AFC East: Mike Haynes

Kevin Turner's rugged road

March, 16, 2011
3/16/11
12:00
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Kevin TurnerMike Cellucci/ESPN.comKevin Turner, who played fullback in the NFL for eight seasons, was diagnosed with an incurable neuromuscular disorder 10 months ago.
Kevin Turner couldn't sit still on that April afternoon in 1992. The Alabama fullback tried to watch the NFL draft for as long as he could, but a combination of tension and monotony increased with each pick. Every 15 minutes another name that wasn't Kevin Turner was announced.

Turner stepped into the backyard of his parents' Prattville, Ala., home for some fresh air and hopefully a diversion. He still laughs at the memory of what happened next. His father bolted out the door and blurted the big announcement: "The Boston Patriots!"

Turner gently corrected him. Actually, it was the New England Patriots. They selected him 71st overall, the second fullback off the board.

The moment was exhilarating for a father and his only child. Raymond Turner coached Kevin from 5 years old until junior high and nearly wept the first time he saw his son enter Bryant-Denny Stadium decked in crimson and white.

Now his son was headed to the National Football League. He loaded up his maroon 1991 Ford Bronco and, with Guns N' Roses blaring, headed off to Massachusetts, where he began an eight-year, $8 million NFL career, met his future wife and scored some touchdowns.

Yet if he knew then what he knows today, he'd be torn about pulling out of Prattville.

"If they would have come to me and said, 'I've seen the future. This is what happens.' Of course, I would stop playing immediately," Turner said. "But, as we all know, nobody can see the future. For me, it just falls into a long line of bad decisions."

Turner is divorced. He went bankrupt on bum real estate investments. He was addicted to painkillers for a couple of years. None of those problems are the worst of it.

Ten months ago, the 41-year-old father of three was diagnosed with amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS), the incurable neuromuscular disorder commonly known as Lou Gehrig's disease.

Turner's arms don't work well, his hands even less. His pinch strength, a measurement of the strength generated by the thumb and forefinger, is one pound. That's comparable to an infant. He doesn't have enough might to squeeze toothpaste out of a tube.

Forget about buttoning a shirt. It can take him half an hour to wiggle into his blue jeans with nobody there to help, but he said, "socks are the worst."

Kevin Turner
Todd Warshaw/Allsport The Eagles made Kevin Turner the NFL's second-highest-paid fullback in 1995.
The body that produced 30-plus receptions five times for the Patriots and Philadelphia Eagles, made him the second-richest fullback in the NFL and impressed then-Patriots coach Bill Parcells as a prototypical West Coast fullback is failing.

"It's quite a different way of life," Turner said. "It's pretty embarrassing, but cleaning yourself after going to the bathroom becomes very difficult when you can't use your hands. These are just things you don't think about.

"You have to be very creative. I can't pull down my zipper. I got what I call zipper-getters. It's a little hook with some fishing wire that goes around the zipper of my pants so you can go to the bathroom."

Doctors have told him his speech probably will be the next to go. His throat and jaw muscles cramp, reminding him ALS is as relentless as he was on the football field.

Eventually, it will kill him. Maybe within another year or two. ALS is undefeated.

Recent scientific data strongly suggests repeated head trauma can cause a condition that mimics ALS. The neuromuscular disorders are virtually identical -- so alike the difference is detectable only by autopsy.

"Football had something to do with it," said Turner, who has no family history of ALS. "I don't know to what extent, and I may not ever know. But there are too many people I know that have ALS and played football in similar positions. They seem to be linebackers, fullbacks, strong safeties. Those are big collision guys."

To raise research funds and awareness about sports-related head injuries and ALS, he formed the Kevin Turner Foundation.

Dr. Ann McKee said Tuesday the latest information shows NFL players have eight to 10 times the likelihood of being diagnosed with ALS than the average citizen. McKee was the lead neuropathologist for the study that linked head trauma in collision sports to the ALS variant.

The effects of head trauma are a hot-button NFL issue. The league has included ALS as an automatically qualified condition under the 88 Plan, which assists former players with medical expenses related to head injuries.

Cases continue to emerge about retired players experiencing early dementia, memory loss, depression, aggression or erratic behavior. Last month, four-time Pro Bowl safety Dave Duerson committed suicide after complaining of severe headaches, vision impairment and an increasing inability to form coherent sentences.

Parcells said he was "sick" to hear about Duerson's death. Duerson played for Parcells on the New York Giants' 1990 championship team. Parcells coached Turner for two years in New England.

"Look, we all know that this is hazardous to your health," Parcells said in a somber tone last weekend. "We do know that. And fullback is a very high-collision position. It's not like playing wide receiver or corner. He's either running the ball and getting tackled, catching the ball and getting tackled or blocking somebody.

"I've seen a lot of big collisions in football. We all know when we sign up for this that there's an element of risk involved."

'A special kid'

Turner wasn't a superstar in terms of decorations. He didn't go to Pro Bowls. But he was far from an NFL commoner.

"He had a heart that just wouldn't stop," Raymond Turner said of his son. "From the time he put the gear on to the time he took it off, he was a competitor. Never once in my lifetime did I have to tell him to hustle. It was there. It was built in. He knew what he wanted to do."

The Eagles loved Turner enough that they signed him to a three-year, $4.125 million offer sheet with a $1.5 million signing bonus when he became a restricted free agent in 1995 after two seasons with the Pats. They outbid the Washington Redskins. Daryl Johnston of the Dallas Cowboys was the only fullback with a bigger contract.

The bemused Patriots couldn't match the Eagles and settled for a third-round draft choice as compensation. New England fared well with the transaction. The draft pick turned out to be running back Curtis Martin.

[+] EnlargeKevin Turner
Stephen Dunn/Getty Images"There's nobody out there who wouldn't like [Turner] as a person, player, practice habits, versatility," former Patriots coach Bill Parcells said.
But at the time, Parcells didn't want to lose Turner.

"There's nobody out there who wouldn't like [Turner] as a person, player, practice habits, versatility," Parcells said. "This kid had everything. He was a special kid.

