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  1. Bucs

Yesterday's NFL warriors grapple with concussions, lawsuits

Published May 13, 2012

In the moment of the explosion, the pain arrives quickly. Only later can the wreckage be properly measured.

It happens every week. One athlete crashes into another with unnatural fierceness, and both bodies are jolted to the edge of consciousness. His eyes blur and his ears ring, and it feels as if someone has ripped the circuit boards from the brain.

He crumples to the ground. He is dizzy, confused. He closes his eyes, and he sees tiny bursts of light . He rises, and the fans cheer, and he wobbles toward the sideline.

Soon, perhaps as soon as the next series, he will be back for more.

Fun game, football. Isn't it?

These days, the inflicted damage seems to be catching up to the NFL. There are now 70 lawsuits from more than 2,000 players regarding concussions and how the NFL handled them. To a lot of former players, the NFL is a league of dented helmets and twisted face masks where no one quite did enough or cared enough.

And so the lawsuits mount, some of them from the toughest players you have seen in your life. Bob Lilly. Randy White. Alex Karras. Rickey Jackson. Lee Roy Jordan. Lomas Brown. Chuck Howley. Art Monk.

Lawsuits were filed this week in the names of former Bucs Brad Culpepper and Charley Hannah. Scot Brantley, Randy Grimes and Ervin Randle already are attached to suits.

"I would say that concussions were very common,'' said Culpepper, who still has a face mask that was twisted by an opponent's blow. "I can't remember a single game when someone wasn't knocked silly. And then it was, 'Someone get the smelling salts and get him back in there.' If we needed them back in the game it was, 'How many fingers am I holding up?'

"I can remember specific instances where I said, 'I'm a little dinged, but I'm not coming out.' But it shouldn't have been up to me."

Dinged, they call it. Seeing stars. Fighting cobwebs. Having your bell rung. None of that sounds quite as serious as "closed head wound," does it?

"It was a different culture," Culpepper said. "You were expected to go back in. As they determine concussions today, I'd say 95 percent, maybe 97 percent, of players have had concussion symptoms.

"Were we given full awareness of the dangers? No. Would it have changed anything? I don't know."

Yeah, football is tough. That's nothing new. And no one forced players to play. But did the NFL know more than it let on? Did it do everything possible to protect players? Is it prepared to take care of the players if they have long-term brain damage? That's what the lawsuits will determine.

Brantley remembers a hit one time — he thinks it was against Green Bay — when he was so confused he staggered off to the wrong sideline.

"You had a 50-50 chance," an opponent told him, "and you blew it."

Brantley has had a tough time after football. He suffered a series of mini-strokes — yes, he thinks they are related to his concussions — and he can no longer see out of his left eye. His headaches are constant. His memory is slipping to the point where he writes his day's tasks on Post-It notes.

"When the monthly tab on your healthy care is higher than your mortgage, you might have a problem," Brantley said.

Then again, Brantley was a linebacker, and hitting was what he did.

"I always figured if you didn't get dinged in a game, you weren't playing hard enough," Brantley said. "You could always tell the toughest guy on a team because he had the most marks on his helmet. You can't do that anymore.

"I'd hate to know how many concussions I had. Probably in the hundreds. I can still see (former Bucs doctor Joe) Diaco holding up three fingers. It was always three fingers. I'd tell him "at least mix it up some."

As for his big hits, such as the one on former Lions star Eric Hipple, Brantley said they were "the best feeling in the world."

Ah, but if he knew then what he knows now?

"I might have been a different kind of player," he said.

Ask Grimes about his worst concussion, and his answer is simple.

"I don't remember it," he said. "I had at least 20, because I can remember 20. But I had a few more than that."

Grimes, who now works at a drug rehab center helping players overcome pill addictions such as the one he survived, said he joined a lawsuit for future protection. Who knows how much the brain might deteriorate in the years to come?

"They start early," Grimes said. "I remember in college, I played across from Mike Singletary. He broke 4-5 helmets, and three of those were on Randy Grimes."

With the Bucs, Grimes had more, and they all had one thing in common. Once you reached the sideline, you didn't stay there. "As soon as you could remember your assignments, you went back in," he said.

"It's crazy. But I don't know how they're going to change the game. No matter what you do ruleswise, you can't stop that brain from slapping against the inside of your skull. It's a shame players had to die (Andre Waters, Dave Duerson, possibly Junior Seau and Ray Easterling) before people paid attention."

Part of the problem, Grimes said, is the way the NFL glorified big hits for years. For instance, there was the crushing blow that Randle, a former Bucs linebacker, laid on the Bears' Neal Anderson. NFL Films later awarded that as the "1987 Hit of the Year."

