At a time when more and more former players have sued the NFL over concussions suffered during their playing careers, one former player who played the game at a very high level has no plans to blame anyone but the players for the post-football condition of their bodies.
“It’s all on the players, not anybody else, because the players have the same gladiator genes that existed in Rome over 2,000 years ago,” former Raiders cornerback Lester Hayes tells Terence Moore in a special item for CNN.com. “They have a love of football to the 10th power. So the players make the final call. Trust me. No matter what they are told by doctors or anybody else, they will fight to play.”
Of course, that’s easy for Hayes to say. He emerged from 10 seasons of NFL football unscathed. At age 57, he has no lingering injuries, of any kind. (Including illnesses from inhaling all those stickum fumes.)
He seems to be surprised by his good fortune.
“Lord, have mercy. It’s so much safer to play in the NFL these days than during my time,” Hayes said. “We didn’t have any guidelines. You could actually lead with your face mask [as a defender] — putting your face mask on an opposing player’s face mask, without a $15,000 fine. You could throw a forearm shiver to the throat. People played with broken bones. Guys would carry smelling salt in their socks, so if you got a little woozy on the field, you’d reach into your sock for help.”
Hayes claims that, when he was injured and wanted to play, he had to deal with doctors who tried to keep him from suiting up, once with a strained calf muscle. “It was 1985, and I had never missed a game, and me and Dr. [Richard] Rosenfeld were going at it — back and forth, and I’m begging him, just pleading and screaming at him, ‘Doc, I’ve got to play. Give me the shot. . . . The Doc is telling me, ‘Lester, take a few days off. I don’t like shooting muscle.’ But it’s going back and forth, with me yelling. And God rest his soul, he wouldn’t back down, not until I just forced him to do it. He always showed a lot of love and compassion.”
And it wasn’t only Hayes who pushed to play. “Listen, I’m waiting there outside of the secret room [where [pain-killing shots were dispensed], observing, listening to Doc tell players, ‘Sit out. Sit out.’ They wouldn’t do it, because they were gladiators, and Mr. [Al] Davis had instilled such a will of winning into each of us that we had to get out there. . . .
“Mr. Davis never pressured us to play,” Hayes said. “He never, never did. It was always the player’s call. You can’t blame Mr. Davis, and you can’t blame the doctors, because a lot of guys see stars on the field, but that gladiator gene takes over. I never saw Dr. Rosenfeld apply pressure in the secret room, except to try to put us in street clothes on game days.”
Though plenty of other former players would disagree strongly that Rosenfeld or doctors with other teams actually tried to talk injured players out of playing, Hayes’ remarks mesh with the mindset of most fans, who believe that the players knew the risks, accepted the risks, and disregarded their own health and safety in order to suit up and play the game they loved.
Right or wrong, plenty of jurors who show up for the concussion cases will feel the same way.