Well, I’ve had an entire seven months to gloat about this — actually, glow more than gloat — but now, playtime is over.
Let the games begin.
The NFL season starts officially Thursday night with my New Orleans Saints hosting the Minnesota Vikings — right on the Superdome floor, where the Vikings’ season came to an unexpected end in January and the euphoria began in earnest.
My Super Bowl champion New Orleans Saints.
And it still feels great stringing those previous words together.
Except that officially — at least for the fans; the team itself stashed the rings at the start of training camp — as of the opening kickoff Thursday evening, they’ll no longer be the Super Bowl champion New Orleans Saints.
They’ll be the defending Super Bowl champion New Orleans Saints.
It officially means, at least in the realm of the fan, that 2009 is over. Time to stash the memories away in a sacred place.
Besides, I’m not sure I’m as excited about this season as I was last one, even though the Saints are a solid choice to repeat. And it’s not totally because of the post-championship hangover or even the dread of Drew Brees facing the Madden Curse.
I’m actually rethinking this whole football fan thing. And it has nothing to do with a certain writer’s gender transition, either. It has everything to do with whether it’s worth seeing and hearing about these guys suffer so much later in life just to satisfy our immediate, vicarious lust for excitement. And not so deep down, I think I know the answer.
For the Saints and their fans, there’s no way there will ever be another moment quite like the one we all experienced in February: the washing away of 43 years of mostly misery, and for the residents of New Orleans, five years after Katrina, a major healing moment for the city’s psyche.
The Katrina factor aside, I knew there will never be anything like your first, and I understand that well. I went through that in 1987 with my other faves, the New York Giants.
There was nothing that ever matched all of us dogpiling in our pal Ron Johnson’s living room in New Haven, dousing each other in Gatorade, laying to rest an an entire lifetime of lousy Giants football. The next season couldn’t help but be a hangover year, but it was generally a fucked-up season anyway: the strike, the league forcing scab players on us, playing scab games that somehow counted in the standings … it was a lost season.
And when they returned to the Super Bowl three years after that, it wasn’t quite the same. There was dogpiling in the living room when Scott Norwood missed the field goal, but generally it was a more subdued time watching the game — even though we knew we were watching the best Super Bowl of all time.
At least until the Giants-Patriots 17 years later. I was running up and down the hall of my last house in Fresno yelling like an idiot — as much because it was such a surprise that the Giants made the Super Bowl in the first place as it was that they toppled the Patriots of Destiny.
But even before that, I was starting to rethink how deeply I want to be involved in a sport with so much baggage on the back end of life for the guys we root for every week.
I’ve been following the stories for years about the lasting damage these players suffer in the name of glory and Lombardi trophies, guys I grew up watching — and men who, as you’ll read if you go to many of the accompanying links, have had the goddamndest time getting any financial support from the NFL or its Players’ Association. Granted, no one held a gun to their heads to play, but no one really knew the consequences as well as we do now.
- Former Raiders and Buccaneers center Dave Pear, who played in Super Bowl XV with a broken neck, has been among the most vocal ex-players with his blog — suffering constant crippling pain but beating the drum for his fellow walking wounded.
- Conrad Dobler, the onetime dirtiest player in football as a guard for the St. Louis Cardinals, whose life is a constant shitstorm: more than 30 knee surgeries, gulping down Vicodin to cope with the pain — and, oh yeah, tending to a wife rendered quadriplegic by a freak accident and trying to salvage his business.
- Earl Campbell, a seemingly indestructible cross between a bull and a bowling ball during his days winning the Heisman at Texas and earning a Hall of Fame ring with the Houston Oilers, is now, at 55, stooped and reduced to using a walker; three years ago, he needed six minutes to navigate the 40 yards he used to cover in five seconds.
- Jimmie Giles, the Bucs’ gifted tight end of the late ’70s and early ’80s, who’s wracked by pain from four degenerative discs in his back.
- Jim Otto, the Raiders’ ultimate warrior, who had nearly 70 surgeries before losing his right leg to an infection from an artificial knee replacement.
- Reggie Williams, the onetime Bengals linebacker and later Cincinnati city councilman, who nearly lost his right leg early last year because of infection and old football injuries.
- Wesley Walker, a blazing receiver for the Jets in the mid-’80s, practically crippled by nerve damage and chronic pain; he can’t even feel his feet.