"Bone-shattering," is the way former Bucs linebacker Richard "Batman" Wood puts it.

"It was like hearing a shotgun go off," Grimes said.

From time to time, Randle watches replays of that hit. He wonders how he got up. He wonders what impact that hit and the others like it will have on him.

"Put on a bicycle helmet," Randle says, "and have someone hit you with a baseball bat 50 times a day for six months. Then do that for eight years. Now go live the rest of your life."

The game has changed, Randle said. When he played, teams scrimmaged throughout the week.

"When you would get dinged," he said, "it wasn't like there was an internal diagnosis. The only thing the coach wanted to know was "when can he get back in there?' You might not even be examined by the head trainer or an associate trainer but some college kid.''

Looking back, Randle said he doesn't regret playing. But who knew the price would be this high?

"I look around me, and guys are dropping like flies," he said. "You got to a convention, and people are crippled, or they can't play with their kids, or they have heart problems."

Wood has had physical problems, too. But it also concerns him that he has had times while driving when he forgot where he was or where he was going.

"I remember a hit I had on (the Rams') Lawrence McCutcheon," Wood said. "Man, what a collision. I was gone. I was in another world."

These days, however, Wood coaches football (at Tampa Catholic). So does Brantley (at Ocala Trinity). Neither are ready to join former Cardinals quarterback Kurt Warner, who has said he wouldn't let his kids play football.

Former Bucs quarterback Shaun King would.

"Absolutely," said King, who said he never suffered a concussion. "Ultimately, I think the league is going to have to write a check, but football has never been safer.

"Most of the problems here are with former players. I don't think you will have the same kind of problems going forward."

Who absorbed more punishment than former Bucs fullback Mike Alstott? Alstott, now a coach at Northside Christian, says he finds himself writing things down more often.

"I don't know if it's age, or if it's normal, or if it's football," said Alstott, 38.

For the most part, Alstott is fine. But, as former Dallas star Emmitt Smith said last week, he worries about the future. As of now, Alstott has not joined a lawsuit.

Across the country, however, yesterday's stars are struggling with their health. It's odd, because when they talk of big plays and crushing tackles, there is still pride in their voice over how they played a warrior's game.

Still, they struggle with facing memory or difficulty as they focus. For the men who made their livings by striking others, the bills have come due.

The game, the one they loved, is hitting back.

In the moment of the explosion, the pain arrives quickly. Only later can the wreckage be properly measured.

It happens every week. One athlete crashes into another with unnatural fierceness, and both bodies are jolted to the edge of consciousness. His eyes blur, and his ears ring, and it feels as if someone has ripped the circuit boards from the brain.

He crumples to the ground. He is dizzy, confused. He closes his eyes, and he sees tiny bursts of light. He rises, and the fans cheer, and he wobbles toward the sideline.

Soon, perhaps as soon as the next series, he will be back for more.

Fun game, football. Isn't it?

These days, the inflicted damage seems to be catching up to the NFL. There are now 70 lawsuits from more than 2,000 players regarding concussions and how the NFL handled them.

To a lot of former players, the NFL is a league of dented helmets and twisted face masks, where no one quite did enough or cared enough.

And so the lawsuits mount, some of them from the toughest players you have seen in your life. Bob Lilly. Randy White. Alex Karras. Rickey Jackson. Lee Roy Jordan. Lomas Brown. Chuck Howley. Art Monk.

Lawsuits were filed this week in the names of former Bucs Brad Culpepper and Charley Hannah. Scot Brantley, Randy Grimes and Ervin Randle already are attached to suits.

"I would say that concussions were very common,'' said Culpepper, a former defensive tackle who still has a face mask that was twisted by an opponent's blow. "I can't remember a single game when someone wasn't knocked silly. And then it was, 'Someone get the smelling salts and get him back in there.' If we needed them back in the game it was, 'How many fingers am I holding up?'

"I can remember specific instances where I said, 'I'm a little dinged, but I'm not coming out.' But it shouldn't have been up to me."

Dinged, they call it. Seeing stars. Fighting cobwebs. Having your bell rung. None of that sounds quite as serious as "closed head wound," does it?

"It was a different culture," Culpepper, 43, said. "You were expected to go back in. As they determine concussions today, I'd say 95 percent, maybe 97 percent, of players have had concussion symptoms.

"Were we given full awareness of the dangers? No. Would it have changed anything? I don't know."

• • •

Yeah, football is tough. That's nothing new. And no one forced players to play. But did the NFL know more than it let on? Did it do everything possible to protect players? Is it prepared to take care of the players if they have long-term brain damage? That's what the lawsuits will determine.

