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Friday, September 21, 2012

NY Jets #63 - Part 1

While watching the Jets lose to Pittsburgh on Sunday, I found myself much more cognizant than in past years about the collisions players are having with one another. Whereas I was once conscious that players were at great risk, it's clearer now that we are watching people injure their brains on live TV. It's such an obvious thing to write now, but for that to be on the mind of someone like me who's predisposed to almost unconditional denial, it's a new experience.

When Shonn Greene collided with Ryan Mundy in the game's first half, and stood up as woozily as a collapsed denizen of Dirty Frank's Bar, I felt a strange combination of feelings. One, the usual: Shit, there goes Greene. Damn it. The other: I wonder if he just screwed up his brain. The first is what a fan always feels when he sees his player get injured - that the pity of his team's losses are his losses and that they are an offense to him. The second is obviously part of a new recognition - that these are human beings who are being paid a king's ransom to possibly ruin their future peace of mind. It's not as if such things are happening for the first time in league history. It's the first time that so many of us admit what we've all been pretending to ignore. We're watching people permanently damage themselves every week.

Ted Banker #63, who played for the Jets at center and guard from 1984-1988, is one case in point. ESPN ran a story of a cocktail hour for the Gridiron Club at the Waldorf Astoria in early 2012 where Joe Namath walks into the room looking no worse for wear, while on "the other side of the ballroom, the quiet side," Banker sits near former teammate Wesley Walker, and the subject of football's permanent injuries comes up. Banker says he suffered "eight documented concussions" and then shows Rich Cimini x-rays of the steel rods in his lower back. Banker is just over 50 now. Walker has one steel rod in his neck for every season he played. That's 14 total.

Cimini writes:

These are the forgotten heroes, the former players that suffer in relative anonymity. These are the players from the 1970s and 1980s, the guys who played with concussions because that's all they knew. This was before "brain trauma" and "dementia" became part of the players' vocabulary, back when a concussion was known as a "ding."

Commissioner Roger Goodell has placed an emphasis on player safety and has raised the awareness of the concussion issue -- positive steps. This will help the current and future players, but what about the 55-year-old retirees wondering if what they didn't know then will kill them now?

The answer is that the league is not doing enough. That dementia and memory loss might be just around the corner for men who are only ten years older than I is something I can fathom now that we're all more open about discussing the mortal violence of football, but what I cannot fathom is the reluctance of the league, of the franchises, of the fans, of the current players to do more for players who earned less in an era where a concussion was just a "ding."

I understand that Shonn Greene is more protected in an era when the Commissioner shows a little less denial over the issue of concussions, but then also why did he return to the game? Maybe it really wasn't all that bad. Maybe a man who needs to be guided to the sideline by his quarterback is really just shaken up, but I feel unsure of the decision. The team has had a deserved reputation in the Mangini era for being lax about concussions and the nebulously termed "head injuries," so I assumed that they learned from that, and that when Greene went back in, he passed the league's newly rigorous protocol for being cleared for action. So I still assume, but I don't have as much faith in the league's judgment as I so naively did before. I admit it's something that I think about all the time now when I watch a game and see someone get stomped.

Cimini says Wesley Walker is bitter - one feels rightly - about the league's slumbrous reaction to long-standing needs of veteran players; Banker is less so. He recalls being knocked out of the 1986 Monday Night game against Miami - when the Jets were 10-1 and the world seemed full of possibility - and the Jets lost, 45-3. Overall, he has no regrets and believes that the game is doing what it can, right now. "I hope it never ends, the game," he tells Cimini. "What would Sunday be without a football game in the fall?" It's a theoretical, but much more real, question now. It would be horrible, yes, but it's also impossible to watch it this season in exactly the way I used to.

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Jim O'Mahoney #63
Pittsburgh continues in our thread when we mention its native son Jim O'Mahoney #63, who played guard for the Jets from 1965 to 1966, his only two seasons in professional football. A man with a name as Irish as I can think of and a face that looks squarely like the map of Ireland itself. If I had a dime for all the guys I've known who've looked like Jim O'Mahoney, I'd be as rich "as Roosvelt," as my grandmother used to say. But there's something frozen in the innocence of time about Jim O'Mahoney's expression, as he stares happily off into the distance - something that makes me hope that he is well and happy somewhere.

Every weekend, my wife and I have lunch at DiBruno's, a restaurant/market in Center City Philadelphia that grew out of an originally smaller and less fashionable cheese shop in the Italian Market. We were there at the beginning of the opener against the Bills, which they were silently showing on the TV's in the dining lounge, and I unconsciously offered an audible "Fuck!" when Sanchez threw an interception on the first drive. When Revis intercepted on the subsequent series, I involuntarily threw up my fists. I knew we had to get out of there.

If you're ever in town and looking for a cheap buffet of good food, it's terrific, and if you come between 11 o'clock and one on Saturday or Sunday, you might find us up there, eating more than we should. My wife and I have come to believe that, among many others, some of the clientele of DiBruno's are actual time travelers who have been correctly told that there is a reliable time portal near the rest rooms in the back on the second floor. There's significant traffic upstairs. The stairs are worn on the right side as one looks at it, going up, but there's very little tread going down, suggesting that the portal serves as a hub point, an entry rather than an exit point for people visiting contemporary Philadelphia. Who knows why they come and go? Is there something they know that we don't? Well, obviously, yes. What could it be?

The time travelers can be easily spotted - a middle aged man whose dress is of our time but also curiously not - with a straw hat, a strange handlebar mustache, and a pocket watch. A woman wearing cat's eye sunglasses and far too much makeup. A nondescript collection of white adolescents and middle aged people whose members are sitting at a table with such discomfort that one can only assume that they are strangers traveling through time and posing as an average family. Either that, or an average family.

But there are occasional visitors from the past. I half expect to see that beaming face from the past come to our present - Jim O'Mahoney's face, to be exact - arriving out of the portal, down the hallway from the back of the restaurant, suddenly stopping before the stairs and gazing out at what the new world hath wrought, looking the way he does in his portrait.

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