Time Is Now for NFL Awareness Month

By Michael Kaufman

If you have been watching any National Football League games this month you have no doubt noticed the players wearing pink shoes or sporting pink ribbon symbols on their jerseys. You’ve seen fans standing and cheering in honor of women introduced on the field as survivors of breast cancer. As the TV announcers put it, the NFL is a “proud supporter” of Breast Cancer Awareness Month. I hope one day there will also be an NFL Awareness Month and people will cheer for the widows and caretakers of men who suffered paralysis, brain damage, blown out knees, or other crippling injuries—or who simply died too young as a result of playing professional football (the average life span of an NFL player is well below the national average).

Johnny Unitas, one of the all-time great quarterbacks, died of a heart attack in 2002 at age 69. When I saw him last at a public appearance he could barely walk. Sandra Unitas remembers how her husband late in life could barely sign autographs with his once-powerful right hand. She told a reporter for the Baltimore Sun that she used to find rubber bands strapped to pens he had jerry-rigged so he could scrawl his name. His renowned “Golden Arm” was no longer of much use due to a tendon injury suffered during a 1968 preseason game. Sandra testified at a House subcommittee hearing in 2007 that investigated the league’s a disability system after complaints from numerous retired players that it was too difficult even for those with debilitating football injuries to qualify for benefits. Even her legendary husband’s disability claim was denied. “He would have been there,” she said of the hearing. “This is something deep to his heart. He was very disappointed in the league’s action—or lack of action.”

Tight end John Mackey, one of Unitas’ favorite pass receivers was also 69 when he died in 2011. In 10 seasons with the Colts and Chargers, Mackey caught 331 passes for 5,236 yards. In 1992 he joined Unitas as a member of the Pro Football Hall of Fame, the second tight end to be inducted. A few years ago he appeared on “60 Minutes” with his wife Sylvia. She did most of the talking because her husband had become so demented she had to prompt him to remember that he’d played for the Colts. Last year, researchers at Boston University reported that Mackey had suffered from chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE), a chronic degenerative brain disease. Despite rules changes enacted in recent years to improve safety, trauma remains an integral part of all NFL games. Viewers love those bone-crunching hits and tackles so the rules committee deems all but the most egregious to be “legal.”

Sylvia Mackey filed a wrongful death suit against the NFL just last week. It contains language similar to the almost 300 others filed against the league since 2011. “During his career in the NFL, Decedent experienced repeated traumatic head impacts. However, Decedent was never warned of the dangers of repetitive head impacts.” In August the NFL and attorneys representing over 4,600 former players announced a proposed $765 million settlement to long-running litigation over long-term brain damage caused by concussions. The announcement did not stop the stream of lawsuits.

I would like NFL Awareness Month to keep alive the memory of Daryl Stingley, who died in 2007 at age 55. He had been a receiver for the New England Patriots until he was brutally blindsided by Jack Tatum of the Oakland Raiders in an exhibition game in August 1978 and spent the rest of his life paralyzed in a wheelchair. Tatum, who proudly bore the nickname “The Assassin,” never apologized. After all, the helmet-to-helmet hit was “legal” back then. “No flag was thrown, no fine was assessed. It was the kind of hit that fans craved, and networks showed on the highlights,” recalled sportswriter Mike Lopresti. “Only Stingley wasn’t moving.”

Tatum did say he felt bad about what happened but maintained he had not done anything illegal for which to apologize. After all, the league, the media, and fans had acclaimed him for being a hard tackler. He died in 2010 at age 61 after spending his last years with parts of both legs taken by diabetes. When Stingley heard the news in 2003 that Tatum lost part of his leg, he told The Boston Globe: “Maybe the natural reaction is to think he got what was coming to him….but God teaches us to love.”

This post was brought to you by Zest of Orange, proud supporter of NFL Awareness Month.

Michael can be reached at michael@zestoforange.com.




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