"He was a first-down player and was capable of playing on third down because he had such great hands. He really was an all-purpose back. And you don't see those fullbacks anymore. Kevin was a traditional, old-time, versatile, run-block-and-catch fullback."

Turner's best season was 1994 with the Patriots. When not blocking for Marion Butts, Turner made 52 receptions, gained 582 yards from scrimmage and scored three touchdowns -- all career highs. Turner scored an overtime touchdown in Week 11 to beat the Minnesota Vikings. His catch in the left corner of the end zone was Drew Bledsoe's 45th completion on his 70th attempt, a record that stands by one throw.

Whatever glory Turner experienced came with a price. He absorbed punishment. That's how players often win their team's Ed Block Courage Award, as Turner did with Philadelphia in 1996. They're admired for their perseverance.

Turner knows of only two concussions he suffered in the pros. One came with the Patriots in 1994 against the Cincinnati Bengals. He twisted awkwardly while trying to catch a pass near the goal line, and his head struck Riverfront Stadium's hard artificial turf.

The other known concussion happened with the Eagles in 1997, while Turner was running the wedge on a kickoff return against the Green Bay Packers at Veterans Stadium.

"The next thing I remember," Turner said, "I was asking our backup quarterback, Bobby Hoying, 'You're going to think I'm crazy, but are we in Green Bay or are we in Philly?' I was looking around that stadium and could not figure it out.

"I stayed out for two, maybe three series of downs, got my senses back and finished the game. It was a fairly significant injury to my brain, and I just kept pounding on it."

Turner's father is aware football probably contributed to the ALS diagnosis. He often wonders what hit wrecked his son's brain.

Was it the wedge? Was it the time Turner collided with Atlanta Falcons linebacker Jessie Tuggle so violently at the goal line he knocked Tuggle out? Was it his final NFL play in 1999, when he barely got a piece of Indianapolis Colts linebacker Cornelius Bennett but both arms went numb for 15 seconds?

The probable answer is all of them contributed amid an accumulation of other hits that didn't register.

"I never thought about my head, the way I was abusing my head, the pounding my head was taking and the long-term consequences," Turner said. "Playing the position I did, I leveled my head every time I was on a lead block. It was part of the three points: my two hands and my head. That's how I was taught to do it."

A wicked game

McKee is director of the VA Brain Bank at the Center for the Study of Traumatic Encephalopathy at Boston University School of Medicine. The center has studied 46 brains of athletes who sustained repeated, sports-related head trauma. Research indicates concussions aren't necessary to induce frightening symptoms.

Many retired NFL players, such as Turner, Miami Dolphins linebacker Zach Thomas, Buffalo Bills guard Conrad Dobler and Patriots cornerback Mike Haynes, have pledged to donate their brains for research.

[+] EnlargeDuerson
Al Messerschmidt/Getty ImagesDave Duerson, who committed suicide, reportedly asked that his brain be examined.
"It's very tough now to look at the sport and not listen to the voices inside your head that are very, very much aware this game is associated with significant risks," McKee said. "And we may not fully understand the depths of those risks.

"Every month, we've been getting more cases into the brain bank and seeing more cases of [chronic traumatic encephalopathy] and some with this [ALS] variant. It's more and more difficult to embrace this sport as it's currently being played. With each month of this work, it just seems worse."

McKee isn't some fuddy-duddy intellectual, trying to undermine football's place in society. She was raised in a football household just outside Green Bay. Her father played for Grinnell College. She attended every game her brothers played.

"Football is a way of life there," McKee said. "It's huge. It's how we define ourselves. I'm sure I would have played if I'd have been born a boy. Football is an enormous part of my heritage. I do understand that football is so much more than a sport to people. It's what we do."

But is football evolving into a culture of regret?

Hall of Fame quarterback Troy Aikman, who has a long history of concussions, recently told HBO's "Real Sports" that if he had a son, the boy wouldn't be allowed to play football. Four-time Pro Bowl safety Blaine Bishop didn't make an edict but showed off his scars until his son decided not to play, which suits dad just fine.

Turner's jovial patter quickly switched to an agonized sputter when asked whether his two sons should play football. Nolan, 13, has been playing for a while. Cole, who will turn 8 next month, started last year.

Turner doesn't let his kids (10-year-old Natalie is a cheerleader) drink sodas because he doesn't think it's good for them, yet football maintains a powerful influence in their family. Turner hinted he won't let Cole play this year because he's perhaps too young. Nolan's situation sounded more complicated.

"It's something I struggle with every day, whether to just lay the law down and say, 'No, we're not playing,'" Turner said. "Or do I let him live his life and take a chance? But, God, I can't tell you how hard a question that is, especially in Alabama. I'm still not sure that I'm going to let him."

Turner was 5 years old when his dad began coaching him. In many ways, it turned out well.

Colleges began recruiting him as a high school sophomore. Florida State coach Bobby Bowden came to their house, but Alabama won out. The Crimson Tide chose Turner for their commitment to excellence award his junior season. He was a captain his senior season. He left with a finance degree and lived a fantasy some folks would give a limb to experience.

"If they'd have told me when I was 23 years old, in the best shape of my life and just got the dream chance of my life to play in the NFL -- first week of practice in New England, I'm in awe of Andre Tippett, Irving Fryar -- but in 17 years, you're not going to be able to pull up your pants ... you could not imagine it,” Turner said.

"Most people would say, 'If there's a 10 percent chance of that happening, I'll take my chances.'"

'You know it's coming'

Chances are, Turner doesn't have long to live. One of his doctors gave him two years. That was almost a year ago.

ALS has no cure. There are no treatments to stop or reverse it. Fifty percent of ALS patients do not live three years beyond their first symptoms. Only 20 percent reach five years.

One by one, motor neurons steadily shut down. As they do, muscles wither. Although Turner's brain will remain sharp, he will lose his ability to walk, speak and swallow.

ALS eventually reaches the muscles of the chest wall and diaphragm. Suffocation and pneumonia are the most common causes of death.

"There are still times, and let me say it's not very often, in the past year where I'll sit there and become completely overwhelmed and break down and cry," Turner said. "Every now and then I'll let myself think about it. I'll see something or hear something that reminds me of the inevitable. You know it's coming."