- Even two of the all-time great quarterbacks suffered the wrath. Joe Montana, only four years older than me, hobbled with a pain in his neck, a chronic bad left knee and nerve damage to an eye. And there was John Unitas, the ultimate leader who so many kids tried to emulate; his golden passing arm turned limp in his later years from the lingering effects of a 1968 injury. When he dropped dead of a heart attack nine years ago Saturday, it was during a physical therapy session for the arm.
And for years, there have been far too many stories about head injuries — the concussions and brain damage. There are way too many horrific stories, and these are just the ones involving players whose names we recognize.
- John Mackey, the Baltimore Colts’ Hall of Fame tight end whose well-publicized battles with dementia and the NFL led to the league’s “88 Plan” (after Mackey’s uniform number) to offer assistance to players with Alzheimer’s and other forms of dementia.
- Willie Wood, the Hall of Fame safety from Vince Lombardi’s Packers and first black pro head coach in the modern era (the World Football League’s Philadelphia Bell, 1974-75), wheeled into a Congressional hearing last year, also suffering from dementia.
- Gene Hickerson, the Cleveland Browns’ guard who opened holes for three Hall of Famers (Jim Brown, Bobby Mitchell and Leroy Kelly); ravaged by Alzheimer’s, 14 months before his death he was wheeled onto the stage in Canton for his Hall of Fame induction ceremony.
- Wally Hilgenberg, the longtime Vikings linebacker who died of chronic traumatic encephalopathy, or CTE, or, as boxers know it, dementia pugilistica — punch drunk syndrome.
- Al Toon and Wayne Chrebet, two other beloved Jets receivers from the ’80s and ’90s, respectively, who have been dealing with the lingering effects of the multiple concussions that forced them kicking and screaming into retirement.
- Kyle Turley, the wildman guard for the Saints, Rams and Chiefs in the ’90s and ’00s, who has had several scary episiodes related to head injuries, including passing out and violently vomiting. Earlier this year, he was one of several players past and present who donated their brains for posthumous study by Boston University researchers.
- And of a much more recent vintage, there’s Ted Johnson, the former Patriots linebacker who, in his mid-30s, showed early signs of Alzheimer’s.
- Andre Waters, the onetime hard-hitting Eagles safety who shot himself to death in 2006. He was 44 at the time of his death, but Dr. Bennett Omalu, a University of Pittsburgh neuropathologist who has become a leading expert on the lasting effects of football head injuries, said Waters’ brain tissue was that of an 85-year-old man, and tied the suicide to his football injuries.
- And the trio of Steelers who died early. Mike Webster — Iron Mike, the Hall of Fame center through most of the dynasty years — who lived a life of pure hell (as did his family), with dementia and a laundry list of physical ailments, to boot, before his suffering ended at 50 in 2002. Justin Strelczyk, the lineman from the ’95 AFC champs, who was 36 when he rammed his pickup into a gasoline tanker during a high-speed, wrong-way ride on the New York State Thruway in 2004. Terry Long, the late-’80s/early-’90s guard whose CTE was a contributing factor in his suicide by antifreeze in 2005 at 45.
And then the news came out this summer about Chris Henry.
The Bengals receiver, who died of head trauma in December after falling out the back of a moving pickup during a dispute with his fiancee, never had a reported concussion during his playing days at West Virginia and Cincinnati.
Well, his mother donated his brain to the Brain Injury Research Institute at West Virginia University, where Omalu and Dr. Julian Bailes discovered that Henry, just 26 when he died, had developed CTE — the first deceased player diagnosed with CTE who had it while still active.
And as it concerns my Saints, I’m convinced Reggie Bush has never been the same since Sheldon Brown of the Eagles leveled him and rang his bell on the second play of New Orleans’ 2006 season playoff opener. That was one of the most vicious hits I’ve ever seen, and while he was always a finesse back, he seems to have been quite hesitant and skittish since that tackle his rookie year. What will his brain be like in 20 years?
And what does it mean down the road for a couple of Hall of Fame QBs of recent vintage, Steve Young and Troy Aikman, who had to retire because of repeated concussions? And the future Hall of Famer, Kurt Warner, whose career was ended by one final concussion (of many) in the playoffs in New Orleans in January?
What’s in store for them, and others like them, in two decades? All for the sake of some very good upfront money, a shot at bling and fleeting fame for the players; for cheap thrills, an excuse to party and maybe the prospect of a few fantasy points for the rest of us. And then they’re discarded — and, from the evidence, ignored and neglected — by the league and the teams that printed money off their talents in their day.
