Concussion Discussion: Now That the Days of Football Are Hardly Over ...
By Douglas McDaniel
This wasn't hell, and it certainly wasn't war, either. But it is one of those weekends without football, and this may cause you ... dang, what do you call it? ... stress.
Let me recall some glory daze for you ... Hope there is enough beer in the house as you read this ...
Though militarism is a big part of the entire package, from the day we first lineup in a row, in Napoleonic battle formation, to the Sunday morning salute of your favorite NFL stars when they score wearing the beautiful, localized civil war uniforms, in the bright or dark colors of the cities and states they may or may not represent until the multi-million-dollar contract to serve runs out ... It was football practice for children, for young teen males of the species.
Pop Warner football practice. I was in the eighth grade, at a tender age. And if there is one person on Earth who I hope is experiencing a big fine from the commissioner of life right now, it's this football coach who, being some kind of Vince Lombardi wannabe freak, a winning-is-everything style commander, who was was yelling at me, his face in my face mask, about my unwillingness to be all of the middle linebacker he wanted me to be: That is, someone who would stick his head into the available daylight of the line, therefore, with any luck, crashing into the oncoming ball carrier, thus bringing any ball carrier down with tremendous might, and to any more good fortune, pain. Risking my neck, naturally, not his. Not the football coach's pain, a fellow player's hurt, a teammate.
I mean, I was more of a just-give-me-the-ball and I will run-with-great-fear-from-anyone-and-anything-trying-to-hurt-me-that-way-sort-of-a-player. It was just not nice to hit the solidified, rock-hard, ground-down and dirt -of-the-desert practice fields in the water-short state of Arizona.
No, I wanted to fly. Painlessly. Over the rock and dust and stupidity of mankind. Especially the bullying kind.
"Are you a pussy? Are you a pussy?," Mr. Whistle screamed into my face mask. This is what my parents were getting tonight in the glowing red and purple and orange duskiness of the southwestern sky for the Pop Warner fees they paid for me to experience this disgracing and dressing down by a crazed lunatic dad with a whistle. I remember his name now. Same as a famous Republican politician. Yeah, he needed a big fine from the commissioner of life. That's what I want now, with interest. And if I got the hear-ye, hear-ye of this type today of that dirty-bastard-with-a-whistle's scold, I would go South African dance style into that brilliance of the evening, a wildly moving ever lengthening shadow moving to the music of dream time, an emergent angel quite satisfied by news of the event.
I mean, there I was, my manhood being challenged by this asshole, and I'd barely even entered puberty to that point. Am I a pussy? What kind of question was that? He had no right to challenge my manhood. I was just a boy with beard growing each day that I was still quite uncomfortable with. I didn't even know what pussy was, for that matter. Some kind of cat thing, much less a word to inspire much motivation for the likes of me.
"Are you a pussy? Are you a pussy?" I can still see him, there, now, forty long years later. "Are you a pussy!"
What would I answer if I could stand in that spot, knowing what I do now today? After a knee surgery from playing in high school. The other creaking hurtfully on cold winter days. Numerous concussions suffered at an age barely conceiving of the the damage that might be the entropy of what I am as a half-century old man, limping around, clearly unable to fly? All for football, which I loved, back then. Not now.
What would I say? It would be this ...
"Well, coach, during the kickoff at the last game we played, there was a serious incident that occurred. Maybe you noticed. Maybe you didn't. In the case of the latter let me try to explain it to you. We kicked the ball to them, right, and then the two lines for the return and defense of that action began. Running as fast as they can, they collide. Usually, this occurs, as far as we have been told by medical science, without too much incident. But, to me, especially looking at it now under these here lights at Paradise Valley high school as we practice, this is definitely not the case.
So let me explain further and maybe we can come to some kind of agreement. What happened at this particular kickoff collision, there was a big clash, and a kid on the other side, a child under the age of eighteen years old, started mooning and swooning and groaning like a wild, quite insane, dumb pig. Or, better yet, cow's confused "moo, moo." It was the sound of a young athlete whose brains had apparently been smashed in, and I believe the term might be familiar to you as this: He had received a concussive blow, and now he was running, crookedly, to the wrong sideline, confused and looking for someone to help him.
