The price of football fame

Is there a generation of stars who have been ruined and don't know it yet?

Updated: August 27, 2012, 10:19 PM ET
By Wright Thompson | ESPN.com

CANTON, Ohio -- There's something perfect about an old football player standing in a lobby telling a dinosaur joke. It's Canton, mid summer, where the greatest men ever to put on a helmet -- at least the ones (a) alive and (b) (sort of) mobile -- gather in a hotel, and a town, that oddly reflects their bodies: once powerful, now crumbling, still commanding respect. They are all, at this moment, waiting on a bus to take them to a kickoff luncheon. Joe Greene has a fancy camera slung around his neck, looking like the tourists pressed against barriers outside. John Hannah stops to talk, and he describes a cartoon he recently saw: two dinosaurs stand on top of a shrinking island, water rising, rain pouring down, looking at the back of Noah's ark. One dinosaur turns to the other and, in the lobby of the hotel, the same thing happens: Hannah delivers the cartoon's punch line to Mean Joe Greene.

"Oh, s---," he says, "was that today?"


Most days, the old stars are mostly forgotten to history -- left behind -- but for a few days in July, the ghosts of seasons past reappear in the McKinley Grand, a downtown Canton hotel. The first thing I noticed was a no-frills table for check-in, with dilapidated cardboard boxes holding gift bags. The boxes are divided alphabetically, i.e.:

Hendricks-Kelley

Rooney-Bruce Smith

Jackie Smith-Taylor

Football fans would lose their minds in the small, generic bar: Dave Casper debating religion with Roger Wehrli, John Randle holding court in a corner, five or so Hall of Famers on stools, telling stories. John Madden is on a bench outside with the cigar smokers. Is that LT walking through the parking garage? Is that Earl Campbell in the wheelchair? Is that new inductee Jack Butler sitting in the chair next to the front desk? Yes, it is. Greene, a fellow Steeler, walks over. Butler apologizes.

"I can't get up," Butler explains.

There are detailed studies being done as we speak about the danger of football, but if you want to understand the lives behind the data, sit in the McKinley Grand during induction weekend. Watch the guys walk across the lobby. Bobby Mitchell inches with a cane. Campbell needs to be pushed. They wobble, waddle and lean. Some sort of swing themselves across the room, like a gate opening and closing. A small group seems untouched by their careers -- Wehrli looks like he could still play -- but mostly, I watch them struggle between the front door and the elevator. "They're all like that," a security guard says. "It's sad."

In addition to the cancer and cardiac screening done, there's a display providing information about new joints, which are heavily in use and demand. "You don't want them going through a metal detector," new inductee Chris Doleman says of the old-timers.

The water is always rising on the men who gave their youth to football, and on their small island, much of the talk eventually circles back to the price they've paid and continue to pay; when Madden sees Curtis Martin by the front desk, they exchange numbers and Madden says, "I want to talk to you about some safety things, if you have a minute."

Health worries have long been about scar tissue, about smashed joints and ripped tendons, about arthritis and gout. And they remain about those things despite the public debate about concussions. I get the sense that, right now at least, there is more conversation about the brain among reporters than players. Among people who knew Junior Seau, there'd always been worry about how he'd adjust to life after football, and what would happen to a man whose identity revolved around being the first to the facility, and hitting full speed even in shorts and shells. For reporters like me, Seau is a cautionary tale about concussions. For ex-players, it seems like he's a cautionary tale of something else entirely.

Still, this new fear is there, fueled by the recent suicides, by Seau, by the evolving understanding of concussions. So in addition to the heart tests and brochures about titanium hips, there is something new in Canton: a presentation about brain health and a neurological questionnaire. Madden finds someone with the Hall of Fame and requests they announce where to turn the survey in. Lynn Swann had asked him, and he didn't know.

"He said it's a little personal," Madden explains. "You can't just drop it anywhere."

And the water rises a little more.


Me: Was it worth it?

Willie Roaf: Oh, yeah. It was definitely worth it. I wouldn't change anything. It's worth it to end up in a group like this. There's not but 150 of us even living. It was more than worth it.

Me: Do you worry about hidden brain injuries?

Roaf: Nah. … you can't … I mean, you can't worry about that day in, day out. I didn't have a whole bunch of concussions. I had some knee scopes, ACLs. I didn't have too many concussions, where I think I have to worry about that. I'm not that bad. Well, I don't know. Ten … 20 years, we don't know. But now I'm fine.


Upstairs in the hotel, on the second floor, Roaf's family sits around the room. They know what it cost to be here, heard about shots of painkillers, received the groaning phone calls. "That's the side of football you don't see," sister Phoebe Roaf says. "That's not the glamorous side. That's the real side."