Brantley remembers a hit one time — he thinks it was against Green Bay — when he was so confused he staggered off to the wrong sideline.

"You had a 50-50 chance," an opponent told him, "and you blew it."

Brantley has had a tough time after football. He suffered a series of mini-strokes — yes, he thinks they are related to his concussions — and he can no longer see out of his left eye. His headaches are constant. His memory is slipping to the point where he writes his day's tasks on Post-It notes.

"When the monthly tab on your healthy care is higher than your mortgage, you might have a problem," Brantley, 54, said.

Then again, he was a linebacker, and hitting was what he did.

"I always figured if you didn't get dinged in a game, you weren't playing hard enough," Brantley said. "You could always tell the toughest guy on a team because he had the most marks on his helmet. You can't do that anymore.

"I'd hate to know how many concussions I had. Probably in the hundreds. I can still see (former Bucs Dr. Joe) Diaco holding up three fingers. It was always three fingers. I'd tell him "at least mix it up some.' "

As for his big hits, such as the one in 1985 on former Lions quarterback Eric Hipple, Brantley said they were "the best feeling in the world."

Ah, but if he knew then what he knows now?

"I might have been a different kind of player," he said.

• • •

Ask Grimes, 51, about his worst concussion, and his answer is simple.

"I don't remember it," he said. "I had at least 20, because I can remember 20. But I had a few more than that."

Grimes, who now works at a drug rehab center helping players overcome pill addictions such as the one he survived, said he joined a lawsuit for future protection. Who knows how much the brain might deteriorate in the years to come?

"They start early," Grimes said. "I remember in college, I played across from Mike Singletary. He broke 4-5 helmets, and three of those were on Randy Grimes."

With the Bucs, Grimes had more, and they all had one thing in common. Once you reached the sideline, you didn't stay there. "As soon as you could remember your assignments, you went back in," he said.

"It's crazy. But I don't know how they're going to change the game. No matter what you do ruleswise, you can't stop that brain from slapping against the inside of your skull. It's a shame players (Andre Waters, Dave Duerson, possibly Junior Seau and Ray Easterling) had to die before people paid attention."

Part of the problem, Grimes said, is the way the NFL glorified big hits for years. For instance, there was the crushing blow that Randle, a former Bucs linebacker, laid on Bears running back Neal Anderson. NFL Films later awarded that as the "1987 Hit of the Year."

"Bone-shattering," is the way former Bucs linebacker Richard "Batman" Wood puts it.

"It was like hearing a shotgun go off," Grimes said.

From time to time, Randle watches replays of that hit. He wonders how he got up. He wonders what impact that hit and the others like it will have on him.

"Put on a bicycle helmet," Randle says, "and have someone hit you with a baseball bat 50 times a day for six months. Then do that for eight years. Now go live the rest of your life."

• • •

The game has changed, Randle said. When he played, teams scrimmaged throughout the week.

"When you would get dinged," he said, "it wasn't like there was an internal diagnosis. The only thing the coach wanted to know was 'When can he get back in there?' You might not even be examined by the head trainer or an associate trainer but some college kid.''

Looking back, Randle said he doesn't regret playing. But who knew the price would be this high?

"I look around me, and guys are dropping like flies," he said. "You got to a convention, and people are crippled, or they can't play with their kids, or they have heart problems."

Wood has had physical problems, too. But it also concerns him that he has had times while driving when he forgot where he was or where he was going.

"I remember a hit I had on (Rams running back) Lawrence McCutcheon," Wood, 58, said. "Man, what a collision. I was gone. I was in another world."

These days, however, Wood coaches football (at Tampa Catholic). So does Brantley (at Ocala Trinity). Neither are ready to join former Cardinals quarterback Kurt Warner, who has said he wouldn't let his kids play football.

Former Bucs quarterback Shaun King would.

"Absolutely," said King, who said he never suffered a concussion. "Ultimately, I think the league is going to have to write a check, but football has never been safer.

"Most of the problems here are with former players. I don't think you will have the same kind of problems going forward."

Who absorbed more punishment than former Bucs fullback Mike Alstott? Alstott, now the coach at Northside Christian, says he finds himself writing things down more often.

"I don't know if it's age, or if it's normal, or if it's football," said Alstott, 38.

For the most part, Alstott is fine. But, as former Dallas star Emmitt Smith said last week, he worries about the future. As of now, Alstott has not joined a lawsuit.

Across the country, however, yesterday's stars are struggling with their health. It's odd, because when they talk of big plays and crushing tackles, there is still pride in their voice over how they played a warrior's game.

Still, they struggle with fading memory or difficulty as they focus. For the men who made their livings by striking others, the bills have come due.

The game, the one they loved, is hitting back.

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