Blinding flashes of light | Bleader

Blinding flashes of light


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Andy Russell
  • Andy Russell
The other day I posted a long story about a University of Missouri football player who suffered a head injury he was lucky to survive. Carried off the field unconscious in September of 1962, Don Wainwright came to 13 days later and remained a hospital patient until January. He never played football again.

Wainwright went on to a highly successful career as an industrialist, and he felt strong and fit enough on his 70th birthday to drop and do 71 push-ups. But a lot more is known today about the long-term and lethal effects of concussions than was known even a few years ago, and Wainwright’s a fatalist. “Who knows? I might have Alzheimer’s or something. Who knows when it starts hitting you?” he told me. Wainwright mentioned a Mizzou teammate of his. “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.”

Wainwright’s football career ended in the first quarter of the first game of his senior season. Russell, also a senior, finished the season, turned pro, and played 12 years as a linebacker for the Pittsburgh Steelers, making the Pro Bowl seven times. On Monday Russell called me and talked about his own concussions.

“I can remember ten concussions, starting in high school,” he said. And he assumes there were others he didn’t recognize. Common to the concussions there was no mistaking was a “bright flash of light. In high school I tackled a guy by putting my head in front of his knees. There was a big explosion of light and I woke up on the sideline. They’d carried me off. The next one was in a game against Nebraska. There was a big flash of light, and as I got up and ran back to the huddle the ground jumped up and hit me in the face three times. That’s what it seemed like to me.”

He went on, “The mantra in the 60s and 70s was, you play hurt. When I got to the Steelers in ’63 I played with a lot of guys who’d played in the 50s. Ernie Stautner played with a broken thumb. It was a compound fracture—the bone was sticking out of his thumb. It’s so different today. If a guy gets a hangnail he’s out for two weeks. In those days you stayed in, and you wanted to stay in, you didn’t want to tell the coaches you were hurt. If you came off the field and someone said ‘Russell got dinged,’ the doctor said ‘Are you a boy or a girl?’ and if you knew the answer you went back in.

“Playing in Green Bay in Lambeau Field there was a big explosion of light as I tackled Jim Taylor. I jumped up—I couldn’t lie there, I had to get back to the huddle, you couldn’t show your opponent you’re hurt—and Bart Starr said, ‘You’re in the wrong huddle. Your huddle is over there.’”

So they knew you were hurt!

That they did, said Russell. “They attacked me right away.”

Russell said headaches don’t bother him but he worries about his memory, and one reason he writes a lot is that “I’m trying to keep my brain working. I have a theory—use it or lose it. To write a sentence you have to use your brain. To write a chapter you have to use your brain.” He’s published three books, all memoirs, and is two chapters into a fourth. An investment banker with a glamorous past, Russell makes a lot of speeches, and he ran off a list of places where he’s talked—Tokyo, Delhi, Frankfurt, Kuwait—as if to demonstrate to me and himself that he could do it. “You try to give a speech with no notes,” he said, “and sometimes I’d forget where I was and have to ask the audience.”

Did that scare you?

“Yeah!” he said.

Russell runs an annual charity golf tournament, the Andy Russell Celebrity Classic. This year, a big chunk of the proceeds are promised to the new concussion center of the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center. Russell knows the NFL's current focus on concussions is a good thing. And yet—"On the other hand," he says, "I don't want them to destroy the game. It’s a violent game. The fans like the hitting—"

Do the players?

“You have to like to hit people,” Russell said. “Not hurt people. That bounty thing was horrible—we didn’t have anything like that. But I do worry that they’re going to make the game a little too wussy. Like Jack Lambert said, ‘They’re going to put the quarterbacks in skirts.’”

Russell hung up, read my piece on Wainwright, and then e-mailed me. He began by picking up on something Wainwright had told me—that in his era there were no weight rooms and no one lifted.

"It is true that college coaches in the early 60s didn’t encourage their players to lift weights—'those are only for narcistic types who want to look in mirrors' was their opinion. This was pretty much true in the NFL as well, at least until the 70s when many players became huge weight lifters—i.e. Rocky Bleier. Rock had been a smallish running back, drafted out of Wisconsin, at 195 lbs, who only ran a 4.9 40 yard dash (relatively slow). When he returned from Vietnam combat, with his wounds, he started lifting weights and came back one year at 235lbs and ran a 4.5 second 40—that was proof to all of us that weights could make a huge difference.

"The difference then, of course, is that we all had to have jobs in the off season, whereas today’s players don’t and they can work out 4 or 5 hours a day, five days a week, making them clearly 'bigger, faster, and stronger.' However, despite their strength and size, I don’t think they make the tough hits of the 50s, 60s and 70s because they aren’t allowed to go to the head for fear of major fines or suspensions. We routinely went to the opponent’s head—not to hurt him but to stop him."

Russell then repeated something that he'd said over the phone. Although quarterbacks get most of the attention, defensive players (such as he was) suffer more concussions than offensive players. "Why?—because the best way to make a sure tackle (unless you can go for the head) is to put your head in front of the runner’s knees and wrap him up—hold on with your arms. I recently asked Rocky Bleier when he thought the NFL would fine a running back for having his knee hit a linebacker’s helmet."

So as long as tackling is part of football, concussions will be part of it too?

"I think so," said Russell. "Unless they make it flag football or something."

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