Sunday, January 10, 2016
Thursday night I took my wife to see the film, "Concussion", which is based on the problem of football head injuries. My biggest interest in seeing the film was because it largely centers around the Pittsburgh Steelers and the city of Pittsburgh. I happen to be a life-long Steeler fan and by coincidence, lived in Pittsburgh from 1987 to 1990. During that time, I happened to see Mike Webster, a central figure in the story, play twice, first as a Steeler and later as a Kansas City Chief. As all fans know, Webster suffered brain trauma and mental illness in his last years, often living in his car or on the street. It was his autopsy by a Nigerian-born pathologist in Pittsburgh, portrayed by actor Will Smith, that led to a revolution in the field of football head injuries. It is a sad and depressing film, which also recounts the tragic deaths of other ex-players, such as Terry Long, Justin Strzelczyk (also ex-Steelers), Andre Waters and Dave Duerson. After watching it, I wondered whether I should be praying for the Steelers to win their upcoming playoff game or pray that nobody suffered a concussion on the field.
How appropriate as we fast forward to Saturday night and the Steelers-Bengals playoff game in Cincinnati. The scene couldn't have been more perfect. Fifty degree weather and practically the entire game played in a rainstorm before 50,000+ howling, drenched fans. The two teams clearly despise each other, so much that officials had to form a human wall to keep them separated during pre-game warm-ups. Once the game began, it was a series of fights and injured players taken to the locker room. After sending Bengal running back Giovani Bernard off to the locker room with a helmet to helmet spear, Steeler linebacker Ryan Shazier was prancing on the sideline. There was no penalty, and the Steelers had recovered Bernard's fumble. The Bengals players and fans were outraged and screaming for revenge. As the 3rd quarter drew to a close, the Steelers were up 15-0. Then the game turned as Steeler quarterback Ben Roethlisberger was sacked by Bengal linebacker Vontaze Burfict and injured his right shoulder. (It was a clean tackle.) As Roethlisberger was being carted off to the locker room, fans cheered and threw water bottles at him. It was one of the most disgusting fan spectacles I have ever seen.
The Steelers opened the 4th quarter by punting from deep in their end zone. Soon it was 15-7 then 15-10. Roethlisberger was out of the game, and with just under two minutes left, the Bengals went up 16-15. When Burfict intercepted a pass by backup QB Landry Jones deep in Steeler territory, it appeared the game was over as Burfict and four or five of his teammates went charging into the locker room in celebration.
It was just warming up. Burfict, the hero, would have to return and become Burfict the villain and Burfict the goat.
On the very next play, the Bengals' Jeremy Hill fumbled, and the Steelers recovered around their own ten yard line. Out came Roethlisberger, unable to throw long, but able to make some short completions including one on a 4th and three. Then, with about 20 seconds to go, Roethlisberger threw an incomplete pass to Antonio Brown-who was promptly hit by Burfict helmet to helmet. Brown went down and lay on the field with a concussion as the flag flew. A fifteen yard penalty gave the Steelers the ball first and ten on the Bengals 33 yard line with 18 seconds to play and no time outs. They were in position to attempt a long (51 yards) field goal. That was before Bengal defensive back Adam Jones drew another 15 yard penalty for lunging at Steeler coach Joey Porter, himself never known as a peace maker during his playing days.
That put the ball on the 18 yard line, and the Steelers promptly kicked a chip shot field goal that won it and left Bengal players literally sobbing on the sidelines. Hill, Jones and Burfict all shared the goat horns. Justice had been served.
After the game, TV analyst Boomer Esiason, who played most of his career with the Bengals, said that he was embarrassed by what he had seen and referred to the Bengal players as "dreck".
Am I happy the Steelers won? Sure, but that is tempered by the fact that they have to play their next playoff game without Roethlisberger and Brown, which would leave them little chance of winning. I am also appalled by everything I witnessed last night. I fully understand that football is a violent, tough game, where injuries are common. Let's face it; the human body was not designed for football. I also understand that shrinking violets don't play football. It is a game of violence, emotion, and intimidation. To be sure, there was also the sport's unique beauty and grace on display in the game as exhibited by receivers, AJ Green, Antonio Brown and Martavis Bryant, the latter of whom made an impossible catch in the end zone to put the Steelers up 15-0.
But what to do? Football is a national institution and the most popular game in the country. It is not going to be banned, and the NFL is not going to go to touch football. They have made improvements with helmet design, issued new rules, and have instituted the concussion protocol that can remove a player from the game and keep him out until he passes certain tests. Yet, there is only so much one can do to make this game safer.
After I transferred out of Pittsburgh in 1990, I kept up contact with some of the people I had worked with. Our office was in the Federal Building on Grant Street and across the street from the Greyhound Bus Station where we parked our government cars. After Mike Webster died, I was told by one of my ex colleagues that for a time, he was regularly seen in the bus station when he was living as a homeless person.
Last night, Antonio Brown and Giovani Bernard were knocked out of the game with head injuries. I pray that neither will ever become the next Mike Webster.