Turner said he intends to immerse himself in his children's lives and his foundation's cause. He travels the country for speaking engagements to raise funds. Country-gospel singer Ty Herndon dedicated the title track of his Grammy-nominated album, "Journey On," to the Kevin Turner Foundation. Turner and his children appear in the poignant video.

Turner’s father, meanwhile, can't help but worry. He admitted he and his wife, Myra, feel helpless -- a disconcerting sentiment when it comes to any child, let alone an only child. Raymond is 67 years old, and he's dealing with the likelihood he'll outlive his once-vigorous son. The unavoidability hit home the day a packet arrived in the mail, detailing the process of donating his son's organs.

Turner's mom and dad are considering moving from Prattville closer to Birmingham, Ala., where their grandchildren live, about 85 miles away. Raymond wants to make sure they have a father figure nearby.

"The fact that I'm healthy lets me think I'll be around to see the kids through," Raymond said. "This is not supposed to be this way. Just things you've got to think about and don't want to think about, but you've got to be realistic."

So much has transpired in the 19 years since Turner drove that Ford Bronco from Prattville to the NFL. He made it a point to swing through Manhattan on the way, getting a slice of New York-style pizza and some cheesecake from Carnegie Deli just in case his ride didn't last very long.

The possibilities were infinite. Today, they're decidedly limited. But Turner insists he will make the most of the time he has left and maybe -- just maybe -- be the first person who beats ALS.

On Tuesday night, Turner’s father pondered how amazed he was the first time he glimpsed at his son in an Alabama uniform and saw "Kevin Turner" scroll across the bottom of his television screen on draft day.

And then, he considered how pleased he is with Turner today. The feeling doesn't pertain to football at all anymore.

"I swell up and tell him so often about how proud I am of him, most part for being a man of good character," Raymond said. "That's meant more to me than anything."

Debate NFL's top 100 players of all-time

November, 5, 2010
11/05/10
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The NFL Network on Thursday night concluded its persuasive series "The Top 100: NFL's Greatest Players" by revealing the best 10 in league history.

As expected, no AFC East players made the top 10 because all of the big names already had been revealed. Some New England Patriots fans probably would argue about their three-time champion quarterback being listed 21st compared to a certain Indianapolis Colts quarterback being eighth.

Here's the rundown of players from the AFC East (with the fan ranking):
  • 11 (17). Ronnie Lott, Jets safety
  • 20 (6). Brett Favre, Jets quarterback
  • 21 (20). Tom Brady, Patriots quarterback
  • 24 (--). John Hannah, Patriots guard
  • 25 (7). Dan Marino, Dolphins quarterback
  • 31 (33). Bruce Smith, Bills defensive end
  • 40 (44). O.J. Simpson, Bills running back
  • 49 (--). Mike Haynes, Patriots cornerback
  • 61 (31). LaDainian Tomlinson, Jets running back
  • 65 (24). Randy Moss, Patriots receiver
  • 71 (--). Paul Warfield, Dolphins receiver
  • 100 (42). Joe Namath, Jets quarterback

What do you think of the list?

Who is missing? Who is overrated? Who isn't high enough?

Reviewing the list made me think back to a phone call I had with Moss two springs ago. In addition to forecasting better offensive numbers in 2009 than the Patriots posted in their record-breaking 2007 season, Moss proclaimed himself the greatest receiver -- and maybe player -- in NFL history.

"I'm the best wide receiver of all-time, hands down," Moss told me.

"I don't really like to judge people or other athletes. I know what I'm able to do on the field, but the things I'm able to do to dictate how a defense plays the game, I don't think there's no other receiver but myself and Jerry Rice to be able to do that."

Moss later added: "To hell with wide receiver. I think I go down as one of the greatest players to ever play this game."

The NFL Network rated Rice as the greatest player of all-time and Don Hutson ninth. Moss was ranked the third-best receiver on the list.

Buffalo doesn't have secondary concerns

March, 24, 2010
3/24/10
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Ed Mulholland/US PresswireLed by rookie Jairus Byrd, the Buffalo secondary was one of the deepest in the league.

ORLANDO, Fla. -- The Buffalo Bills are an organization engulfed by uncertainty.

Who will be their quarterback?

What difference will new head coach Chan Gailey and rookie general manager Buddy Nix make?

Will Pro Bowl pass-rusher Aaron Schobel play or retire?

Can running back Marshawn Lynch bounce back?

How will they transition into their new 3-4 defense?

One area that cannot be questioned is the depth in Buffalo's secondary.

The Bills' defensive backfield isn't loaded with star power, but the quality of depth is remarkable.

The Bills ranked second in pass defense last year despite injuries pushing them to the limit. Ten defensive backs started for them.

Right cornerback Leodis McKelvin, the 11th overall pick from 2008, lasted only three games before getting hurt. Free safety Donte Whitner, the eighth overall pick from 2006, lost his job to rookie Jairus Byrd, who tied for the NFL interception lead and was selected for the Pro Bowl. Left cornerback Terrence McGee missed five games with a knee injury. Strong safety Bryan Scott started six games at linebacker.

Despite all that, the Bills allowed only 184.2 passing yards a game and 14 touchdowns. They snagged 28 interceptions, second in the NFL.

Now that's depth.

"I've gone to a lot of teams," Gailey said at the NFL owners meetings. "I don't know that I've ever gone to a team that the secondary -- I'm talking corner and safety position -- is as strong as we have right now overall.

"When I went to Dallas, when I went to Miami, when I went to Pittsburgh they were all good. But I'm not so sure that this isn't the strongest group."

Gailey isn't about to compare them player for player. After all, when he was head coach of the Dallas Cowboys he had cornerback Deion Sanders and safety Darren Woodson together.

"Those are two pretty good players," Gailey said. "We had a couple of other good players, but we were always trying to fill a hole."

Gailey joined the Denver Broncos as a defensive assistant the year safety Dennis Smith and cornerback Louis Wright went to the Pro Bowl. The Broncos later lined up Smith and Steve Atwater at safety while Gailey was there.

