other Vikings alumni of McNeill's era share that frustration. They are a proud lot that offers no excuses. They didn't like to admit pain or vulnerability during their playing days either. Short sleeves in cold weather and popping dislocated shoulders back into place were just some of the norms of the times. The rigors of their playing days have left many of them stiff and hobbling in their 50s and 60s. They knew some of that when they signed up for the NFL life, despite many of them needing other jobs during the offseason to support their families. What they didn't figure on was the sport robbing them of their sensibilities later in life because of hits to the head. \"I'm happy to be alive,\" McNeill said for the magazine article. \"I have been fortunate in a lot of different ways. I was in a position where I was making pretty good money. I was an attorney for over 20 years. The biggest case I resolved was a $2.5 million class-action suit.\" \"… Right now, I'm in the position of shutting down my office. Essentially I'm trying to get more assistance because of the impact of playing football.\" The stories off McNeill and Hilgenberg are sad, for sure, but they are far from alone. The last week was a stark reminder of that. Former Colts great John Mackey died after dealing with dementia for a decade. When he still had his mental faculties, he was a leader on and off the field. He was the first president of NFL Players Association during the trying times when the AFL and NFL were merging and later his deteriorating health helped form the \"88 Plan,\" named after his jersey number. It's a program that pays $88,000 annually toward care for former players suffering for dementia if they are in assisted living and $50,000 if they are living at home. It's a necessary program, but when the NFL is coming off a year in which it was hailed as a $9 billion business, it should be looking to take much better care of those who sacrificed their memories and their futures for those who helped build it into the sports entertainment mecca it is today. Former Packers running back Dorsey Levens, barely into his 40s, has seen a lot of modern-day players continue to make the health sacrifices of the NFL generations that came before him. Some of those tales will be told in a documentary, \"Bell Rung,\" Levens is working on. \"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,\" Levens told The Sports Exchange. \"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?\" Before Hilgenberg was diagnosed with Lou Gerhig's disease, he continued to preach the passion of the NFL's tough men of his era and question whether today's players were still that tough. \"I question, number one, if they are physically tough enough, and secondly, even more so, if they are mentally tough enough to have played the game with us,\" Hilgenberg told Viking Update Magazine. \"You can be a great physical specimen, but you gotta have heart and you gotta have a head for the game. \"Back then it was really a game. Play hard, blood and guts and play to win. We didn't care about television. We cared about our opponent. The game has really become so theatrical. It's showbiz today and it was a game back then. To me, that's the difference.\" Levens' documentary sounds like it will have plenty of evidence that today's players are still playing through the physical and mental pain. According to The Sports Exchange, Eagles cornerback Ellis Hobbs compared his spine to a jelly doughnut for a story on CNN and former linebacker Jamie Winborn is afraid to visit a doctor because he doesn't want to hear what the results that a physical might show. He's not alone. That same proud but so-wrong sentiment has come from other NFL alumni. All the evidence brings this conclusion: NFL players, both past and present, not only put up with the inherent violence of the game but have a pride about it. The hits and physicality are part of what separates it from other sports and contributes to the entertainment level. But while current salaries continue to escalate, it is high time the plight of those whose brains have been affected by their passion of the past becomes a priority in the collective bargaining talks and they are taken care of. The evidence is mounting too quickly and too often to ignore. The last week's news screams of it. Those who can't remember should not be forgotten. 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