Do you remember? Can we ever forget? Well, tonight, being a pussy and all, I can. And so, for the better part of the night, as you ask me to stick my own head into the line, as your appointed middle linebacker trying to fulfill your Vince Lombardi dreams, as you live vicariously, through me, I must give this here scene all pause, for a little bit of time, my own motivations, lack of enthusiasm, and so on, to avoid having the same kind of thing happen to me.
Now, if you would like, I can just give you my helmet, and you can put it on, and you can stick your, or your child's own head into that hole to smash it into the oncoming ball carrier. Then we'll see how that goes. Okay?
In fact, here: Give me the ball. Don't just look at me like some kind of time-stooge. Give the ball. Give me the damn ball! Okay, here's my helmet (a trade that helps both teams, so to speak). Now I'll just walk to the other side of this here line drawn in the sand on the sun-punished ground at this north Phoenix high school. Next, I'll just have the center hike the ball to me. Then, you chase me around. Try and catch me. Since I run out of fear and you are old and slow; here, apparently, to fulfill some false notion of parental volunteerism, trying to live out your failed dream of being a college or, no (can it be?) NFL coach, you can just have the time of your life. You'd probably love smashing kids half your size, anyway.
Because I can tell you one thing: People like you scare the shit out of me. That's motivation enough. And before you completely ruin my passion for the game, maybe I can ease this harsh meme about the kid last week who lost his mind, who had to go to the hospital, in fact, due to his concussion. This will be done by my running away from you. Out of fear. Because, quite frankly, I find getting tackled quite inconvenient. If you do stick your head in that hole, well, good luck to you, then you will butt heads with your own son, who you have made center.
Meanwhile, I will be weaving, duking, moving fast around you, running by, not through people. Eyes one way, body, the other, quick at the cut. More like the cavalry rider, I suppose, in a military battle, as opposed to sick pawns in the drama of the bread-and-circuses commandos of life like you!
My earliest memory in life exists on film, a wall image projected in the 1960s in the family home, as a family movie, and I was a kind of crazed child actor, both a musician and an athlete, as a tyke dancing around, a spinning dervish, a handful, for sure.
Well, I can't remember the actual so good. It's the concussions, maybe. But when I was very tiny, I used to run around the house with an Easter egg thingy that made music like an organ grinder. I apparently could walk at a very early age. Hyper as hell. Must have driven my parents nuts with this organ grinder Easter egg thingy. So I'd dance like I needed special drugs to stay sad, crash into chairs and tables and walls, turning the egg, shaped like a football.
How did I know about football? Must have been on black-and-white television, most certainly. Apparently, as my mother told me, I was in a shopping basket at the grocery store. A little tyke, still, obviously. I saw this big African-American man. I blurted out, "Look, mommy! Football player." She was pretty embarassed about that. But this was in the north part of the city in Arizona. He probably was a football player. Such intolerant sunshine states barely tolerbrate a minority who isn't in a sporting uniform ... in the service of the military-sports-capitalist-commando-complex.
I'm quite sure I showed no interest in the game while we lived in the desert suburb built north of Phoenix in an area known as Deer Valley from 1960 to about 1968 or '69. I played baseball in little league, but I had no idea what I was doing out there. The whole idea of someone throwing a round rock in my direction terrified me, quite frankly. I used my dad's old four-fingered glove, which was flat as a pancake. My dad had used it in the 1940s. It was some relic. The other kids had five-fingered gloves. So my parents weren't too knowledgeable about athletics, either. No, we were a family of readers, math-wise marching band geeks, we McDaniels were.
But I must have had some special gifts, being able to walk early and all. I remember putting on catcher stuff in little league practice once. Then, I climbed up this fence at Shady Glenn Elementary School, out there on the edges of the desert in this neighborhood in north Phoenix, where there was nothing built north of our home, and got some laughs from the coaches when I climbed the backstop fence and acted like a monkey fool.
Then, during a game, one of my first, I was put out in center field and someone hit a ball in the air to me. I caught it with that frayed four-fingered pancake mitt. People started clapping and yelling. I had no idea why. Such things are considered a small miracle at those pre-T-ball ages. Usually outfielders were disinclined kids afraid of ground balls. When the game was over my parents were overjoyed at my heroism, but still I had no clue. They said I'd made an "out." I'm quite sure my first thought was, oh, that doesn't sound good. But they said, no, it was amazing. They were so proud.
