But what I'd really like to do is talk about the football picture, the official snapshot that appears in programs, on web sites, anywhere you need to see your favorites without helmets. I'll never forget the extraordinary feeling of dread and fear that overcame me when in 1975 I saw the official Pittsburgh Steelers team portrait of Ernie Holmes, the most eccentric member of the original Steel Curtain. Pittsburgh was playing the Jets at Shea in 1975, and there he was, a man with what I recall as a handle-bar moustache, which might look whimsical on a bartender or a relief pitcher, but looks abjectly horrifying on a defensive lineman like Ben Davidson or Ernie Holmes. Baseball players don't look horrifying in the game programs. Basketball players may look brooding at worst. Hockey players always seem amused at themselves, particularly if they're thinking about killing someone when their picture is taken. But simply put, football players are somehow instructed to look like they're trying to scare small children, as Holmes' picture did me (and probably Joe Namath) that warm late autumn day, when I was six.
|Adrien Clarke (Ohio State)|
|Adrien Clarke (Philadelphia)|
|Roger Finnie's 1970 helmet|
Finnie played guard for the Jets from 1969-72, and then with the St. Louis football Cardinals from 1973-78 and the Saints in 1979, which is a pretty full career, all things considered. Consider what a battering to the head he takes day in and out, the offensive lineman would seem to have the least appealing position in football. Stoic, deliberate, silent, and dedicated, the offensive lineman is the opposite of someone like Ernie Holmes, whose flamboyance in facial hair was matched by an arrowhead mohawk.
On the other hand, consider that Finnie played alongside one of the most erratic and vocal of offensive linemen in the game's history, Conrad Dobler, whose years with the Cardinals were 1972-77. Dobler took the viewpoint that the offensive line was part of an invading, pillaging army, and not just a solid wall defined by its protection of the the players who were responsible for gaining yards. I don't know how Roger Finnie saw himself on the line, but he probably had to take into account Dobler's attitude because you simply couldn't ignore Conrad Dobler.
Dobler's current plights have been the subject of many articles. He was much reviled when he played, but Dobler could summon today the sympathies of anyone, even Cowboys fans. Certainly I've put aside the fact that he played for the Buffalo Bills in 1981, whose Wild Card victory over the Jets scarred me for life. He can barely walk, and he is beset by constant depression. In the LA Times, Jerry Crowe writes that "Dobler's knees are shot, one writer noting that they resembled 'misshapen melons in a discount supermarket bin.' So he gobbles pain medicine. A leg amputation is not a matter of if, he says, but when." An offensive lineman's knees are the most ravaged piece of equipment, for he stands rooted to the ground and in the face of 300-plus pounds of pressure against his chest, arms and head. Play after the play, the guard is pummeled, and his feet have to find purchase in the turf. Dobler aside, it's a quiet struggle characterized by constant, punishing repetition.
|Roger Finnie #61|
The doctor quickly diagnosed not only torn ligaments but a dislocated knee cap that accounted for especially excruciating pain. Nicholas first put his own legs underneath Finnie's knee, in order to take weight off the damaged leg, and then put his hand on the kneecap and delicately moved it back into place, reducing the pain resulting from dislocation, somewhat easing the tackle's discomfort.
Finnie got surgery that year, as did Namath. Nicholas is still seen today as one of the pioneering physicians dealing almost exclusively with the injuries of professional football. He was responsible for extending Namath's career and, in a sense, he gave him the opportunity to be in the Hall of Fame. Though he doesn't have a number, he was and is an Infinite Jet, a person loyal to the club who used his position to discover how to make players play better and longer.
Yet as we know from the the evolving technology of the football helmet, for every improvement, there is something in the game's compulsion to destroy that also compensates, leaving the protected player somehow unprotected in some other sense. Many former players live long lives, but the recent suicides of Dave Duerson, Ray Easterling and Junior Seau paint an evolving picture of the retired football player's life as filled with vanishing memory, darkness and early death. Fortunately, the odds suggest that Roger Finnie is fairing better than that.