A football player from a different era | Bleader

A football player from a different era

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Don Wainwright
  • Don Wainwright
Did you know, said Don Wainwright, that the football players can’t join fraternities any longer?

More than anything else Wainwright told me—which was about weight rooms and equipment and the sheer size and speed of today’s players—this brought home how much Division One football has changed since Wainwright played it at the University of Missouri in the early 60s. He’d described returning to the campus for the 50th reunion of the 1960 team—the most successful in Mizzou history—and beholding the $80 million weight room. It was unimaginable in his day, the central reason being that football players then didn’t lift weights. “We did push-ups and stretching exercises,” he said, and the coaches worked them hard in practice. “After January 1 we stayed in shape playing handball, things like that. I was a big tight end in the Big Eight and couldn’t even be the water boy now."

His playing weight was about 220 pounds, and today he’d be spotting the guy lining up against him 40 to 60 pounds. That guy would probably be faster, too. “If I was doing then what I’m doing now I’d have been a triple All-America,” Wainwright said. “I have a trainer I use every day—I started when I was 60. On my 70th birthday I did 71 push-ups at my party and I said I couldn’t do ten when I was playing football. If you continuously work out—and I don’t mean turn into an Arnold Schwarzenegger but keep in shape—it’s amazing how strong you get. “

If the rules and equipment had continued to evolve, but the players had stayed the same size they used to be, football would be a safer sport—thanks in part to innovations researched by Wainwright himself. But that didn’t happen. If, on the one hand, the big universities take steps to protect the athletes playing the cash cow sport, then on the other hand they treat them like easily replaceable vassals. If they can’t even join fraternities, then no matter how much smoke the NCAA blows about its “student athletes,” the jocks aren’t leading students’ lives. I couldn’t take Wainwright’s word for it, so I called the Missouri athletic department and spoke to the media guy for football.

“I don’t know if there’s a written rule,” said Chad Moller. “I’m pretty sure there have been guys over the years who have been in fraternities. A player here or there.” But he couldn’t think of any. “I know that the time commitment you have to give to being a student athlete is not part of being in the Greek system.”

In other words, the rule that says you can’t be in a frat is no more formal than the rule that says you have to work out year-round. “It’s not mandatory,” said Moller, “but when you’re done with football season the guys go home for winter break and come back and start the off-season workouts. It’s officially voluntary by NCAA rules, but guys do it. They know if they want to compete for a job in the fall they’ve got to do it.” When the school year’s over they can take off for a week or two, but “they come back voluntarily and they take summer school and that’s good! And again they’re working out over the summer with the strength coach, the conditioning coach."

In August the head coach blows his whistle for the first practice and the next season begins.

I called Wainwright, whom I went to high school with as well as college, to ask him about Dave Duerson, concussions, and chronic brain injury. It turned out Wainwright didn’t know Duerson, but I thought they might have met, if only at the 2002 funeral of the college coach they both played for, Dan Devine. Duerson played for Devine at Notre Dame in the late 70s and early 80s, and then he went on to a pro career that found him starting for the Super Bowl champion Bears of 1985 and New York Giants of 1990. Thirteen months ago he committed suicide by shooting himself in the heart, leaving behind a plea for doctors to examine his brain. Pathologists found it scarred by chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE). Last month Duerson’s family sued the National Football League, accusing it of hiding from its players what it knew to be true about concussions—that they put players at risk of irreversible degeneration of their brains. It's one of several suits filed by dozens of former NFL players against the league, and many of them also sued Riddell, the leading manufacturer of football helmets.

In Wainwright’s time at Missouri, the helmets were just a plastic shell, and players were taught to tackle headfirst—“You put your face right into the man so your eyes don’t miss him.” Wainwright remembers he played end—offensively and defensively—in that one-platoon era, and he became a starter his junior year. Those were good teams—Missouri lost a total of four games during his three seasons on the varsity and won two bowl games. The Tigers began his senior year facing California at Berkeley. The home team scored on its first possession and Wainwright broke his face mask tackling the runner as he plunged into the end zone. Wainwright threw his helmet to the sidelines and somebody threw him another one. He discovered when he put it on that it was a little too big—his head would be rattling around it.

