x Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 19 January 2018

The real pain for NFL players runs deep

His wife traced the downwards arc from Ray Easterling's days as a fearless NFL safety and devoted husband to depressed and forgetful paranoid.

The Atlanta Falcons' Ray Easterling, centre, grimaces while aided by team trainers after getting injured.
The Atlanta Falcons' Ray Easterling, centre, grimaces while aided by team trainers after getting injured.

Over the weekend, record hordes of fans watched NFL on their televisions while others stuffed stadiums.

The sheer numbers suggest that the level of appeal for America's pastime - sorry, baseball, your time came and went - has yet to peak.

I was part of the humongous welcoming committee to a new season. Still I wonder how many like myself watch nowadays with a partly buzz-killing awareness of the sport's inherent dangers. Almost with a sense of dread, knowing that some players not only will break bones and rip ligaments but will cope with dementia and other debilitating repercussions during their football afterlife.

Television ratings, along with ticket sales, can quantify how many football supporters have permanently changed the channel - few, apparently - but not whether enthusiasm with continued viewers has waned.

My guess: it has, for those who have absorbed the drip-drip of discouraging news about player suicides and about studies that connect constant head blows to long-term disability.

In April, I saw it painfully up-close while visiting Mary Ann Easterling in her home. There, nine days earlier, her husband Ray ended two decades of erratic behaviour and inner torment by shooting himself to death.

In heart-wrenching detail, she traced the downwards arc from Easterling's days as a fearless NFL safety and devoted husband to successful business owner and earnest father to depressed and forgetful paranoid.

Towards the end, Easterling would set out on long jogs, stumbling and falling, then become lost until his wife found him. Perhaps to keep his numb and quivering hands active, he would incessantly chop trees into fireplace logs. Even at 62, he ran sprints at a school track, asking her to evaluate his form.

In Easterling's clouded mind, these seemingly were efforts to ward off what the couple suspected was the stockpiling consequences of concussions that went undiagnosed or too lightly treated as a player. Easterling's autopsy confirmed his widow's suspicions. A degenerative brain disease, linked to athletes subjected to frequent hits to the head, was pinpointed as the culprit in his condition.

If only Easterling were an isolated case. Two prominent players of more recent vintage, Junior Seau and Dave Duerson, died by their own hand. More than 2,300 NFL alumni have joined a class-action lawsuit against the league, seeking compensation based on accusations that it disguised the risk of head injuries and neglected to provide proper care.

At Easterling's memorial, his former teammate and friend Greg Brezina disclosed a wish he had conveyed to his four grown boys: do not let my grandsons play football.

His voice joins a chorus of players, retired and current, who have expressed the same desire for their offspring.

The Hall of Fame quarterback Terry Bradshaw: "If I had a son today ... I would not want him to play football."

The former quarterback Kurt Warner: "I can't make that choice for them if they want to ... [but it] scares me."

The Jets linebacker Bart Scott: "I don't want my son to play football. With what's going on, I don't know if it's really worth it."

With last Sunday's opening football feast approaching, I was preparing to put on blinkers to block out the unwanted commotion. Then, the day before, a sizeable hole was punched in those blinkers. I was taking in a college game when a player collided head on head with a teammate, fracturing his spine. He faces possible paralysis.

Another gurney rolled on to the field. Another casualty of a contradictory sport that is both graceful and brutal. Another scene of fellow players, bent to one knee, reflecting and praying, some surely wondering why they engage in it.

And I wondered why we enable them by watching.