As far as I can remember this was the first time I'd achieved anything in my life. It felt like a sunshine smile inside to be recognized like that.
It was a dream and I was late, walking across a barren urban landscape in my football uniform. My helmet was on ... Polo palace ... offensive line as a chain gang, pushing and pulling. A few people watched in lawn chairs. The skill players had no uniforms, and only seemed to be there as stars on the move played to a small audience of people in folding chairs ... They artfully acted out the old ritual and dance of the game like it was some kind of museum piece on a post-apocalyptic set. The skyline of Phoenix was broken, like a ruin, with a lot of cleared-out space around, looking like London a few years after the Blitz ...
Then, we moved to Dallas. It was the late 1960s. We lived in this much bigger house in North Dallas and this neighbor had something called a "Cowboy Antenna" on his roof and those people were the envy of the cul-de-sac. We still knew nobody in the area and when a family member came to visit us we were driving in the car and they asked us if we were going to become Dallas Cowboys' fans. We all said together, "No way!." Coming from Phoenix, which had no professional team, we were drowned into incredulity at what became of people who had become sports fanatics. The obsession was strange.
But then we got a free Dallas Cowboy sticker with the star as a gas station giveaway. My mother gave it to me. Then, we went to the gas station again and they gave us a Dallas Cowboys drinking glass. My mother gave it to me. From that point, it was all over. The glass had the old-school Cowboys image of the 'poke riding a horse on one side, the silver Lone Star. I drank, and it was as if I'd become enchanted. At that point in my life, the only other thing that really moved me was the song "Help!," by the Beatles. We listened to their music at my next door neighbor's house. We'd listen to the Beatles, and then, Led Zeppelin's first album, which, to me at first listen, sounded like a bad car crash. But still music had made much more sense to me.
Now, my parents were obviously quite concerned with me from the day I was born, since I was a breach birth. I couldn't do much as a little tyke but play in the dirt, catch lizards and put them in coffee cans or dance around like a damn fool with a musical Easter egg. Apparently, they were amazed I'd be able to read or speak much so I had some kind of learning disabilities that appeared to be a mystery to everyone. To reverse this frustrating problem to my parents who, on my dad's side, was a brainy computer engineer, and my mom, a wannabe librarian, they bought me books if I showed interest in anything: Dinosaurs, World War II, whatever ... I kept this fascination and stirring I felt at the first notes of "Help!" quite secret. I was quite sure my quite arch-conservative parents from deep south Texas wouldn't be buying me any books about those guys. Once, when we were waiting for my dad to come out of work at the General Electric plant in Phoenix we heard over the radio that one of the band members, John Lennon, had said they were bigger than Jesus or something like that. Nope, I was pretty sure to keep quiet about all of that music stuff. It seemed to get my dad all riled about when we watched the Ed Sullivan Show and saw all of these hippies playing crazy music. Yeah, at I was at least smart enough to stay mum in that category. Didn't want to get slapped for it.
But when I showed an interest in football, my mom started buying me all of these books about football. Indeed, I was reading about it well before I was actually playing it with the kids out on our front lawn in the cul-de-sac in north Dallas ... Heroic stories about the stars of the game like Gale Sayers, Jim Brown, Johnny Unitas and Jim "Night Train" Lane. So that's how I learned how to read.
But I still wasn't very good in sports. I hated baseball. Hitting was always an awkward experience and I'm pretty sure I didn't start hitting the ball until well into my teens. Once my parents bought me these black plastic cleats and when I was out there on the field my feet would bake and I couldn't figure out what was going on beneath that hot Texas sun. God, how I hated little league well into, say, the fourth grade. In fact, I pretty much hated any social activity I was drafted into by my parents. I hated wearing my Cub Scouts' uniform to school. I would strike out on purpose. But I did start to show some knack for games, imaginary play and playing the saxophone, which I lugged to school each day: hated that, too, of course. To this day I believe I was destined to become a musician, but that never really happened. A wasted life, most assuredly, I was being led astray by an athletics mad world! My most prized possession was a small box transistor radio where I would listen to FM music late at night, quite secretly, of course.
