The NFL is easing back into our consciousness. Four months post-Super Bowl 50, we are immersed once more in OTAs and TOGs (Tales of Gronk), roughing out fantasy rosters, circling game dates (Patriots open Sept. 11 in Arizona, starting quarterback TBA).
With little effort or imagination, we can see Bill Belichick dismissing questions from the podium, with his trademark intolerant grunts, lip smacks, shrugs, and stares. It is what it is again, the beginnings of another football season.
Most of us (hand up here) will never know what it is to be rich and famous, the two most compelling reasons to play and endure a violent sport that guarantees oft-monumental pain and suffering decades into players’ retirements. The tales of woe from the NFLers brutalized and maimed, often including sad stories of cognitive impairment, have become nearly cliché.
We have grown inured, tone deaf to it all. If we’ve heard one addled NFLer tell his frightening tale of memory loss, mood swings, and depression, we’ve heard a million of ’em. The same for their arthritic knees, disintegrating hips and spines. Yet the game goes on, fan interest remains rabid, and the alcohol and automotive industries, just to name two mammoth advertising sectors, provide unremitting corporate sponsorship to fuel the hurt industry.
Recently, it was legendary defensive end Bruce Smith, he of 19 NFL seasons and 200 career sacks, talking openly for the first time about his beaten body.
Like most of his battered brethren, he said it all without complaint, telling reporter Ty Dunne of the Buffalo News, “There’s not a day that goes by that I am not in pain . . . multiple joints and things that I experience on a daily basis.’’
It all can be very frustrating and sometimes painful, he said.
“But,’’ added the 53-year-old Smith, inducted in the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 2009, “I’m very blessed.’’
Thurman Thomas, one of Smith’s many celebrated teammates in their Buffalo glory years, is feeling far less fortunate these days. He knows his head isn’t right and admits logic tells him it’s likely to get worse. He can read the troubling signs as he once read the gridiron, where with deft, powerful running he rolled up 12,074 yards and 65 touchdowns over 13 seasons, all but one of those years with the Bills.
In April, Thomas, who just turned 50, told the Niagara Falls Review that he can’t control his mood swings and feels fortunate to be surrounded by family members who understand his plight.
“Sometimes,’’ he said, noting the mood swings, “I just can’t help it.’’
Thomas also disclosed details of an incident from a few years ago when, driving his car along a road he frequently travels, he became disoriented. Noting he was forced “to make the most difficult call I’ve ever made,” he phoned his wife for help.
“ ‘You need to come back home,’ ’’ he recalled her telling him. “I knew there was a problem.’’
An MRI of his brain, Thomas also told the Review, revealed a frontal lobe similar to someone who had fallen off the top of a house or crashed through a car windshield multiple times.
For someone who played 13 NFL seasons, said Thomas, he felt the test results were OK.
“Not great,’’ he said. “But decent.’’
Smith and Thomas were linchpins on the Bills’ teams that reached the Super Bowl for four consecutive seasons in the 1990s, never to win a championship. They’ll forever remain brothers in that distinguished, mostly proud legacy, while at times sharing the ongoing costs of bodies sent down the road to ruin.
In the days before the Super Bowl this year, legendary 49ers quarterback Joe Montana spoke with USA Today about his litany of lingering injuries. Montana, who turned 60 on June 11, talked of his need for another operation on his neck (“the fusion thing again’’) and noted that he has a “lazy eye,’’ the result of head trauma suffered in a Hall of Fame career of 15 NFL seasons.
Montana said he awakens in the middle of the night with his arthritic hands hurting “like crazy.’’
“My whole family likes to live on the edge,’’ he said, his wife and three children all ski and surf lovers, “I regret [some of the things] that I can’t do with them.’’
Three Hall of Famers. Three of the best ever to play the game, their fame and fortune beyond the reach and imagination of virtually everyone who watched them play an aggregate 717 games (including playoffs) and 47 seasons. And the resulting price: bodies charged with pain, recreational lives limited or curtailed, and in Thomas’s case, concern that mood swings and disorientation could be the telltale signs of CTE.
“One thing that I realized,’’ said Thomas, “is that discussing the effects of concussions and the reality of the situation doesn’t make me less of a man, less tough, less loyal to the National Football League, [or have] less love for the game.
“All it means is that I am not an ignorant fool and that I don’t ignore factual evidence.’’
The football seasons come and go, with the players, great and ordinary alike, processed through what has turned into professional sports’ quintessential meat grinder. The game is an equal opportunity force of destruction.
Our kids line up by the thousands as Pop Warner wunderkinds, hopeful and eager to chase fame and fortune down a road that now, under mounting evidence, is shown to wear at their bones, sinew, and cerebral matter as if they lived atop some radioactive waste dump. If the game indeed lived unseen under a pile of dirt, no one would dare build on it.
The moms and dads who fuss over junior eating “organic’’ and fight their kids’ temptation to surrender to those evil sugary soft drinks are often the same parents who stand on the sideline and watch their sons, and sometimes daughters, lead head-first into tackles and play smashmouth football.
It’s not about to end. But it is increasingly hard to watch. Even when we’ve become so used to it all. Even when it’s not our body, our brain.
Kevin Paul Dupont’s “On Second Thought” appears regularly in the Sunday Globe Sports section. He can be reached at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @GlobeKPD.