Is There Life After Football?: Surviving the NFL
I couldn’t have known it at the time, but in one night I met two athletes who would become prominent figures in the modern NFL concussion narrative: Mike Webster and Jack Tatum. At the time, Tatum was recently retired, but Webbie was still playing for my hometown Steelers, and of the seven or so players I met at this banquet, these are the only two I remember.
Because I bleed black and gold, I was happy to meet Webster. I remember him being incredibly friendly, shaking hands with both my father and me and penning a thoughtful autograph. But as cool as that was, I was really excited to meet the notorious Tatum, the icon of NFL villainy for permanently paralyzing wide receiver Darryl Stingley.
This had earned Tatum one of the coolest sports nicknames of all time, and he was at this banquet promoting the first of his three autobiographies, They Call Me Assassin.
Tatum didn’t just look mean–the air around him chilled, the energy darkened. Something repulsive oozed off of him and kept the crowd at a distance. He didn’t crack a smile, had none of Webster’s warmth. When I handed him my autograph sheet he literally just signed his name. No message, no greeting. Just “Jack Tatum.” He was terrifying, and I came away from that encounter star-struck.
Of course, my opinions of both men are much different now.
Nevertheless, both men symbolize the celebrity and consequence of football’s golden age: Tatum the intimidating aggressor whose ferocity and win-at-all-costs mentality are prized attributes and Webster the tough-as-nails scrapper who attained on-field glory at the cost of his mind, body and dignity off of it.
In the past decade, we’ve learned about the long-term health risks of playing professional football. With every early death, suicide and descent into darkness and bankruptcy, it becomes more difficult to enjoy a Sunday slugfest with a clear conscience. In another two decades, we may not recognize professional football, because we’re just now recognizing the toll it takes on its players.
An important new book on the subject, Is There Life After Football?, considers not only the physical and neurological toll of the sport, but also the psychological impact of job-mandated violence, short careers, and the wild financial swings common among players.
Penned by two sociologists and an unexpected scholar (former Green Bay Packers star George Koonce–that is, Dr. George Koonce), Is There Life After Football? provides a sobering and insightful view of this transition through the personal anecdotes of Koonce and the research of Holstein and Jones. Most jarring is Koonce’s admission of a reckless act at the end of his career. It wasn’t exactly a suicide attempt, but he did drive his car off the road just to see what would happen.
This anecdote is all the more poignant when considering the recent driving death of Rob Bironas.
Though not as accessible as the prose styles of Malcolm Gladwell and Michael Lewis, the authors do a great job of distilling difficult material into a digestible form. It’s also a treat to read for anyone who enjoyed watching those plucky Packers of the 1990s. Juxtaposing those dynamic teams with Koonce’s experiences gives the book a Behind the Music vibe.
The takeaway is the same. Just as those we see on stage and screen are real people, so too are the men behind the facemasks.
Perhaps in a box, somewhere, at my parents’ house is a slip of paper with Webster and Tatum’s autographs. If I ever find it, I’ll frame it, perhaps donate it to a museum, where it can memorialize a different time, alongside bare-knuckle boxing and Crack the Whip as American pastimes whose time has passed.