I came along in my football uniform, and continued across wide urban fields, like old wrecked Detroit, to find a small, but colosseum-like structure, where the stairs led into the core of the Earth, with multiple layers connected by twirling stairwells. At each level, two things were evident. The first was an incredible number of beautiful women leading crowds to two things, healthy food and strip club venues ... simulations for Ford truck driving commercials ... intravenous beer commercial substitutes ... People constantly telling me I'm late ... A song, anthem really, intended as a tune to cure football madness ... This wasn't a game on. It was some kind of mass therapy session.
However, when I think about it, I had an incredible winning percentage, in football, lifetime. The first teams I played for were fifth- and sixth-grade teams in Dallas: at F.P. Callet Elementary School, on the north side of town. I had learned to play football with the neighborhood kids on the cul-de-sac we lived on, and I had become a huge Dallas Cowboys fan, even keeping a scrap book of photographs for the team's 1970 and '71 Super Bowl seasons, and learning more by playing a dice-oriented strategy football game featuring teams for previous years produced (sponsored) by Sports Illustrated. I would play these games for hours with my brother, my friends, and when they weren't obsessed enough I'd create whole leagues, keeping statistics of my own, by myself. In addition there were cool strategy games featuring card overlays back then, with little devices to create variables once produced by dice, to offer more spontaneity. So by the time I was eleven or twelve years old, I was a regular Tom Landry, mastermind innovator football coach for the Cowboys, in my own mind.
But I had to really work to make my second great achievement in life occur. That is, to get noticed enough to stay off the bench. Since we were new in town, having moved to Dallas from Phoenix in the late 1960s, I didn't have many friends or peer support despite looking great in football pads. Nobody knew who I was, and I had difficulty speaking. Shy. Not showing much interest in classes, and during this age of confusion in Dallas, with schools moving African-American teachers into classes, and my fellow students showing a parental fondness for their parents' extreme right-wing values, being abusive to the teacher of my beloved music classes, who were black, and feeling of extreme confusion about the whole deal, embarrassed for the whole scene, how ugly it was becoming, how I wished the kids would stop being so mean to my music teachers, who were really knowledgeable about the topic, seemed to me, and me being so polite, as I was being so raised by my parents. I hated my classmates, who were, if I understood anything at all, being raised to become lifetime bigots ... Anyhow, no great achievements in life were going to occur at F.P. Callet by 1970 under these social conditions, and if not for the coming of the Three Dog Night hit, "Joy to the World," coming on my little transistor radio, I might have become someone who had no hope at all, as opposed to someone who would probably need special drugs to say sad ...
Okay, where was I? Oh yeah, great achievements ... We would play football all day on the curved grass lawns of out on the neighborhood cul-de-sac, using the equally arched sidewalks leading to our big brown-bricked houses, for goal line markers. And, consequently, as we landed on them to score, somewhat ambivalent to pain. Which is necessary in life, in general, I've found. Anyhow, I was learning to catch and throw and block and tackle and all, at an age when injuries other than scraped knees from scoring were rare, and by the time I was in the fifth grade I was one of the best players on the block, being damned fast as a runner, a peculiar commodity, that, in terms of pre-teen life male values, on my block. I ran out of fear, of course, getting tackled being inconvenient. And from reading my books about Calvin Hill and Gale Sayers and Jim Brown, figured out if I stepped one way, looking that way, too, then going the other, tacklers would tend to fall flat on their faces, and I would thus be saved ...
But when I joined the fifth-grade team, the coaches were in no way planning on giving this nerdy, shy, quiet kid the ball. Since I was bigger than other kids my age, and I had been given football pads bought at Sears that had a neck pad to prevent backlashes, was being bred as a young offensive lineman and defensive tackle. This was fine with me, since I loved Bob Lilly, the future Hall of Famer, No. 74, for the Cowboys. However, I wasn't named to the first team at first, even though I was first chair as a saxophonist, and the dichotomy of these two worlds seemed pretty as above, not so below to me. Finally, I went home and wept about it to my mother and she responded with a strange story about my dad. She said it was okay for men to cry. In fact, she had been surprised to find my dad crying when she came into the room while he was watching the funeral ceremony after the assassination of Robert F. Kennedy. Thinking about it now, I could see why that was a marked moment for my mother. My dad, coming from deep south Texas, was arch-conservative and used to take me around our north Dallas and Phoenix neighborhoods as tykes to do door-to-door campaigning for Barry Goldwater (who we called "Goldwahwee," apparently, as kids, my brother and I).
