September 25, 2016

A Life Adrift

By Scott Benson
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This week, on the Friday before the Super Bowl, we learned in excruciating detail of the tragic post-football life of former Patriots linebacker Ted Johnson.

Johnson’s claim that he suffered upwards of 30 concussions during his football career – which began and ended professionally here in New England – was another twinge in the gut for those of us who sit in the comfort and safety of our living rooms (or in gleaming, modern arenas) every Sunday, thrilled by the controlled mayhem that is the NFL.

The news came on the heels of the dreadful, numbing story of former Eagles standout Andre Waters, who ended his own life at 44 because – it is reported by the New York Times – of brain injuries he sustained in the relentless pursuit of the very things we prize on Sundays. Those injuries left a still-young man with the brain tissue of an 85 year old Alzheimers victim, according to neuropathologists that are now, along with author Chris Nowinski, forcing this hidden danger into the consciousness of the American sporting public.

Johnson’s story – revealed by Boston Globe columnist Jackie MacMullan in the Friday bombshell – is nearly as terrifying. His life since his sudden retirement in August of 2005, brought about by the same injuries that now seem to threaten his very existence, has been a downward spiral of drug abuse, depression, isolation, even violence.

As with everything, there are shades of gray. We’ll touch on some later. But let’s start with something we can all agree on.

This cannot stand.

Thanks to Nowinski, the Harvard football player turned reality show star turned pro wrestler turned diligent player advocate, I’m now realizing just how many Ted Johnsons and Andre Waters have been left by the roadside during my 40 years as a NFL fan. The Websters and Longs and Cooks and God knows how many you’ll never hear from. ESPN recently ran a feature on former Detroit tackle Chris Dietrich (think Billy Sims-era Lions) that was as sobering a tale as the one told by Johnson.

I’d forgotten about Chris Dietrich a long time ago, is my point. As fans, we too are complicit to a point. We contribute to the environment in which the problem exists, with no clue as to the consequences. That’s just a fact. Doesn’t make us bad people. Just makes us woefully ignorant.

The same ignorance still exists in the player’s workplace. Even with every sports medicine advance at its disposal, even with safeguards in place that were unthought of even a generation ago, the culture of football remains unchanged: players play. Those that don’t, fade away.

The word is that the NFL is moving cautiously through the minefield that the Waters story and Nowinski’s lobbying has created – mindful of its own research on the issue, but no doubt also its liabilities. I’ve got no problem with healthy skepticism towards all evidence in matters of such gravity, but now is not the time for sniveling, mealy-mouthed, MLB-type foot-shuffling, either. Nowinski and the research he promotes can not be marginalized like the Ralph Nader of football head injuries – he and the doctors he works with should become full partners with the NFL and its players association in an intitiative aimed at reducing, to the fullest extent humanly possible, the risk to players like Ted Johnson. Walls must come down, and bridges must be built. Human capital must be valued, and butt covering and interest protecting must be exposed for what it is. Research and the proposals that emanate from it must rise or fall on their own merit, or lack thereof, and for no other reason. This should be fully and publicly declared as the threat to the game that it is, and the league must – in reality, not perception – provide the impetus for change. Now.

For an international corporation and national institution with the immense resources of the NFL, anything less would be shameful, and unforgiveable.

*****

The most sensational aspect of MacMullan’s story was Johnson’s contention that his condition directly relates to a short period in August of 2002, and that actions taken by Patriots coach Bill Belichick at that time are directly responsible for Johnson’s peril today.

Johnson claims that, shortly after he suffered a concussion in a pre-season game with the Giants, Belichick overrode his medical staff and sent him (against his wishes) into full-contact scrimmage, where a collision with teammate J.R. Redmond worsened the injury that – according to the former Patriot – was the genesis of his problems today.

If that happened as Johnson says it did (and MacMullan had new quotes from Belichick and others that seemed to confirm that something happened), then it was wrong, it should have never happened, and it should never happen again. There is too much at stake.

But…..

30 concussions in an NFL career that spanned 10 years and 117 games (not to mention the countless games, practices and scimmages that preceeded it, including four seasons of major college football) and all 30 occurred after August of 2002? Until Bill Belichick handed him a blue jersey on an afternoon in August, 2002, with some 87 NFL games already under his belt, Ted Johnson had suffered none of the damage that has led to his condition today?

Clearly, Johnson and Belichick clashed, most famously in that same period when the linebacker bolted the club because he was not among the active Patriots when they opened that season. He later returned (and played on two more Super Bowl winners), but the newspapers dutifully reported that the Pats veteran was unhappy with his role and only wanted to play, even if it meant leaving New England.

That contradicts Johnson today. MacMullan’s story paints the picture of a reluctant, apprehensive Johnson, forced to the field despite fearing for his safety. Yet only days later, Johnson is upset that he’s not playing. It – like a lot of things in Ted Johnson’s life, I suspect – doesn’t make any goddam sense.

