Leland Stein III

Archive for August, 2011|Monthly archive page

John Mackey brought brain injuries to NFL forefront

In sports column on August 21, 2011 at 10:38 pm

 

 

Mackey’s plight brought NFL brain injuries to forefront

 

By Leland Stein III

 

The NFL game has changed tremendously over the last 40 years, and, along with the size and speed of the players and the original position definitions. None has evolved more than the tight end position.

 

Originally use only as another offensive lineman, Hall of Famers Mike Ditka and John Mackey showed all what that position could become with their unique blend of size, power blocking and ability to run out in space.

 

While Ditka could surely catch the football he was more a bruiser after the catch, while Mackey had the nimbleness and speed of a wide receiver.

 

I remember sitting with my Dad when Mackey in Super Bowl V, caught a 75-yard touchdown pass that fueled his Baltimore Colts’ 16-13 victory over Dallas. I was like wow, that big man can sure motor.

 

While covering a Super Bowl in 2002, I attended a NFL Hall of Fame event and I found myself sitting with Mackey and his wife, Sylvia, I was like a kid in a candy store.

 

Much to my chagrin as I started conversing with John, I quickly noticed that his discourse was distorted and all over the place. That is when Sylvia leaned over and told me to be patient, because her husband was suffering a form of dementia.

 

She had him garbed in his signature black cowboy hat, Super Bowl ring and a polo Hall of Fame shirt with his ring. She cajoled me to just be myself and continue to talk to John.

 

When Mackey died recently at age 69, all those fond memories came rushing back to me. The man who revolutionized the tight end position from 1963 to 1972, unknowingly has also vividly advertised the growing problem of early-onset dementia among veterans of his era.

 

Mackey was the vehicle, but his wife was the lightening rod that kept the focus on a problem that the NFL really did not want to deal with or acknowledge. Because of the greatness of the player and the tenacity of his wife, who refused to put her husband on a shelf, no matter his condition, as a result, there have been some small concessions implemented.

 

Mackey was officially diagnosed with frontal temporal dementia in 2000, (his wife says it started in the ‘80’s) the same year that the owner of the Cowboys, Jerry Jones, told ESPN he would push his oft-concussed quarterback Troy Aikman into crucial games because “there is no evidence of any long-term, lasting impact” from head trauma in the N.F.L. A few years later, a committee of doctors appointed by the league published several papers making the same claim, to the howls of more independent experts.

 

While the N.F.L. gained fame with NFL Films that highlighted the history of the league, especially videos featuring the hallowed Colts of John Unitas, Lenny Moore, Bubba Smith and Mackey, Sylvia, now 60-year’s-old, became a United Airlines flight attendant to pay mounting medical bills. She grew so distraught that she wrote a three-page letter to Paul Tagliabue, the departing N.F.L. commissioner, to alert him to what was happening to one of the game’s legends.

 

Sylvia’s haunting description of dementia — “a slow, deteriorating, ugly, caregiver-killing, degenerative, brain-destroying tragic horror,” she called it — almost brought Tagliabue to tears. He and the players union swiftly created a fund that would pay up to $88,000 in medical expenses to the families of retired players with dementia. Why $88,000? John Mackey wore No. 88. It continues today simply as the 88 Plan, forever identified with Sylvia as much as John.

 

A total of 166 players and counting have benefited from the 88 Plan over the years. Their age distribution also helped confirm that N.F.L. players were, indeed, receiving diagnoses of dementia or other memory-related diseases earlier and more often than other American men, prompting Congressional hearings and safety-related reform.

 

Still Hall of Famer Gale Sayers is still not happy with the pace of help coming for his brethren, saying: “(The NFL) could have helped him more, I felt. But they didn’t, and the players (NFLPA) could have helped more, and it didn’t happen.”

 

Leland Stein can be reached at lelstein3@aol.com or at Twitter @lelandsteinIII

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Curt Flood HBO special off base

In sports column, Uncategorized on August 15, 2011 at 6:33 pm

Curt Flood documentary off base

By Leland Stein III

HBO has produced some memorable sports documentaries in recent years, like Joe Louis, Sugar Ray Robinson, the integration of black football players at Southern universities, Jerry Tarkanian’s Runnin’ Rebels of UNLV, Ali versus Frazier I: One Nation Divisible, Do You Believe In Miracles? The Story of the 1980 U.S. Hockey Team and Nine Innings From Ground Zero just to mention a few of my favorite.

HBO Sports recently released “The Curious Case of Curt Flood.” He challenged Major League Baseball when its owners had a plantation mentality where teams owned players forever. Only the owners could they trade, discard and set salaries.

Then in October 1969 Flood was traded from the Cardinals to the Phillies and he said no I will not go. What he actually told reporters was, “In the history of man, there’s no other profession except slavery where one man is tied to one owner for the rest of his life.”

I agree, it all went again America’s preaching about freedom, a right to choose, capitalism and fairness.

People reacted to the slavery comparison like he’d set fire to their shoelaces. “Slavery?” many exclaimed. “Heck he is getting paid $90,000 to play a game!” Flood interjected, “A well-paid slave is still a slave,” thus he started down the horrendous and dreadful path of suing MLB, striving to get the reserve clause declared illegal.

With that as the backdrop, I was eager to catch the HBO documentary, but the title kind of knocked me back, “The Curious Case of Curt Flood.” What did that mean? Was it curious like bizarre or like weird or strange?

Flood fitted into my sphere as a noteworthy, courageous and socially conscious athlete. Like Jim Brown, Bill Russell, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Carl Lewis, Muhammad Ali, Spencer Haywood, John Carlos and Tommie Smith. All men that were not afraid to stand on what they believed were necessary and worthy issues that confronted them beyond the playing fields. 