Gailey was on the Pittsburgh Steelers' offensive staff when they had future Hall of Famer Rod Woodson. As offensive coordinator of the Miami Dolphins, Gailey practiced against three repeat Pro Bowlers: Sam Madison, Patrick Surtain and Brock Marion.

No, the Bills aren't that good yet. Gailey isn't going to make like New York Jets coach Rex Ryan and proclaim they could reach legendary status. On Tuesday, Ryan said his star cornerbacks, Darrelle Revis and Antonio Cromartie, remind him of the renowned Los Angeles Raiders tandem of Mike Haynes and Lester Hayes.

What the Bills do have is a quality starter and backup at every spot. One of only three assistants Gailey retained from Dick Jauron's staff was defensive back coach George Catavolos.

"Even the backups at Buffalo, I'm talking about eight players, your top eight players," Gailey said, "this is as strong a group as I've ever been around."

The importance of depth in the secondary can't be emphasized enough.

As Detroit Lions head coach Jim Schwartz explained Wednesday morning, you can't have too many serviceable defensive backs.

"You're going to play more defensive backs than you are at other positions," said Schwartz, known as one of the NFL's brightest defensive minds. "You're not just going to play four. You're going to play five for half the game and you may even have a quarter of the game when you're playing six defensive backs.

"The other thing to look at is defensive backs get hurt at a higher rate than just about every other position on the field. Other positions have gotten bigger and bigger and bigger. Defensive backs have stayed the same, particularly corners. So with everybody else getting bigger and corners staying the same, it's not a matter of if somebody gets hurt and has to miss a game, it's a matter of when."

Five Buffalo defensive backs finished the season on injured reserve, including both of the opening-day starting cornerbacks, McGee and McKelvin.

Schwartz mentioned another important facet of defensive backfield depth.

"One person in the secondary that doesn't play well makes the whole secondary look bad," Schwartz said. "It's how the whole group plays, and if there's one weak link in that chain, then the whole group can look bad, and offenses are real good at finding that one guy and exploiting him."

Nobody can look at the Bills and call their secondary a weak link.

Ryan giddy over Revis, Cromartie pairing

March, 24, 2010
3/24/10
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ORLANDO, Fla. -- When he considers the possibilities cornerback tandem Darrelle Revis and Antonio Cromartie will provide, New York Jets head coach Rex Ryan imagines legendary greatness.

Revis
Revis
Cromartie
Cromartie
"It reminds me of when the Raiders had Hayes and Haynes, where it was just 'Lockdown and here we come,' " Ryan said, referring to sublime Los Angeles cornerbacks Lester Hayes and Mike Haynes.

Hayes went to five Pro Bowls. Haynes went to nine and is in the Pro Football Hall of Fame.

That's a lofty comparison, especially considering Cromartie's past two years have been disappointing on the field and off. But Ryan is elated to partner up Cromartie with Revis.

Ryan spoke with reporters Tuesday at the NFL owners meetings in Orlando, where he held court for the first time since the Jets acquired Cromartie in a trade with the San Diego Chargers.

"He might have as much talent as any player I've ever been around at the corner position," Ryan said. "He's got everything. He's got the size, the height, the length, the speed, the recovery speed, probably as good ball skills as any corner I've been around."

OK, let's keep in mind Revis was an All-Pro last year and Ryan banged the drum for Revis to win the NFL's defensive player of the year award. Cromartie was an All-Pro in 2007, when he led the league with 10 interceptions.

"That's going to be a pretty lethal combination," Ryan said. "It's going to allow us to not just roll our coverage to one corner or another, which we had to do a lot last year. We're not going to let teams lock in on what we're doing defensively.

"From a matchup standpoint, this will be a tremendous advantage for us.

"You might know there's man coverage over there, but you've got to deal with nine guys coming at you. I think that might be a problem."

Ryan believes the Jets will provide the right organizational environment to help settle Cromartie's turbulent life. The Jets advanced him $500,000 from his contract to address various paternity issues. He has seven children in five states.

"I think it's probably pretty obvious to him now," Ryan said. "He had some maturing to do. He's a nice young man. Is he perfect? Probably not, but I don't think anybody is. That's just some issues off the field. It doesn't affect him as a football player.

"We're going to let him come out here and be himself and join his teammates. He was there the first day of offseason workouts. He's just happy to get a fresh start, meet his new teammates. He had a lot of success at San Diego. It’s going to be exciting.

"I think our whole team is excited about seeing Darrelle Revis and Cromartie out there."

Vote for the greatest draft pick of all-time

March, 12, 2010
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To mark the NFL's 75th draft next month, the league has launched a neat venture to sort out the 75 greatest draft picks and determine the all-time most valuable selection.

NFL.com editors narrowed each team's list of candidates down to the top 10, which seems a little unfair to the organizations steeped in history. The Dallas Cowboys' 20th most impressive pick is more deserving than the Houston Texans' sixth.

[+] EnlargeO.J. Simpson
Malcolm Emmons/US PresswireO.J. Simpson is one of the best selections the Bills ever made.
I disagree with the decision to include players who didn't suit up for the teams that drafted them. For instance, tackle Leon Gray is listed for the Dolphins, kicker Gary Anderson for the Bills and punter Craig Hentrich for the Jets.

How can they be considered great draft picks if the teams that evaluated them declined to include them on their final rosters? Sounds to me like they were accidental draft picks more than savvy selections.

But if that's how they're going to do it, then I'd like to see Gary Fencik, a 10th-round pick in 1976, listed under the Dolphins.

Anyway, each team has 10 candidates fans can choose from when voting through April 18 at NFL.com. Parts of the list will be revealed on NFL.com and the NFL Network beginning April 19. The top 10 will be saved for the draft telecast.

The AFC East candidates, in alphabetical order:

Buffalo Bills: Gary Anderson (seventh round, 1982); Ruben Brown (first round, 1995); Joe DeLamielleure (first round, 1973); Jim Kelly (first round, 1983); Reggie McKenzie (second round, 1972); Andre Reed (fourth round, 1985); O.J. Simpson (first round, 1969); Fred Smerlas (second round, 1979); Bruce Smith (first round, 1985); Thurman Thomas (second round, 1988).