I pretty much told myself a year or so ago that I would continue being a fan at least until the Saints won the Super Bowl. Of course, I didn’t know they’d do it that quickly. And when that happened, I said, OK, at least until their Super Bowl run is over. We’ll see.
But I’m not so sure; with everything I’ve read about these poor ex-players to date, my conscience isn’t terribly clear at the moment.
I did sign up for our Bee and Beyond fantasy league for the third straight year, and I’ll try to get up a temperature for that. And I’ll definitely be watching somewhere Thursday night when the champs go up against Brett Favre once again, as he hobbles on the ankle the Saints nearly obliterated in the NFC Championship, throwing to a depleted receiving corps as the men in black and gold attempt to finish the job on him.
But how much longer do I want to do this? How much longer do I support a sport that exacts such a toll on the guys we cheer for?
For what it’s worth, since it might be my last year doing it, here are my preseason picks:
NFC EAST: Giants, Cowboys, Eagles, Washington (and any of the first three can win it).
NFC NORTH: Packers, Lions, Bears, Vikings (yes, last — an injured Favre and a depleted receiving corps mean big trouble).
NFC SOUTH: Saints, Falcons, Panthers, Buccaneers (that is, if Drew Brees avoids the Madden Curse).
NFC WEST: 49ers, Cardinals, Seahawks, Rams.
WILD CARDS: Cowboys, Falcons.
AFC EAST: Jets, Dolphins, Patriots, Bills.
AFC NORTH: Ravens, Steelers, Bengals, Browns.
AFC SOUTH: Colts, Texans, Titans, Jaguars.
AFC WEST: Chargers, Raiders, Chiefs, Broncos.
WILD CARDS: Texans, Dolphins.
SUPER BOWL: If there’s no Madden Curse, Saints over Chargers. If Brees goes down, Packers over Chargers.
UPDATE 9/10: Well I watched the game with my old Fresno Bee sports crew — which pretty much is my poker crew as well — at a friend’s house last night. (Looked a little bit weird being my femme self but rocking my Drew Brees Super Bowl jersey.) I was happy to see a Saints victory, regardless of the low score (14-9). The game said a lot about New Orleans’ defense, and while the offense seemed to sputter, I had the feeling Sean Payton was trying new things out against Minnesota — kind of an exhibition game that counted in the standings.
Was kinda happy with one of the Saints on my fantasy team — Marques Colston came up with 62 yards, for 6.2 points — but definitely not happy with the other Saint on my squad; Garrett Hartley blew two easy field goals. That cost me six points. Luckily, the guy I’m up against this week is starting Derek Anderson at quarterback this weekend; I have Philip Rivers (plus the other Chargers stud, the rookie running back from Fresno State, Ryan Mathews).
On the other hand, speaking of players turning into cripples in their old age, I don’t think anyone who saw the game believes Favre is in very good shape. He was hesitant, favoring the bum ankle, and looked much more tentative than he should have. To coin an old cliche, I think he’s finally gone back to the well one too many times. This is going to be one ugly final season in the Twin Cities. And what’s he gonna be walking like in 10 years?
And while I enjoyed the game, I didn’t get all crazy over it. I was excited at the outset, just because it was the season-opener, it was my Saints and anytime I hear the deafening roar in the Superdome it raises my adrenaline level. But that disspiated quickly after the Saints’ opening-drive score. I’m not sure whether it was because this is only one of 16(-plus) games or all the reasons I mentioned above. I do know, though, it was good to see everyone leave the field relatively healthy; no one was helped or carted off.
UPDATE 9/14: The New York Times ran another disturbing football brain damage story yesterday (by Alan Schwarz, who should win some journalism award for the yeoman’s work he’s been doing to uncover this problem). This one skews much younger than Chris Henry. Boston University researchers found early stages of CTE in the brain of Owen Thomas, the 21-year-old University of Pennsylvania lineman who hanged himself in April.
Thomas killed himself after what his family and friends called an uncharacteristic emotional collapse. His parents said he never even complained of a headache, and he had never been diagnosed with a concussion.
The researchers cautioned against directly linking his death to football, since suicide is prevalent among college students. But they said the fact they found the early stages of CTE in a man so young means it might have played a role in his death.
It also raises the possibility, provided Thomas wasn’t hiding any concussions, that CTE can be caused not just by concussions, but by thousands of subconcussive collisions.
Scary stuff. Do I really, truly want to watch these guys get their heads bashed in?