Wainwright lined up at one defensive end for the extra point and George Seals lined up at the the other. They met at the placekicker. “I dove for the ball,” Wainwright remembers. “His knee caught my head right at the cheek.” Seals’s knee slammed against Wainwright’s head, flinging his brain against the far side of his skull. “They call it a contrecoup,” says Wainwright. “I just bounced on the ground and lay there. The doctors said it was a miracle I was even alive. Nobody lives through a blow like that. I was lucky my neck didn’t break.”

Wainwright was unconscious for 13 days. The hospital didn’t discharge him until January. He thanks God he was injured in Berkeley, where there were neurosurgeons and neurologists of a quality he doubts he’d have found in, say, Ames, Iowa, or Norman, Oklahoma, or, for that matter, in Columbia, Missouri. “Only by the grace of God am I walking around today a normal person,” he says.

Yet one of his best friends from high school—another football player—tells me that when he ran into Wainwright after college “he just wasn’t the same person.” Wainwright agrees. “I wasn’t the same person,” he says. He’s not sure if he ever became that person again.

“There are several steps you go through,” he says. “The first is medical. Then there’s psychological recovery. It’s just like rebooting a computer. You start out in a fetal position and start working back. Your brain is rebooting everything. It’s a hell of a psychological blow to your ego to be number one man on campus, and then everything’s gone, you know what I mean? Everything you’ve been working on is gone. You can’t do those things anymore—it’s too dangerous.” Against the advice of doctors who wanted Wainwright to stay out of school all year, he tried to return second semester. But the headaches the doctors had warned him about started to come. “I dropped out, went to Florida, and stayed on the beach. That’s what they said—you don’t mess around with stuff like that.”

In the fall he returned to Mizzou, where because he’d been injured just minutes into his senior season another year of eligibility was his for the asking. It’s up to you, said coach Devine. But Wainwright says Devine had been tormented by the injury, and had even talked in terms of quitting coaching if Wainwright died. “I said, ‘Look, Dan, I’ve always wanted to be an industrialist, even though I’ve always wanted to be an All-America too. But I think I’d better hang my jock up.’ And he said ‘Man, do you make me feel a lot better.’ That really tore him up.”

So Wainwright finished up his engineering degree and began grad school, and chose as the subject of his master’s thesis impact attenuation. In simple English, “A Simulated Crushable Material” discussed ways to build a better football helmet. “All we had,” he says, “was the band around your head that kept the plastic part of the helmet separated from the head.” His idea was “to control the acceleration and deceleration of the brain” by inserting a semicrushable material between the plastic and the skull to absorb energy. “We had to use something, some medium, that would give you the right deceleration. A semicrushable material is the top energy absorber and the best thing available for that is air.”

“Hard blows to the head are not necessarily fatal ones,” the thesis began, “but damage to the brain can produce adverse effects throughout a person’s life.” He went on to propose a system of variable orifices that he says was picked up “by all the major helmet guys.” Then he went on with his life. He wound up running and expanding his father’s manufacturing company, Wainwright Industries, which machines customized parts for the automotive and aerospace industries. Ten years ago he was elected chairman of the National Association of Manufacturers. He became the first chairman of the Manufacturing Council of the United States a couple of years later.

His success in life isn’t anomalous. A lot of his teammates had IQs not that much lower than their playing weights, and the media office boasted of their GPAs. Almost everyone graduated, and several became engineers, some lawyers, at least one a doctor. Even the players who stayed in football excelled: Bill Tobin became general manager of the Chicago Bears and Indianapolis Colts; Jim Johnson was defensive coordinator of the Philadelphia Eagles in an era when they won five division titles; Bill McCartney won a national championship as head coach at Colorado and created the men’s ministry, Promise Keepers.

“I haven’t heard from George Seals in years,” says Wainwright. “He was a commodities trader last time I heard.” That would have been after ten years of pro ball, seven with the Bears. In the last three elections, Seals’s son Dan was the Democrat candidate for Congress in Illinois’s Tenth District.

One close pal of Wainwright's over the years is former linebacker Andy Russell. He left Missouri with a degree in economics and an MBA, played for the Pittsburgh Steelers 12 years, made the Pro Bowl seven times, and then became an investment banker in Pittsburgh. Wainwright mentions Russell when he's talking about health. Wainwright feels good today, but he says, “Who knows? I might have Alzheimer’s or something. Who knows when it starts hitting you? Andy Russell had a lot of concussions and it bothers him from time to time. Last time we were together he mentioned it to me. And I always gave him hell about not being tough enough on the field.”

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