Miami Dolphins: Dick Anderson (third round, 1968); Larry Csonka (first round, 1968); Leon Gray (third round, 1973); Bob Griese (first round, 1967); Sam Madison (second round, 1997); Dan Marino (first round, 1983); Jake Scott (seventh round, 1970); Dwight Stephenson (second round, 1980); Jason Taylor (third round, 1997); Zach Thomas (fifth round, 1996).

New England Patriots: Tom Brady (sixth round, 2000); Nick Buoniconti (13th round, 1962); John Hannah (first round, 1973); Mike Haynes (first round 1976); Lee Roy Jordan (second round, 1963); Ty Law (first round, 1995); Curtis Martin (third round, 1995); Lawyer Milloy (second round, 1996); Richard Seymour (first round, 2001); Andre Tippett (second round, 1982).

New York Jets: Joe Fields (14th round, 1975); Mark Gastineau (1979); Craig Hentrich (eighth round, 2000); Keyshawn Johnson (first round, 1996); Joe Klecko (sixth round, 1977); Mo Lewis (third round, 1991); Joe Namath (first round, 1965); Marvin Powell (first round, 1977); John Riggins (first round, 1971); Wesley Walker (second round, 1977).

NFLers banking brains for future

February, 10, 2010
2/10/10
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Stephen Dunn/Getty Images
Former Dolphins linebacker Zach Thomas is one of a growing number of NFL players vowing to donate their brains to research.

At least 20 times, the memory came crashing back for Don Hasselbeck.

In a flash, he was a teenager again, a star tight end for La Salle High in Cincinnati. His quarterback had thrown an interception against Purcell. Hasselbeck went into hot pursuit. The rumbling ball carrier veered toward him, driving a knee into Hasselbeck's head.

A few moments later, Hasselbeck regained his senses and sat upright and surveyed the La Salle teammates and coaches that had gathered around him on Purcell's field.

Only he wasn't a teenager anymore. He was a New England Patriot in Schaefer Stadium. Or a Los Angeles Raider in the Coliseum. Or a New York Giant at the Meadowlands.

"Every time I was knocked out -- bang! -- I thought it was the first one in high school," Hasselbeck said. "I can be in the ninth year of the pros, and think I was on that high school field. What is that in my brain that gets triggered to make me think I'm 18 years old?"

Hasselbeck estimated his number of concussions "on the 20-plus side" before his nine-year NFL career was over in 1985. He traveled back in his cranial time machine on every nasty headshot.

He's worried those repeated brain injuries will impact his life.

"I get concerned when I read articles of guys killing themselves or being depressed or dementia or Alzheimer's," said Hasselbeck, a mostly healthy 54-year-old and a longtime Reebok executive. "That scares you. You don't want to see these guys falling apart in front of you."

Al Messerschmidt/NFLOver the span of his nine-year career, tight end Don Hasselbeck estimates he suffered more than 20 concussions.



Hasselbeck is among a growing crowd of retired and active NFL players who have pledged to donate their brains to the Center for the Study of Traumatic Encephalopathy at Boston University School of Medicine to research the long-term impact of football-related head trauma.

The registry for what's known as "the VA CSTE Brain Bank" -- housed at the New England Veterans Administration in Bedford, Mass. -- is up to 250 players who want to further a cause that began when Chris Nowinski, a Harvard alum and former pro wrestler, got inquisitive about his future after suffering six concussions.

Nowinski and Dr. Ann McKee founded the center. Their findings from CSTE research -- that players are highly prone to clinical depression and early onset of Alzheimer's -- has triggered sweeping changes in the way the NFL views head trauma and could transform the way the game is played both on the practice field and on Sunday afternoons.

"We've made remarkable headway," Nowinski said. "I don't think I ever dreamed the NFL would agree there was a problem. For legal reasons, I just didn't think they'd admit it. It was the pathological research, the brains of the deceased players, pressure from the active and retired players who were courageous enough to stand up."

Nowinski's passion is collecting autographs and game-used equipment.

The autographs are signatures of players such as Baltimore Ravens center Matt Birk, Arizona Cardinals receiver Sean Morey, former Miami Dolphins linebacker Zach Thomas and Hall of Fame cornerback Mike Haynes; the game-used equipment he gets them to consign are their brains.

"Once I'm dead, I'm not going to need it anymore," said former Buffalo Bills guard Conrad Dobler. "I plan on being cremated. I always wonder what they do with all those parts.

"But if I'm going to be cremated anyway because I don't feel like laying in a casket and having worms eat my body for eternity. My brain will live forever to help some others, and to let the world know that I actually had one."

Nowinksi wrote the 2006 book "Head Games: Football's Concussion Crisis from the NFL to Youth Leagues." About a month after the book was released, former Philadelphia Eagles safety Andre Waters committed suicide. Nowinski convinced Waters' family to donate his brain for research, a seminal moment for the brain bank.

Waters' brain was examined by Dr. Bennett Omalu in Pittsburgh, and it resembled those of Mike Webster and Terry Long, former Pittsburgh Steelers who died young after bouts with depression and dementia.

"We started with guys who were disasters," Nowinski said. "Now we're moving on to guys who might or might not be impacted in varying degrees. But these are people who are committed and recognize the problem and want to be a part of the solution."

Nowinski's cause has reached a level of consciousness where players are approaching him to will their brains without him needing to deliver a sales pitch.

"I told him I would donate my brain," former Bills offensive lineman and SI.com columnist Ross Tucker said. "I was never diagnosed with a concussion, but I can remember at least four plays during my career where the collision was just different. When you play football for 18 years, you can tell when something's different.

"For 10 to 15 seconds after, I was thinking 'Wow. That was crazy. I don't know what happened there, but I don't like it.' "

The CSTE scored a major victory in December, when the league announced it would impose stricter guidelines on players returning from concussions and teamed up with the Center for Disease Control to produce a public-service announcement that urges youth coaches, players and parents to be educated on the dangers of head injuries.

