On a lazy Saturday in July, on a small-town Main Street in northern Minnesota, I spotted my childhood hero walking with his wife in the rain and called out, "Justice Page!" Alan Page, the 1971 NFL MVP, is now a state Supreme Court judge and a living illustration of Thomas Edison's assertion that "the chief function of the body is to carry the brain around."
In football, the reverse is true. Before working as a brain—a legal mind, deliberating—Page made his living with his body. His brain's chief function was to impel that body to overpower other men, one of whom dislocated the defensive tackle's left pinky, which today still turns out at a 90-degree angle, straight and true as a carpenter's L-square.
In the rain, my four-year-old son looked at that finger, then buried his face in my side. Diane Page gently mentioned that her husband had just published a children's book, Alan and His Perfectly Pointy, Impossibly Perpendicular Pinky: "It would be perfect for your son."
Football, played at its highest level, is catastrophic. Even relatively minor afflictions are grotesque and bookworthy. But the most insidious injuries are worse than unsightly—they're invisible. After Georgia running back Richard Von Gammon died of a "concussion of the brain," The New York Times noted in its game story that the instantaneous move that night in the Georgia legislature to ban football across that state "will meet with a decided opposition." That was 116 years ago, and even the briefest Dumpster dive into the football archives shows an endless history of football at once inflicting and ignoring brain trauma.
On a single Saturday in 1909, two teenage players died of brain trauma while a third lay unconscious in the hospital, every fatality a footnote. In the 1910 season, when 14 players at all levels were killed, concussions were the leading cause of death. "There have been far too many cases of concussion of the brain and even fracture of the skull in football," wrote Dr. Morris Fishbein, editor of The Journal of the American Medical Association. That warning came and went in 1933. Fishbein himself went in 1976.
And yet it was still arresting last week to watch the PBS documentary League of Denial, based on the heroic book by Mark Fainaru-Wada and Steve Fainaru. The brothers note that 44 of the 46 brains of football players that have been examined postmortem at Boston University showed evidence of the degenerative brain disease known as CTE. Ann McKee, the BU neuropathologist entrusted to study the brains of deceased NFL veterans, wonders aloud if every football player doesn't have it.
This should trouble anybody with a brain, which is the repository of our conscience, our moral reasoning and our humanity. The brain is what the Scarecrow needs to be human, and McKee says with reverence in the documentary, "I never forget that the brain is a human being." But it's even more than that. The brain is everything, the universe and all that is in it. Emily Dickinson:
The brain is wider than the sky,
For, put them side by side,
The one the other will include
With ease, and you beside.
I first met Alan Page when I was a kid, at the airport Holiday Inn in Bloomington, Minn., where the Vikings stayed before home games. There in the lobby the great man signed an autograph for me, in my Vikings jersey with his number 88. The force of nature who played behind him—Wally Hilgenberg, linebacker on four Super Bowl teams—posed with me for a picture. These were the men I wanted to grow up to be, linchpins of a Vikings defense that, as one writer put it before Super Bowl VIII, "makes music on quarterbacks' helmets" and causes "birds to sing in halfbacks' heads."
Well into football's second century, that cartoon imagery has yet to disappear. On the night after League of Denial aired, a former NFL player on Showtime's Inside the NFL demonstrated the proper way to head-slap a QB and laughingly recalled Deacon Jones's concealing a piece of metal beneath his taped hand, the better to ring an opponent's bell.
Wally Hilgenberg died in 2008. He was diagnosed in life with ALS, and in death with CTE. His brain was entrusted to McKee. Watching her go about her work, I thought of Page and Hilgenberg as teammates again, and their injuries—pinky and the brain—somehow as companions.
That's because invisible injuries are finally getting the attention the visible ones can't help but attract. It's the single grace note in the sad plight of so many former players: Their stories are at long last being heard. And a bell, for better and worse, can never be unrung.
What was your takeaway from League of Denial?
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DAMIAN STROHMEYER FOR SPORTS ILLUSTRATED