Next, being consoled about this strange political fable, my mother bought me yet another football book. It was written by Bud Wilkinson, the big winning football coach for Oklahoma, and featured detailed instructions, with diagrams, for every football action imaginable, including how to kill a guy by tackling low.
Suitably informed, I can remember the practice ... a bright sunny day in Dallas. We were doing tackling drills and I correctly, Bud Wilkinson style, picked up a kid much larger than I, throwing him to the ground, flattened and weeping. I can remember laying there. On my back. Quite satisfied. And I was looking up at the heavenly sun, the coach looked down on me, a silhouette with a whistle. He was smiling, obviously amazed. "Who are you?", he said. I said my name. He pulled me up. From that point, for the rest of my organized life of playing football, I was a starter.
That F.P. Callet team, during the two seaons I played there, only lost one game, an across-town match in west Dallas in the rain. They had a big tall and fast kid who couldn't be caught. So I faced loss only once in Texas: a career 20-and-one record as a Texan. Then, as a freshman at Chaparral High School, our team went 8-1-1. We went 6-4 as I moved on as a sophomore/junior squad ... (for now I will skip until later my junior and senior years for the big juicy part to come later) ... (The, you know, "dazed and confused" as an KISS and Aerosmith fan part of the late 1970s) ... in college, as a member of a flag football team for an ad hoc group of students built from an apartment-dorm complex of athletes, a team called the Dark Shadow Bears we only lost the championship game to an ROTC team who (we were all convinced) had glued his flags on and ran up and down the field, impervious to us. The cheaters! It was like some bad out-take from "Animal House," that game.
At the bottom of the staircase, the game is on. And I'm terribly late for my date, all dressed up in my uniform, and the two-minute warning is on ... and it still looks like there are all kinds of barriers to the underground field. From the concourse view of the dream, the whole stadium seemed to be underground.
I think, in fact, I'm pretty sure, special drugs were needed for me to become a loser in sports ... But for all that in college stuff, I need to add this. Far as I can recall, I got two "A" grades as a student at the University of Arizona. One was for my first poetry writing course. The second, for a late flag football class that I took as a senior because I forgot all about that P.E. requirement before graduating. I broke my left arm in that damned class, which never did heal right. Just before that, on that day in Tucson, across the common ground from Wildcat stadium, I had demonstrated a special skill: The ability to, as a blitzing defensive back, rush the quarterback and intercept the ball just as he was releasing the pass. I had been practicing that one in the back yard for many, many years successfully, but never in "official" play. But on that day, I did it and scored! About fifteen minutes later, I went high in the air again, feeling the juice, and crashed down on my arms, feeling stunned, queasy and sick from the shock. Broke my arm. I never went back to that class, too busy as a young man with two stories to write every day for the Arizona Daily Wildcat, or a period where I was an intern at the Tucson Citizen paper, to go back, with the classload of a senior, to tell the P.E. teacher what had happened. But when I found out I wasn't going to be able to graduate without being able to reconcile that issue, I went back to the flag football coach, reminded him of my great interception play ... Great Accomplishment in Sports Life No. 3 ... and he said, remembering: "Obviously, you get an 'A'."
So ended my organized football career. Enter, the age of the pencil and pen. And for thirty years as a journalist, in the places I worked, I couldn't sneak up on anybody if I was walking down the wall behind them since the surgery I had for my knee as a senior included a metal staple that over the years began to click with each step ... The left wrist injury I incurred my senior season of P.E. at the University of Arizona didn't heal right, and worse, happened when I was doing a stint as an intern at the Tucson Citizen during which I typed for a couple of months with a cast on my left arm. And so, to this day, I have a unique way of typing with one full right hand, and one finger on the left hand ... I try to remember all of the concussions I've had, but I have trouble with the count ... the best thing I do is write poetry, if only because I'm able to empty my head and pour it all out ... stream of consciousness type stuff ... about such things as, say, the horrors of trying to take in, from 2,500 miles away, as broadcast over the airwaves, the toxic commercialism of an event for a major sport ...