The film reminded me that Flood’s stand was remarkable considering the climate. As pitcher Bob Gibson, Flood’s Hall of Fame team and roommate and fellow black athlete honestly said in the documentary: “Was I behind Curt? Absolutely. But I was about 10 steps back just in case there was some fallout.”

Flood was an exception outfielder and hitter, who helped the Cardinals win a World Series title, but he saw his career essentially ended in 1969 when at age 31 he challenged the reserve clause that made MLB players the property of the owners of the teams with which they signed. Sounds extreme, it was.

MLB athletes had it only a little better than track and field athletes, who could not get a dime for their superior efforts. That’s why legends like Jesse Owens was relegated to race horses after his record setting four gold medal effort in Germany in front of an enraged Hitler.

Instead of focusing the narrative on a young Flood’ unprecedented challenge to the so-called American Pastime’s unfair labor system and his appearing at a civil-rights rally in the deep South, at a time when black athletes ducked controversy the way they ducked the Klu Klux Klan, HBO spent a lot of the documentary focusing on all that was wrong with Flood.

As one reporter noted: “This courageous athlete is depicted as an alcoholic, a womanizer, a woeful husband, a dreadful father, a lousy businessman, and, oh yes, he was a chain smoker who died of throat cancer. In the history of warts-and-all biographies, this one slithers near the top of the list.” 

Flood lost the Supreme Court ruling 5-3 as MLB kept its antitrust exemption. His life unraveled as he fled to Denmark, then Spain. Instead of focusing more of the isolation he felt that and the loss of his livelihood, the documentary went for the jugular and his flaws. The man that ushered in arbitration, free agent, and salary cap deserved better. LeBron James and Alex Rodriguez all owe their monetary wind falls to Flood.

Leland Stein can be reached at lelstein3@aol.com and Twitter @LelandSteinIII

Mackey changed how NFL looked at brain injuries

In sports column on August 15, 2011 at 6:20 pm

Mackey’s plight brought NFL brain injuries to forefront

By Leland Stein III

The NFL game has changed tremendously over the last 40 years, and, along with the size and speed of the players and the original position definitions. None has evolved more than the tight end position.

Originally use only as another offensive lineman, Hall of Famers Mike Ditka and John Mackey showed all what that position could become with their unique blend of size, power blocking and ability to run out in space.

While Ditka could surely catch the football he was more a bruiser after the catch, while Mackey had the nimbleness and speed of a wide receiver.

I remember sitting with my Dad when Mackey in Super Bowl V, caught a 75-yard touchdown pass that fueled his Baltimore Colts’ 16-13 victory over Dallas. I was like wow, that big man can sure motor.

While covering a Super Bowl in 2002, I attended a NFL Hall of Fame event and I found myself sitting with Mackey and his wife, Sylvia, I was like a kid in a candy store.

Much to my chagrin as I started conversing with John, I quickly noticed that his discourse was distorted and all over the place. That is when Sylvia leaned over and told me to be patient, because her husband was suffering a form of dementia.

She had him garbed in his signature black cowboy hat, Super Bowl ring and a polo Hall of Fame shirt with his ring. She cajoled me to just be myself and continue to talk to John.

When Mackey died recently at age 69, all those fond memories came rushing back to me. The man who revolutionized the tight end position from 1963 to 1972, unknowingly has also vividly advertised the growing problem of early-onset dementia among veterans of his era.

Mackey was the vehicle, but his wife was the lightening rod that kept the focus on a problem that the NFL really did not want to deal with or acknowledge. Because of the greatness of the player and the tenacity of his wife, who refused to put her husband on a shelf, no matter his condition, as a result, there have been some small concessions implemented. 

Mackey was officially diagnosed with frontal temporal dementia in 2000, (his wife says it started in the ‘80’s) the same year that the owner of the Cowboys, Jerry Jones, told ESPN he would push his oft-concussed quarterback Troy Aikman into crucial games because “there is no evidence of any long-term, lasting impact” from head trauma in the N.F.L. A few years later, a committee of doctors appointed by the league published several papers making the same claim, to the howls of more independent experts.

While the N.F.L. gained fame with NFL Films that highlighted the history of the league, especially videos featuring the hallowed Colts of John Unitas, Lenny Moore, Bubba Smith and Mackey, Sylvia, now 60-year’s-old, became a United Airlines flight attendant to pay mounting medical bills. She grew so distraught that she wrote a three-page letter to Paul Tagliabue, the departing N.F.L. commissioner, to alert him to what was happening to one of the game’s legends.

Sylvia’s haunting description of dementia — “a slow, deteriorating, ugly, caregiver-killing, degenerative, brain-destroying tragic horror,” she called it — almost brought Tagliabue to tears. He and the players union swiftly created a fund that would pay up to $88,000 in medical expenses to the families of retired players with dementia. Why $88,000? John Mackey wore No. 88. It continues today simply as the 88 Plan, forever identified with Sylvia as much as John.

A total of 166 players and counting have benefited from the 88 Plan over the years. Their age distribution also helped confirm that N.F.L. players were, indeed, receiving diagnoses of dementia or other memory-related diseases earlier and more often than other American men, prompting Congressional hearings and safety-related reform.

Still Hall of Famer Gale Sayers is still not happy with the pace of help coming for his brethren, saying: “(The NFL) could have helped him more, I felt. But they didn’t, and the players (NFLPA) could have helped more, and it didn’t happen.”

Leland Stein can be reached at lelstein3@aol.com or at Twitter @lelandsteinIII