"That showed me there was no going back," Nowinski said.

The next step is enacting rules that protect players from Pop Warner and up.

Nowinski referred to testimony Houston Texans guard Chester Pitts gave before Congress. Pitts declared he would forbid his son from playing football because it was too dangerous.

"That's kind of creepy that he's exposing himself to a violent game he wouldn't let his own son play in," Nowinski said. "That's a sign we need to change things."

NFL commissioner Roger Goodell appeared Sunday on "Face the Nation" and told host Bob Schieffer the league would consider eliminating the three-point stance. Nowinski, citing research that shows 75 percent of head shots occur in practice, raised the possibility of no-contact, helmet-less workouts.

"There always will be four downs," Nowinski said. "A touchdown will be worth six points, a field goal worth three points. But how we hit each other, how we collide has to change."

While Tucker dismissed abolishing the three-point stance as meaningful (linemen don't build up enough momentum in such a short space to make that type of contact significant), he lauded the NFL's decision last spring to eliminate the wedge on kickoff returns as a step in the right direction.

Players on return and coverage teams generally are the last 10 players who dress on game day, the most easily replaceable parts.

"How hard they run down there and how hard they hit that wedge is the difference between 650 grand and going back to Columbus, Georgia, to find a job for 12 bucks an hour," Tucker said. "If those were your options, you'd hit that wedge pretty damn hard, too."

Tucker also would like to see certain drills outlawed. He described what he and his Washington Redskins teammates called "the headache drill" in 2007. Offensive linemen would take on a linebacker at full speed, the frequent result being a helmet-on-helmet collision.

"We hated it," said Tucker, a Princeton alum who retired that year because of herniated discs in his neck and back. "I remember feeling my brain rattling around.

"I don't think it has truly impacted me, but there are times when I forget stuff that I shouldn't. I've always been known for having an amazing memory, but it just seems there's short-term stuff I don't remember sometimes.

"I'm not concerned about it, but there's probably something going on, and if I can help in any small way, I'm willing to do that. Guys are only going to get bigger, only going to get faster. Unless we do something, it's only going to get worse and worse."

Bulletin board provides a motivational tack

September, 16, 2009
9/16/09
4:15
PM ET
US Presswire
Jets coach Rex Ryan and Patriots coach Bill Belichick have different philosophies on what they say to the media.

Posted by ESPN.com's Tim Graham


Bill Belichick has deftly avoided discussing Rex Ryan's commentary about not being intimidated by the New England Patriots and their Super Bowl rings.

Belichick chuckles at the questions, deflects them, dismisses the issue as trivial.

In his Gillette Stadium sacristy, however, Belichick will be taking Ryan's words far more seriously and expecting his players to do the same in preparations for Sunday's game against the New York Jets at the Meadowlands.

Ryan, the Jets' rookie head coach, thumbed his nose at the Patriots' success during a June interview on New York radio station WFAN.

"I never came here to kiss Bill Belichick's rings," Ryan said. "I came to win. Let's just put it that way. So we'll see what happens. I'm certainly not intimidated by New England or anybody else.

"I think we already have sent a message to them. So they can read between the lines. ... They can figure it out. And when they come here that second week of the season, we'll see."
Podcast: Rex Ryan voicemail
Jets coach Rex Ryan delivered a voicemail to Jets fans asking them for their help in the game against the Patriots. Listen

Ryan's bravado certainly will be used against him three months later. Bulletin board material? You better believe it.

"It'll be laminated, maybe even a banner over the stadium," said Je'Rod Cherry, a safety and special-teams ace on New England's three championship teams. "It'll be utilized.

"Bill is a smart, crafty guy. He will present it as blatant disrespect for the guys who were there throughout that run of Super Bowls, and he will use it to help the new guys identify with the Patriots' legacy. It will be a rallying call."

Cherry spent four seasons within Belichick's inner sanctum and is quite familiar with the coach's tactics for getting his players jacked.

Bulletin-board material is one of Belichick's favorite methods to stimulate players a little more in a sport that sometimes can be consumed by weekly routines.

"Whatever is between me and the team I think should stay between me and the team," Belichick said Wednesday when asked how he would implement Ryan's comments into this week's prep work.

Belichick is masterful at using the media to fire up his men. One of the more well-known examples came before the 2001 AFC championship game. Former Pittsburgh Steelers linebacker Joey Porter and safety Lee Flowers openly dismissed the Patriots.

Flowers said the Patriots were "one play away from being home," referring to the infamously lucky tuck-rule call. Porter bemoaned the hassles of making arrangements for family and friends to attend the Super Bowl.

Before the game Belichick showed the video clips to his team.

"You talk about fired up," Cherry said. "Just off the charts. That played huge."

The Patriots beat the Steelers and eventually claimed their first Super Bowl title.

The concept of such a motivational tool is easy to harrumph. After all, players get paid exorbitant sums of money to perform. Pride and will should be enough to get the juices flowing, right?

"You're dealing with guys with super egos," said Cherry, who auctioned off his first Super Bowl ring last year to build orphanages and save children from sex trafficking. "This is a gladiator sport. It's about toughness and making the other guy submit. If you can play off something to get an edge and to get that desired effect, you do it."

That's why Belichick was quick to silence receivers Randy Moss and Wes Welker for saying this year's offense could be better than the one that set records in 2007. That's why the Miami Dolphins hushed linebacker Channing Crowder, who engaged Ryan in an entertaining smackfest.

"As long as I can remember," said former Patriots linebacker Andre Tippett, a Hall of Famer, "I've always been cautioned to be careful with what you say, from high school to college to the pro level."

Few coaches discuss the importance of using the media as a device. Players like to pretend they pay no attention to what's being said in the media.

They insist they don't read newspaper clips, don't go on the Internet, don't tune into talk radio or turn or turn on the television. Never mind that most NFL locker rooms have ESPN showing at all times on several screens.

"Guys read the papers," Cherry said. "They want to know what you think about us."

Bulletin boards aren't mythological. They not only exist, but they also are an important tool whether or not teams want to admit it.