Nor does it make any sense that a player that decries his coach for “playing God” would later return to New England and play two more seasons for that same coach. And then lobby openly to “get a call” (and a raise) THIS season when Junior Seau was lost – a full year and a half after Johnson left the game because of concussions.

And frankly, for a player that was never shy – as far back as Bill Parcells – to make his feelings on all matters known both in the locker room and in the press, it just doesn’t make any sense that he simply swallowed hard and headed to the field when he felt his health was being treated in a negligent manner.

As noted above, if Belichick forced Johnson to the field against the advice of his medical staff, it was wrong and a serious error in judgement by the coach. The sort of judgement that – if it persisted for any length of time – would be grounds for recrimination. But it’s hard to make the judgment – based on what we see publicly – that Belichick willfully disregards the health of his players. If anything, fans wonder what takes certain Pats so long to get back in the lineup. One BSMW message board poster wondered on Friday if the Pats reticence in this area was in part inspired by the Johnson incident. Perhaps it was. But the idea that Bill Belichick and Bill Belichick alone is responsible for the misery that is Ted Johnson’s life today is simply ridiculous, and should be viewed as such.

Clearly, that’s not going to happen at the Boston Globe, or in other corners of the football intelligencia. MacMullan reported Johnson’s comments as he made them, and I don’t doubt that she reported them accurately. But is that as far as it goes for the media? As another board poster asked on Friday, what about running through the strainer that source material which simply confirms your own biases? Isn’t that what reliable journalists are to do? Did MacMullan wonder about the 87 NFL games (and high school and college career) that preceeded the incident? Did she wonder why Johnson returned willingly to Belichick’s supervision when the linebacker apparently mistrusted him so? Did she wonder about Johnson’s expressed desire to return AGAIN to the Pats a little more than a month ago?

If she did, it wasn’t evident in the article that was printed. No, instead the ‘Belichick playing God’ was played right up front, just a few weeks after Jim Davis got shoved and Eric Mangini got snubbled and Ladanian Tomlinson got offended, all to much media howling. As Bob Dylan wrote, you don’t need to be a weatherman to know which way the wind is blowing.

Speaking of blowing wind, later on Friday, Globe columnist Ron Borges told a BSMW friend of mine (through a radio call-in to Michael Felger’s program) with all certainty that all 30 concussions occurred under Belichick’s watch. Now, I know that Ron usually plays it right down the middle when it comes to the Patriots head coach, but that seems a little biased to me.

On Saturday, a Globe op-ed calling for NFL reform subtly stated the same – that Johnson’s first concussion occured in that August, 2002 Giants game – as if it was a proven fact. If these guys have anything to say about it, this whopper will take on all appearances of fact without the slightest degree of scrutiny. Because they WANT it to be true. Don’t stand there and tell me that they don’t. It would be good for their business and good for their appetite for revenge, which is slowly becoming the same thing as their business.

Naturally, the national mediots were along quickly to help. Peter King of Sports Illustrated told WEEI that the story was a telling reflection of how they do business there in Foxboro. Of course, it soon became clear that King knew only bits and pieces of the story – he never knows any more – but that’s never prevented him from offering his ‘expert’ analysis to anybody with a live camera or an open phone line. All he was doing was spreading the media’s preferred juicy storyline. Others, like Rod Woodson on the NFL Network, jumped on board, though perhaps not as transparently as the disgraceful King.

Enough is enough. The media is persecuting a public lynching of the Patriots coach, from their gleeful acceptance of every utterance of a spurned New Jersey husband, from their disclosure of home addresses, from their wild exaggeration of his every football move, real and imagined, and now, Bill Belichick gave Ted Johnson Alzhiemers. For the first time since he came to New England, Bill Belichick has gone two consecutive seasons without winning the Super Bowl, and in their mind, the armor that comes with being the best in the world at your profession is gone. In their mind, Bill Belichick is adequately vulnerable for the first time, and it’s payback time. Payback for not kissing their ring. Payback for putting them in their place. The opportunity for settling the score is there, and the most entitled, self-important members of the media know exactly what to do with that opportunity when they see it.

It’s the only thing they know how to do anymore. Which is tragic, especially for people like Ted Johnson. He can always use an advocate that will bring his story openly and honestly into the public eye in a compelling way that brings about change. Instead he got an advocate that used him to advance its own bottom feeding, product moving agenda, and when Ted Johnson no longer serves that purpose, the Globe will discard him. They have no claim to the high horse in anything. Even a serious editorial in the news pages can be used as a conveyance of juvenile pettiness and spite. If that doesn’t make you sick, I don’t know what will.

*****

At the end of the day, though his reputation may be showing signs of wear, Bill Belichick has his health, and his mind. Ted Johnson evidently doesn’t, so many that came before him don’t, and even worse, there may be players taking the field today – a day of national observance and celebration – that won’t either. And perhaps worst of all, there may be college kids and high school kids and pee wee kids sitting in front of their tv’s today, dreaming a truly American dream.

A dream that could one day in every respect be fulfilled, and yet – incredibly – still result in a life adrift.

No. That cannot be allowed to stand.

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