Troubling dangers associated with playing football have come to the surface in recent years as the NFL attempts to heighten player safety and a flood of former players have expressed concerns about the culture. Still, for the casual fan, there's plenty that remains unseen in the NFL culture. The Star Tribune asked a handful of current and past players to help us pull back the curtain.
Following a 13-year NFL career as a long snapper that ended in 1999, Mike Morris is still in relatively good shape, a fitness enthusiast who has chronic aches and pains but few significant impairments that affect his everyday well-being. Still, Morris, now 51, is convinced he took too many hits to the head and played through his fair share of concussions. Increasingly, the scary moments are adding up. Such as when he has a 20-minute brain lapse and can't remember his brother's name. Or when he'll try to sign checks and frequently hit a road block. "It's the same letter in my name -- the 'e' in Michael -- that gets me every time," Morris said. "I have to stop and make it slow or I'm not going to make it." Still, Morris loves football and believes all players understand the risks. "If you don't want to feel the pain, if you don't want concussions, don't play football," he said. "Because that's what you're signing up for. ... You sign a contract with the devil and hope that God's on the other side."
As the NFL continues its movement to make the game safer -- with a firm push from the players association and pressure building from a tsunami of litigation -- the league will have to address the undeniable humanitarian need to take care of its players while still preserving its brand as a sport beloved for its big hits, grit and nastiness. Thirteen years removed from his playing days, Hall of Fame defensive end Chris Doleman worries that too many safety-oriented changes will soften the game. "There is a certain raw toughness about football," he said. "That is what it is. People didn't like [former Steelers great] Jack Lambert because he was cute. He looked like a fight."
Over the past half-decade, the NFL has made an accelerated push to make the game safer with many in and around the league calling for greater player education. Players need to learn more about the long-term bodily damage they are subjecting themselves to. They need to understand more about the drugs they use to treat their pain. They need to figure out safer ways to retain their macho aura without being reckless with their health. Says former Pro Bowl receiver Torry Holt: "We are built and taught to fight through pain to go out there and play. I see it now with my son. It's, 'Get up. Ain't nothing wrong with you. Put some ice on it and let's get back up and running.' That's the way it is. But I think we're being challenged to think smarter." Still, even with increasing awareness, expecting players to change their ways may be a Pollyannaish goal. Said former NFL defensive back Solomon Wilcots: "You can hear it when you do interviews with players. 'OK, if you can take something now that will keep you on the field knowing that it will harm you later, would you still use it?' They say, 'Yeah. Absolutely.' So even if you educate them, they will run the red light knowingly."
Certainly, it'd be disingenuous to assert painkiller use is new in the NFL or even on the rise.
Walter Payton's biography, "Sweetness: The Enigmatic Life of Walter Payton" by Jeff Pearlman, details the Hall of Fame running back's Vicodin dependency, with Payton's agent contending the running back "would eat them as if they were a snack." Payton played 13 seasons in Chicago, missing only one game -- in Week 5 of his rookie year. He died in 1999, at 45, from a rare autoimmune liver disease.
In addition, it's been 16 years now since Brett Favre, then 26 and entering his fifth season in Green Bay, publicly acknowledged his addiction to Vicodin, a high-profile admission that brought attention to the issue, albeit temporarily. Favre spent a month-and-a-half in a Topeka rehab facility that year.
More recently, players like Kyle Turley, an offensive lineman in the league from 1998-2007, have been open about their own problems. Turley acknowledges that he still needs Vicodin and Flexeril and other sleep medications to deal with his pain. He also contends that such drugs weren't difficult to get during his time in the league.