Now I'm watching the 48th Super Bowl on television, Denver Broncos versus the Seattle Seahawks, and I'm watching commercials and fast cuts to this and surreal that, the maudlin, militaristic pre-game ceremony and there's one of forty or so faces for the game's eventual winner, Seattle's star defensive back Richard Sherman. He's all pumped up for "The National Anthem," swaying this way and that, and to the "rocket's read glare"," sung by some Wagnerian opera singer, and all I can think about is that "rough beast" from the W.B. Yeats' poem, "The Second Coming." The last I'd seen his face, he was screaming at the world with post-game madness about how so-and-so had dissed him on the last play of the NFC Championship game. In a moment of pure emotion, he was so animal wild the FOX sports interviewer lady holding the microphone seemed to be forced backwards by the bad breath of this supposedly happy man. No, he wasn't going to Disneyland, or, thanking the good lord and his teammates and of course the fans of his team, known as the 12th Man for being so loud at around 107 decibels during each home game, with the single-eyed hawk on the helmet. He was still caught up in the ecstasy of his violent craft. Right then, I knew, he would become a national icon for these fearful times on social media.
For that moment, he was the image of the NFL, which had stamped its fascistic logo on the face of the world for the Super Bowl now.
During th pre-game hype section of the game, a four-hour stretch, FOX News leading pulpit bully, known as Poppa Bear, Bill O'Reilly, had been give the rare opportunity to interview U.S. President Barack Obama. O'Reilly launched into him, pestering him about Obamacare, the assassination of the U.S. Ambassador in Libya in 2013. It wasn't an interview as much as an attempted mugging of the so-called leader of the free world, and it seemed to be a super-weird thing to put on the air for pre-game hoopla of a football game. But Obama was cool, collected, obviously well-prepared to act like and adult before this angry old man trying to play gotcha, when did you know this, when did you know that type stuff, like some pre-programmed angry bot rehearsed by FOX News main man Roger Ailes, who had just had an unauthorized book written about him titled "The Loudest Man in the Room." All the president had to do was find the right moment, matching this invective of rude, talk-over the answer questioning, typical for FOXNews broadcasts for Poppa Bear, to outclass the media star goon squad dude for the limitations of its right-wing propaganda pipeline, led by a man, Ailes, who was at one point in his lifetime, was inspired by the Nazi film director for Adolph Hitler, Leni Reifenstahl.
And then, after that half-hour or so of televised disconnect, of all-out cognitive dissonance, we are brought back to the big game to come ... there's commercial for a new "Captain America" movie ... salutes to the troops wired together to solemn interviews with players, mom, apple pie, the usual ... the usual Orwellian display for nation that has obviously lost its collective mind.
Though this has been one of the worst winters the country has ever experienced, the ice storm of the century has been called off for the day, with the temperature in the 50s at game time, leading one FOXsports announcer to say, "The NFL has given a stiff arm to mother nature."
A new Radioshack is on the Blitzkrieg of the teevee now, and the over-the-counter culture is propagandized as cognitive dissonance of the times ... And now we are back ... amused to death ... my eyes are bleeding and then there's a pass ... and then Denver seems zombified at the lower altitudes, as 1984 is beamed into our homes and the ghosts of the Super Bowls past crawl out of the turf and we are all underground now, dead as drunk daisies ... It's 15-0, Seattle with 12 minutes left in the second quarter ... and what's supposed to be the greatest game ever played, as they all are, is a wash: Twenty-two skiddoo by the time Denver quarterback Peyton Manning is intercepted for a teedee ... More from Jeep Cherokee and then later, Bob Dylan has his own commercial too, for Chrysler, selling out, it seems (or is he giving us a message for the rebellion to come), singing from deep inside the matrix to the backing track for his song, "I Used to Care, But Things Have Changed" ... the money-bound creative directive covering the Earth remains ... the extra point is, is ... good!