"It's part of the game," said Mike Haynes, a Hall of Fame cornerback for the Patriots and Oakland Raiders. "When I was on the Patriots it was right by where you came in to pick up your mail [in Schaefer Stadium]. You could not miss seeing it.

"On the Raiders, it was on a bulletin board, and the trainers would talk about it all the time. 'Hey, did you read that quote in the paper?' You couldn't avoid it."

Haynes claimed he never paid much attention to what opponents were saying, but there were teammates who bewildered him. Raiders cornerback Lester Hayes was prolific in talking junk through the press.

"Who am I to tell somebody not to talk?" Haynes said. "I always felt like if you have to do that, if it's going to help you, going to help us, by all means."

Former Buffalo Bills coach Marv Levy constantly harped on his players to refrain from making declarations that would might get an opponent riled up.

"We had guys that loved to talk," said Levy's quarterback and fellow Hall of Famer, Jim Kelly. "But he always would bring it up, whether it was a tough loss or a good game. He'd say 'Praise your opponent and don't you be the bulletin board for somebody else's team.' "

Perhaps talk is cheap, but it can prove costly.

In the days leading up to Super Bowl XXVI, gregarious Bills defensive line coach Chuck Dickerson ragged on the Redskins' offensive linemen. Dickerson, who later became a love-him-or-hate-him Buffalo radio personality, declared Mark Rypien hadn’t been tested all year like he would by the Bills.

"It definitely made the bulletin board for the Redskins, and they thrived off it," Kelly said. "They used it to their advantage."

Rick Telander, covering Super Bowl XXVI for Time magazine, wrote that if the Bills and Redskins played 10 times, the Redskins would win nine -- "10 if Dickerson were allowed to speak before every game."

A passage from Telander's story:

Then came Dickerson's ill-timed assessment of the Hogs: Tackle Joe Jacoby was a "Neanderthal" who "slobbers a lot;" tackle Jim Lachey was a "ballerina in a 310-pound body;" and center [Jeff] Bostic was "ugly like the rest of them." The night before the game [head coach Joe] Gibbs showed the Skins a videotape of Dickerson making the remarks, in case anybody needed further motivation.



Tippett would start searching newspaper clips on Monday morning in search of fuel. The Internet wasn't available when he played. There was no trash talking through Facebook or Twitter like you see today.

But Tippett often stumbled across an item he could use for added inspiration.

"You just look for guys like a quarterback or a receiver, who at some point are vulnerable in games," Tippett said. "Cat says something he shouldn't be saying or is dogging your teammate, you take the opportunity to maybe hit them a little bit harder or hold them up a little longer. You have fun with it.

"At some point after a victory, you make note of that to him. You just go up and whisper in their ear to make them think about it: 'I remember what you said. What do you think about it now?'"

Was Ryan foolish to be so colorful in explaining why he's confident about his team?

That depends on which team you're rooting for.

"If I'm a Jets player, I'm excited about what he said," Cherry said. "I'd be thinking 'Screw the Patriots.' "

Or at least thumbtack them.

Little love for Bills at Chalk Talk luncheon

September, 14, 2009
9/14/09
3:18
PM ET

Posted by ESPN.com's Tim Graham


FOXBOROUGH, Mass. -- The Buffalo Bills aren't getting much credit here in Gillette Stadium.

The crowd was obviously biased, but many legendary New England Patriots figure tonight's game will be a walkover.

Throughout the season, ESPN stages luncheons known as Chalk Talk sessions to preview select "Monday Night Football" matchups. The events feature on-air personalities, NFL analysts and special guests representing the teams involved in the game.

Monday afternoon's luncheon was dominated by the Patriots, who had several of their all-time greats in attendance. The team's 50th anniversary team will be honored at halftime.

Also there was recently retired Patriots linebacker Tedy Bruschi, who will work the game as an ESPN analyst.

ESPN's Stuart Scott asked Bruschi: "If it's late in the game, like two minutes left in the game and it's really, really, really tight, are we going to have to put you in a bear hug to keep you from going to the dressing room?"

"Well, I don't think so," Bruschi replied as he broke into a grin, "because I don't think it's going to be really, really tight."

Legendary Bills quarterback Jim Kelly took part in a Hall of Fame roundtable discussion with former Patriots defensive stars Nick Buoniconti, Mike Haynes and Andre Tippett.

"The key for [Trent Edwards] is to be able to get rid of the football and not rely on those seven-step drops when he's getting blitzed from every different angle that he's going to see tonight," Kelly said.

Buoniconti, in answering a question from reporter Wendi Nix about the substantial loss of leadership on the Patriots' defense, suggested there wouldn't be much heavy lifting against the Bills.

"I just think when you look at [Randy] Moss, [Wes] Welker, [Joey] Galloway, Fred Taylor, a guy named [Tom] Brady -- he plays quarterback, No. 12? -- you look at the points they're going to put up and the defense is going to have a chance to rest," Buoniconti said.

Kelly grimaced and threw a playful punch at Buoniconti's right arm.

Pats Rushmore: Brady, Belichick, Tippett, Hannah

February, 16, 2009
2/16/09
11:15
AM ET
Posted by ESPN.com's Tim Graham

After two weeks of polling, the ballots have been counted to determine your picks for the Mount Rushmore of each AFC East team.

To play off ESPN's quest to determine the best sports Mount Rushmore from the 50 states, Washington, D.C., and Puerto Rico, I solicited your thoughts on the four legends who best symbolize the Buffalo Bills, Miami Dolphins, New England Patriots and New York Jets.

 Tippett
 Hannah
 Brady
 Belichick

Patriot Nation responded with 16 nominees, and the polling was the closest among the four AFC East clubs.

The final four are quarterback Tom Brady, head coach Bill Belichick, linebacker Andre Tippett and guard John Hannah. The last two are in the Pro Football Hall of Fame. The first two are on their way.

Brady and Belichick were runaway selections. Tippett and Hannah tied for third, while owner Robert Kraft was one vote behind them. Fan-favorite receiver Troy Brown finished one vote behind Kraft.

