Former Vikings quarterback Joe Kapp is coming to Minnesota for Super Bowl week. He’s eager to see old teammates and a renowned neurosurgeon. Such are the blessings and curses of earning fame by subjecting your cranium to violence.
“I loved playing for the Vikings,’’ said Kapp, 79. “We had tremendous team chemistry. We had 40-for-60. We also had a ton of great players with heart.’’
Last week I spoke with Kapp and his son, J.J., then participated in a conference at Mitchell Hamline Law School titled “Impact on the Gridiron: Safety, Accountability, and the Future of Football.’’
Among the speakers were Vikings great Alan Page, neurosurgeon and brain researcher Dr. Uzma Samadani from the University of Minnesota, Eden Prairie football coach Mike Grant and president of Institute for Athletes Blake Baratz.
The Kapps plan to meet with Samadani while they're in town.
Samadani is the Rockswold Kaplan Endowed Chair for Traumatic Brain Injury in the Department of Neurosurgery at HCMC. Her bio on the University of Minnesota website says she wants to change the way “brain injuries are diagnosed and defined.’’
Kapp wants to see the NFL become more humane with current players and more fair with former players who are ailing, saying the Players Association settlement with the NFL over its concussion lawsuit doesn’t provide enough funds to cover medical bills.
Samadani cautioned not to presume a simple cause-and-effect relationship between football and diseases that former players develop later in life.
“It’s so complex, it’s even hard to write about it,’’ she said.
What she and Kapp agreed on: The modern football helmet contributes to brain injuries, and redesigning it may be the simplest way to make the game safer.
“Brain injuries are not good for you,’’ Samadani said. “But not every person who plays football will end up being demented. You probably have a higher probability of becoming an orthopedic surgeon if you played high school football than you do of getting CTE syndrome, which is associated with brain injuries from playing football.
“The other thing is that the risk-benefit ratio is different for every child, based on their own genetic makeup, and environmental considerations and socio-economic status. Health insurance doesn’t cover everything involved with a brain injury, so wealthier people with more resources may fare better. It’s a tricky, difficult subject.’’
Joe Kapp has Alzheimer’s disease and a body battered by football. He was beloved for his fiery style of play and his penchant, unique among quarterbacks, for seeking collisions. He led the Vikings to Super Bowl IV.
He and his son are concerned with the effect of football on the brain, and Joe has committed to donating his brain to science for further study.
Some of his quotes are taken from a phone conversation, others from answers e-mailed by J.J. In conversation, Joe was cheerful but struggled to stay on point.
Does he watch the Super Bowl?
“I do watch it every year but I don’t remember a single one of them,’’ he said. “It’s good to be here … or anywhere for that matter … but like all of the old players I’m paying the price for being a migratory football worker. Lots of physical pain … and no short-term memory.’’
What does he think of the modern NFL? “The helmet and facemask are so fortified that a player thinks he can leave his feet and launch himself into the air to make a tackle without getting hurt,’’ Kapp said. “They should rip the facemasks off, soften the helmets and not allow players to launch themselves to make a tackle.’’
Said Samadani: “I think football would be safer if we went back to a Nerf-type material covered with leather, and we eliminated, from the rules perspective, all leading with the head. A softer, lighter helmet would change the way players use the head as a weapon and would reduce the mass of the helmet, which reduces acceleration when you have an impact.’’
Despite his difficulties, Kapp loves football. Despite her studies, Samadani loves the benefits of football.
“I’ve gotten hate mail accusing me of being an NFL shill because I defend football to a certain extent,’’ Samadani said. “For me, it’s not about the NFL, it’s about my kid. The benefits of sports at the youth level are greater than the risk. At the NFL, that balance changes. The NFL is high-risk. My concern is that people who see that risk will keep their kids out of youth sports.
“Where do you draw the line? Because football is only incrementally different than soccer or hockey in terms of head injuries.
“My main message is that brain injuries are really bad for you but sports are better for you than you realize. I don’t think banning any sport is the answer. Kids with a sedentary lifestyle are at risk for all kinds of diseases. There are 13 different types of cancer you can get rid of with exercise. Don’t ban the sport. Make it safer.’’
The NFL, for once, should be proactive about player health, and devise a softer helmet. The next Joe Kapp shouldn’t have to wonder whether football irreversibly damaged his brain.