Peter King of Sports Illustrated undertook a compelling project for the magazine’s latest issue.
King examined the health and quality of life of the 1986 Cincinnati Bengals, 25 years later. He interviewed every possible player he could find from the team, with 39 of 46 living members cooperating. It was the first such study of its kind.
There is a lot to devour in the piece, and we highly recommend reading it in full. Here were a few things that stuck out to me:
1. 44% of the players surveyed had memory loss, and 33% of the players had daily headaches. Sobering numbers.
2. Despite the daily pain that many players suffered from, there were few regrets about the career path they chose. Only 13% of the players (five of them) said they wouldn’t want their sons or close relatives playing pro football. Another five players said they’d have mixed feelings about it.
There were some notable exceptions, but most players essentially said the pain and headaches were worth it.
“[The NFL] affords a great lifestyle. Are there inherent risks?” asked Ray Horton, now the defensive coordinator for the Cardinals. “Yeah, but those coal miners in West Virginia and down in Chile, they have an inherent risk in their jobs. The soldiers who go over to Afghanistan, they have an inherent risk in what they do. Firefighters have an inherent risk. Are you kidding me? To play a sport I love the whole time and to just lose a knee—guys come back from Afghanistan with no legs.”
(It’s worth noting Horton was one of the healthiest — and most optimistic — of the players interviewed.)
3. There is a broad scope of how the players have been affected physically. A few of them like Boomer Esiason are so healthy, it’s like they never played. A few are unable to lead normal lives. Most fall somewhere in the middle.
Their bodies are older than their birth certificates suggest. Their everyday pain is a constant reminder of the career they once had.
“Every morning when I get up, I want to put oil cans in all these little places before I get going,” said offensive lineman David Douglas.
We hear so much about the concussion issue, but the long-term physical ailments of former NFL players can get overlooked. It’s a complex subject, and King’s piece gives a great picture of what the average player goes through.
The article left me thinking that even more work needs to be done.
“I knew going into this business there’d be consequences,” former return man Mike Martin said, “and now I’m dealing with ’em.”