Is pro football about to go the way of the gladiators and the lions?
A new study of more than 3,400 National Football League players who played at least five seasons between 1959 and 1988 published in the journal "Neurology" reports a combined death rate from Alzheimer's, Parkinson's and Lou Gehrig's diseases in that cohort of about three times the rate for the general population of American men.
The study didn't deal with a disease known as CTE (for chronic traumatic encephalopathy), and of the 334 of the group who had died by the end of 2007, it is thought some may have died from CTE.
Now the NFL has pledged a $30 million grant to the National Institutes of Health to study the brain, specifically CTE, concussion management and treatment, and the relationship between traumatic brain injury and late-life neurodegenerative disorders, especially Alzheimer's.
The league's commissioner, Roger Goodell, has been quoted as saying, "We hope this grant will help accelerate the medical community's pursuit of pioneering research to enhance the health of athletes past, present and future," and observing that the NIH study is designed to help not only athletes but the general population, especially the military.
The Vikings' former great All-Pro defensive end, Carl Eller -- one of the anchors, along with Jim Marshall, of the Purple People Eaters, and now the board chair for the NFL Retired Players Association -- argues that the money will benefit current and future players and should be more focused on retired players.
One hopes that no generation of players will end up being compared to the tragic Tuskegee experiment. George Will, with whom I seldom agree, recently wrote: "Football is entertainment in which the audience is expected to delight in gladiatorial action that a growing portion of the audience knows may cause the players degenerative brain disease. Not even football fans, a tribe not known for savoring nuance, can forever block that fact from their excited brains."
All my life I've been a football guy, playing on grassy yards from Fargo to Duluth to St. Paul to Minneapolis and the suburbs, with no equipment at all other than a neighborhood football. In late grade school, I weighed more than 100 pounds, but not more than 112, and played fullback for the Randolph-Snelling Midgets.
We wore shiny red-and-white jerseys furnished by a kindly drug store owner and won many of our games. We were scared to death of the Hallie Q. Brown team, reputed to be the super athletes that all black kids were, but managed to stumble to a tie with them. I even got my name in the paper for plunging for the extra point.
By the time I played offensive and defensive guard for the Cretin B-squad football team, I was up to around 125 pounds and stood over 5-foot-9. My B-squad football letter turned out to be the apex of my athletic career. Still, when years later my wife, unbeknownst to me, gave away my letter sweater, it was the nearly the end of a beautiful marriage.
I have also been an ardent fan since I can remember. I am often not so gently ridiculed at family gatherings when I share my memories of, as a small child held in my father's arms, watching the college all-stars play the Chicago Bears. I came close to death by appendicitis while listening to the Army-Notre Dame game when Army had Mr. Inside, Doc Blanchard, and Mr. Outside, Glen Davis, and clobbered my beloved Irish.
As a Boy Scout, I was privileged to usher for Gopher games at the old Memorial Stadium. (It was a lot like the TCF Bank Stadium, but with the seats farther from the field.) I got to watch Bud Grant, Leo Nomellini, Clayton Tonnemaker, Billy Bye and others who have faded into the obscurity of my failing memory.
Later, as a student at the U, I traveled down to Iowa City to watch some guy named Paul Giel, who eventually was instrumental in getting Memorial Stadium torn down in favor of the Metrodome, an awful baseball venue where I saw a couple of World Series, but a perfectly fine stadium for football.
A lot more comfortable than the old Met Stadium, where I purchased season tickets for the Vikings in 1962 that are still in my name, and where we bundled up in sleeping bags to watch Eller and Marshall and the Vikes play the game outdoors, where God intended.
Mr. Will doesn't seem to understand that watching football is an addiction; I will most likely continue to see some games as long as I can turn on the television and now and then get to a stadium. This week the competition wasn't only between the Cowboys and the Giants, but between the game and Bill Clinton at the Democratic National Convention. But I'm afraid Will is right about the heart of the matter.
Oh, well -- there's always politics, for those of us who love contact sports.
Paul Zerby, a writer living in the Prospect Park neighborhood, is a former member of the Minneapolis City Council.