Top 10 voting went like this:

 1.Tom Brady
 2. Bill Belichick
 3. Andre Tippett
     John Hannah
 5. Robert Kraft
 6. Troy Brown
 7. Tedy Bruschi
 8. Drew Bledsoe
 9. Steve Grogan
10. Adam Vinatieri
Here are a few of the comments from the readers who participated:

Mike in Natick, Mass., writes: My Top 4: Tom Brady Bob Kraft John Hannah Bill Belichick I think Brady and BB are on the list for obvious reasons. Hannah was one of the most, if not the most dominating interior linemen in the league in his era, maybe even the most dominating lineman. And Bob Kraft took a franchise which was heading in the wrong direction since Super Bowl XX. He bought the franchise, hired the best coach at the time to run his team (though Parcells didn't have full control) and eventually built a state of the art stadium. He has taken the team from a second class citizen in the NFL to the benchmark of success and the class of the NFL. For as much as anybody else has done for the New England Patriots on the field, the Patriots would not be who they are today without the ownership of Bob Kraft.

Jeff W in Boston writes: Hey Tim, As for a Patriots Mount Rushmore, it's a very difficult decision, but I have to go with championships. Tom Brady obviously makes it in, as does Bill Belichick. My last two choices are a bit more controversial, but I think they represent everything the Patriots stand for. Those two would be Bob Kraft and Troy Brown. Kraft turned around a losing culture and helped make the Patriots relevant, while Brown was the ultimate team player. It's tough for me to leave Andre Tippett off of here, and while he was certainly one of the top Patriots players of all time, I have to think of who brought championships to New England.

Quinton from Parts Unknown writes: I would say Brady, Belichick, Bob Kraft, and my uncle Bruce Armstrong(LT) who after his 14 year career ended up with the patriots record for career and consecutive starts and bridged that gap from the bad years to the good.

Pats_fan_1961 writes: I would have to put at least one member from the original AFL days, and one from today's team, and fill in the other two spots in between. So, My selections would be Gino Capaletti, John Hannah, Andre Tippett, and "In Bill We Trust" Belichick.

Gino was Mr. Patriot in the 60s, you have to include him. Honorable mention: Steve Grogan, Sam Cunningham, Darryl Stingley, Steve Nelson, Mike Haynes, Babe Parelli, Tom Brady, and Tedy Bruschi, Billy Sullivan, and finally Bob Kraft.

Sullivan gets an honorable mention because, after all, he was the founder of the Patriots, and Sam "Bam" Cunningham was the best back the Pats have ever drafted and remained a Patriot.

rickstoneburnersr writes: How could you leave out Tedy Bruschi and Adam Vinatieri? Also give Drew Bledsoe some respect, don't forget what the team was like before Bledsoe. Patriots Rushmore: Tom Brady, Drew Bledsoe, Tedy Bruschi, and Adam Vinatieri!!!

Hall at Patriot Place does it right

October, 23, 2008
10/23/08
8:20
AM ET
Posted by ESPN.com's Tim Graham

FOXBOROUGH, Mass. -- I've seen enough halls of fame to know what a great one looks like.

The better ones I always return to. In the past two years I've visited the Pro Football Hall of Fame, National Baseball Hall of Fame, Hockey Hall of Fame and International Boxing Hall of Fame. I've attended induction ceremonies at most.

But the best I've seen belongs to the New England Patriots.

Before Monday night's game in Gillette Stadium, I had the chance to tour The Hall at Patriot Place, a dazzling collection of exhibits, multimedia presentations and high-tech interactive displays on 36,000-square feet.

The Hall at Patriot Place opened last month at a cost of roughly $24 million.

I took the tour with Pro Football Hall of Fame executive director Stephen A. Perry and vice president of communications and exhibits Joe Horrigan. Both were seeing The Hall at Patriot Place for the first time.

"This is first-class, on par with anything we've seen and better than most," Horrigan said. "It's a really remarkable use of space, really creative. Everyone in the industry is going towards a lot of these elements, from the traditional display to the interactive motif. This is what a visitor looks for when he goes to a museum.

"I'm stealing ideas as I go through here. They've scored a touchdown."

Bryan Morry, The Hall at Patriot Place's executive director, explained the vision wasn't a graveyard for artifacts. Patriots president Jonathan Kraft wanted to establish a destination that allowed fans and alumni to embrace the team's tradition.

As I passed through, I found guard John Hannah playing with one of the interactive kiosks. Hannah, in his gold Pro Football Hall of Fame blazer, was at the game for a halftime ceremony to honor linebacker Andre Tippett, who was enshrined in Canton this summer.

Hannah praised the Krafts for building a monument that celebrates the Patriots legacy.

There's plenty to look at: multimedia stations that can engage you for as long as your curiosity of Patriots history can handle, a 150-seat theater and all the standard displays of uniforms and hardware. Hanging from the rafters is the John Deere tractor convict Mark Henderson used to clear a spot for John Smith's infamous field goal to beat the Miami Dolphins in 1982

The Hall at Patriot Place also strives to be a New England football archive, including preps and colleges.

But the most impressive elements are interactive. Educated football fans will leave smarter than when they walked in. A presentation by Bill Belichick insightfully breaks down actual plays from the Patriots' playbook. You pick the play, and Belichick tells you why it works in detail.

Visitors also can listen to offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels relay plays into a quarterback's helmet, step inside an actual-sized Patriots huddle to hear how plays are called and pick up sideline phones to hear how the coordinators communicate with players during the game.

"Museums are no longer a place where you go to view dinosaur bones," Horrigan said. "They expect the dinosaur to move, breathe and shoot fire. That's what happens here."

The Patriots do not have a ring of fame. The Hall at Patriot Place is the ultimate team honor a Patriot can receive.

There are 13 members: tackle Bruce Armstrong, linebacker Nick Buoniconti, kicker Gino Cappelletti, tight end Ben Coates, defensive lineman Bob Dee, quarterback Steve Grogan, Hannah, cornerback Mike Haynes, tackle Jim Lee Hunt, receiver Stanley Morgan, linebacker Steve Nelson, quarterback Babe Parilli and Tippett.

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