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Even Damar Hamlin's meltdown can't make us give up our football addiction



What’s amazing about John Madden’s head coaching career in the NFL is that it only lasted 10 years. His final season was in 1978. It all ended in August of that year after the most infamous preseason game in league history, when Patriots wide receiver Darryl Stingley was stretched out. off the pitch, unable to move, after being leveled by a hit by Raiders defensive back Jack Tatum so hard that he is now banned.

For two months after that exposure, long before the series of games the NFL says it counts, Stingley remained hospitalized, paralyzed from the neck down, in a hospital south of Oakland, not far from where Tatum — who has later titled his memoir ‘They Call Me Assassin’ – beset him. And for much of that time, as Sarah Pileggi wrote in a 1983 Sports Illustrated profile on Madden, the coach was a daily visitor from Stingley’s hospital bed. Madden’s wife, Virginia, too. They would drive an hour and a half or two from the Raiders’ base north of Oakland to the hospital where Stingley learned his condition would never change. He would be a quadriplegic for the rest of his life.

Madden, who died in December 2021 at age 85, retired at the end of the 1978 season. Stingley died aged 55 in his hometown of Chicago in April 2007.

And between Madden’s retirement from coaching and Stingley’s death, Madden became the face and voice of the NFL. Through his broadcast, he captivated audiences as the biggest fan of professional football. More importantly, through the video games with which his name has become synonymous – called Madden NFL now, five decades later – he has become gaming’s most influential impresario.

Who knows how many of the NFL’s estimated 184 million fans grew up on Madden games, including early 1990s versions where a player could get run over by a tackle and – if you can imagine – picked up by a ambulance? The cartoonish scene is like the one that so afflicted Madden in 1978 and perhaps drove him off the sideline, and the one that traumatized the country on Monday night after Buffalo’s Damar Hamlin collapsed on the field from Cincinnati and had to be resuscitated before an ambulance could transport him to the hospital.

Nonetheless, most of us, like Madden after witnessing Stingley’s injury, will nearly recover from our shock, nausea, outrage, moralizing, and reconnect. From this weekend. We’ll even watch with heightened interest as Cincinnati and Buffalo return to separate fields. It was the teams that clashed when Hamlin was taken down making a tackle that apparently caused cardiac arrest, followed by a collective call to suspend the contest and, in the following days, not to resume play at all. The league considered both sentiments, for the first time.

But we’ll be back no matter what.

Never mind that what afflicted Hamlin was the latest reminder that professional football is more than a contact sport; it’s a collision sport in which the blows can be so violent that the lives of its players are at stake with almost every snap of the fingers. Never mind that we learned in the early 2000s that in-game human head-on collisions cause a brain injury called chronic traumatic encephalopathy, or CTE, which can trigger memory loss, confusion, depression, violent outbreaks and suicides. Never mind that we’ve long known that the game has left a legion of former players injured on foot, hobbled, even crippled, by too many joint injuries and too many surgeries to fix them.

Never mind that the game was unfair to black men who came to dominate it by treating their neurological damage as inferior to that of their white teammates based on a rubric called race-norming, based on the racist premise according to which black men’s cognition is lower. . Never mind that the league is facing a class action lawsuit led by a former black head coach, now an assistant, Brian Flores, alleging that the league, and several teams in particular, discriminate against aspiring non-white head coaches in coaching practices. hiring.

As a fan, I don’t suffer from body and brain damage. But am I not an accomplice by logging on every weekend, Monday and Thursday? Isn’t my fiending part of the problem?

I managed to quit boxing about 10 years ago. But that was because of another corrupt decision in a fight, not because of the abject brutality of the sport. Not because I was haunted, as I should have been, by one of the most memorable interviews I’ve ever done. It was with mid-’90s super featherweight champion Gabe Ruelas months after he TKO’d Jimmy Garcia, who died after sustaining brain damage during the fight. I remember Ruelas saying that after he decided to go back to the ring, which was the only industry he had employable skills for, it was hard to train because he saw Garcia’s face in every gear bag. , heavy bag or sparring partner he was hitting.

I had relapses with boxing, but never with professional football. Because I never left him.

I haven’t stopped watching a former NFL player-turned-friend become one of several dozen retired players with ALS, the incurable and deadly neurodegenerative disease that football players are four times more susceptible to. to develop than other adult males. Steve Smith passed away just before Christmas 2021 and his widow, Chie, who cared for him so lovingly in his decline, decried the game’s vicious record even louder.

I couldn’t stop that January 2009 afternoon in Pittsburgh near the end of the AFC Championship game, when Steelers defensive back Ryan Clark looked like Tatum as he smashed into the running back Ravens Willis McGahee with such a thud it echoed behind the sealed windows. from the press box and silenced a noisy stadium. McGahee was lying on his back, his hands clasped. Clark rolled slowly on his side. Clark was helped off the field by his teammates. McGahee was taken away as Stingley, but he survived to walk and play another day.

“When Damar Hamlin falls on the turf, and when you see the medical staff rushing onto the pitch, and both teams are on the pitch,” Clark said the other day on ESPN where he retired as that analyst, “you realize it’s not it’s not normal. You realize it’s not just football.

This weekend, when most of us are back, you will realize that football is more than a hobby. It’s an addiction.



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