Let’s get ready for a Super Bowl Sunday that caps a season marked by one of our periodic spasms of feigned worry about violence in a game characterized by it.
A few weeks ago, the whole country was convulsed in fear at the temporary death, and then elated by the miraculous survival, of Buffalo Bills’ safety Damar Hamlin. And this week we see an astonishing report from Boston University that 92% of ex-NFL players studied exhibit the terminal brain disease CTE.
To get ourselves in the right mindset for the big game this year, let’s remember the most violent NFL game ever played.
No, not the 1960 game when Chuck Bednarik knocked Frank Gifford out for 18 months.
No, not the 1978 game when Jack Tatum paralyzed Daryl Stingley for life.
No: On YouTube, I’m watching the game in 1984 when the all-time great defense of the Chicago Bears and the notorious outlaw gang of the Los Angeles Raiders set out to murder one another on the rock-hard Astroturf at Chicago’s Soldier Field, in 1984. Of course, CTE was unknown in 1984. Back then we knew about punch-drunk boxers, and we knew something was wrong with Muhammad Ali. And that was about it.
The game gets off to a benign start, introduced by gentle play-by-play announcer Dick Enberg, whose sunny signature call was, “Oh, my!” And Enberg’s color man Merlin Olsen, who played Charles Ingalls’ best friend on Little House on the Prairie.
But early in the first quarter, Chicago Bear cornerback Leslie Frazier is down on the ground clutching his chest, and we go to commercial.
Then Raiders’ quarterback Marc Wilson takes a savage hit around midfield, and appears to be in agony. Which is a problem, because starting quarterback Jim Plunkett is out with an injury. (Plunkett, who will report many years later, “My life sucks,” as a result of his football career. “It’s no fun being in this body right now. Everything hurts.” He added that he takes a number of drugs—”I can’t know them all. I’ve got to take them every day to quote-unquote survive.”)
Now Raiders’ third-string quarterback David Humm comes into the game, as Marc Wilson doesn’t seem ready to go back in. “That whiplash may have numbed his senses a little bit, Dick,” Olsen says, with the hint of a chuckle. Olsen was also a former player—a Hall-of-Fame defensive tackle for the L.A. Rams. So he’d had his senses numbed before.
I wrote a piece about eight years ago for the Huffington Post, “Dissecting the Irreversibly Altered Brain of a Professional Football Fan,” after which I had to endure a sincere telephonic lecture by a man I respect very much—a high school football coach who asked me what exactly I would do with the thousands of testosterone-brimming young men who he and his coaching colleagues otherwise exhaust with football practice and focus on games.
As the second quarter begins with the Bears leading 7-0, Marc Wilson returns to the game. But not for long, as he throws an interception and leaves the field clutching his right hand, having bounced it off a Bear’s helmet.
After a Bears’ score makes it 14-0, David Humm returns to the game, Wilson apparently unable to grasp a football. “We billed this as a physical game,” Olsen says. “It has been that.”
Humm is getting mauled by Bears defenders. Including defensive lineman Dan Hampton, who is now down on the field with an injury, and so we go to timeout. When we return, Hampton is rocking on the bench, holding his left elbow. “He looks like he was shaken up a little bit,” Olsen says.
After a terrible face-to-face hit by Richard Dent, Humm is supine. He staggers to his knees. He shuffles to the sideline. “Whoops,” Enberg says, “they’re going to check the fillings in Humm’s mouth.”
After an interception, Humm trots back into the game. First play back, he’s cut down as he throws an incomplete pass. He writhes on the ground in pain. “He is hurt,” Olsen says. “He is hurt.” The camera lights on the Raiders’ legendary punter, Ray Guy on the sideline, and Enberg notes that Guy is the third-string quarterback. Guy looks reticent, at best. “If I were Ray Guy,” Olsen says, “I would say, ‘Are you sure you really want me to do this?'” (It would later be reported that Guy refused to take the field.)
Humm is helped off the field like a person being led away from a very bad car accident. “Wilson went out twice, once with a back injury, once with an injured thumb,” Enberg summarizes. “And now Humm, he went out once after a whack, you saw the bruise on the chin and they were checking his teeth, and now … hard to tell. The knee? … You start at the head and go down to the feet and you just say, ‘Anatomy.'” (It would later be reported that Humm blew out his knee.)
Wilson goes back into the game, after one of his teammates helps him buckle his chin strap. “They’re not going to tell you this, and you didn’t hear it from me,” Wilson later reported the Raiders’ team doctor telling him on the sideline. “But your thumb is broken. They won’t tell you about it, because they need you to keep playing.”
“Boy,” Enberg says, “this is the NFL version of M*A*S*H.”
The teams go into halftime, the Bears leading 14-3.
And after the first play of the second half, the Bears’ starting quarterback Jim McMahon comes out, with what Enberg calls a “bruised back.” McMahon reported a couple of years ago, “My body feels, you know, as good as it’s going to feel after 18-plus surgeries,” McMahon. “My head is really the worst of my problems.” He said he relates to CTE-stricken fellow ex-players who have committed suicide, saying, “Had I had a gun, I wouldn’t be here because my head hurts so bad that the only way to get rid of it is just be done.”
The announcers talk differently now. There are rules that punish players for making some of the most brutal kinds of hits. (Even though they still wind up making a lot of them anyway.) And there are “concussion protocols.” It’s possible to be sincere about trying to make the game less dangerous … and insincere about believing you’re actually doing it.
Don’t misunderstand. I will be watching the Super Bowl on Sunday. Just as I’ll be driving my car downtown next week when I can take public transportation, just as I’ll be flying to Europe next month to give a couple of speeches whose social impact might not justify the environmental impact. For the Super Bowl, I’ll make chili with turkey that I know comes from ghastly factory farms. And if pro boxing could generate a compelling fight, I’d pay-per-view for that. I do a lot of things that I know are bullshit. Supporting professional football with my TV ratings is only one of them.
But one of them, it is.
Popeye’s, is my only defense. Yours, too.