[+] EnlargePittsburgh's Jack Butler and Dermontti Dawson
Charles LeClaire/US PRESSWIREJack Butler, left, and Dermontti Dawson, right, became the latest Steelers to be inducted into the Hall of Fame.

She's the one Willie texted when he got to the Hall of Fame and saw an enormous banner depicting him, one that would permanently hang in a new wing. He'd looked up at it, at himself, and this is what he wrote to his sister: "in hall forever."

Football was how Willie Roaf stood out in a family of overachievers. His mother was the first African-American state Supreme Court justice in Arkansas history. One sister went to Georgetown. Phoebe holds degrees from Harvard and Princeton. For him, starting at an early age, football wasn't just a thing to do; it allowed him to find himself. "What I recognize now which I did not then," his dad, Cliff Roaf, says, "is he decided he would use sports to gain his status in this family order. He knew I had played sports. He loved me and I loved him. This was his way of honoring me. He knew that he had to reach a bar of excellence in something. He chose this, and he has reached the pinnacle of this game."

Cliff is emotional in the hotel room, because he sees in his son the realization of generations of dreams. What is an achy joint compared to completing a journey begun hundreds of years ago? "This wonderful creator did not forget what he promised to generation after generation after generation," Cliff says. "God promised people in our families that if we loved him, and served him, and honored him, he would bring blessings to our children and their children and their children. That is what is the essence of Will Roaf."

That's the question left unasked in all the studies about football. Would Willie Roaf's life have been better if he'd never been allowed to play such a violent game? Who would he be? Who would Curtis Martin be if society had "protected" him from the crushing hits? He grew up in a violent neighborhood. His father tortured his mother, literally, making her stand in scalding water, and if she flinched, he burned her with cigarettes. Five-year-old Curtis saw this. He saw him punch her in the face, saw her with black eyes and a bloody face. His grandmother was violently murdered. His aunt was murdered, too. When he was 15, someone put a gun to his head and pulled the trigger seven times. It misfired each time. Finally, his mother begged him to go out for football, just to have a few more hours out of the dangerous streets. That's why he played. His anger came out through the violence. Baseball didn't have what Curtis Martin needed. The violence kept him alive.

They've reached Canton. They've made millions of dollars and earned the right to walk -- or limp -- across the lobby with the rest of the legends. They gained much, and gave much, too.

"He's so-so," Phoebe Roaf says. "Pretty much every joint, lower back, both hips, both knees, both ankles, constant pain. That's the side you don't see. It wasn't for free."


Me: Was it worth it?

Dermontti Dawson: It was worth it. I wouldn't change anything. I have a lot of people ask me, my son played football, knowing what you know now, with all the concussion stuff that's going on, I said I still would play; you play for love of the game. That's just a risk. It's gonna happen. I may feel good now, but give me 10 more years and see where I am then.

Me: I saw your helmet on display in the museum.

Dawson (laughing): Oh, man. You see the gouges?


[+] EnlargeDermontti Dawson
George Gojkovich/Getty ImagesPittsburgh center Dermontti Dawson looks on from the sideline during a game against Jacksonville in November 1996 in Pittsburgh.

The black Steelers helmet, in a display case just outside the circular room filled with busts, is cut, smashed and lined with rough creases. The top of the four-barred face mask, around the temples, is now bare metal, the plastic coating ripped off by helmet-to-helmet hits. The damage is mostly to the part that covered Dawson's forehead. The yellow stripe down the middle is torn, the 6 and the 3 partially ripped away. Even one of the plastic brackets holding the face mask in place has been hit so often, and with such force, that it's crooked. But if you walk around the display and look at the back, it's smooth. From the back, it'd be hard to tell that this helmet had been used.

The Pro Football Hall of Fame is a celebration of this violence in the same way baseball's Hall of Fame, a timeless brick building in a timeless, quaint town, is a celebration of baseball's pastoral past, even if that past is gone at best, a myth at worst. It's fitting, then, that the Pro Football Hall of Fame is just off an interstate that runs through the collapsed industrial center of the country. Everything about Cooperstown says permanence. Everything about Canton says transience. The town is surrounded by decay: north to Cleveland, west to Detroit, east to Youngstown, south to West Virginia. An important line connects Dawson's helmet to this boxy museum to the manufacturing towns where pro football was born.

This building isn't a shrine to flash and athleticism; it is a shrine to grit and determination -- to dinosaurs. One of the most powerful bits of history, preserved like a relic, is the piece of paper sent to the NFL by the Minnesota Vikings that deactivated Brett Favre after his record streak of playing through pain. Football is more about that piece of paper than one with daring plays scribbled on it. Sure, the game can be safer, and the league can police the hits, protect the quarterbacks. And yes, there can be tests and studies. But one hour in the Pro Football Hall of Fame and the NFL's conundrum becomes clear: The game was born out of violence, and its mythology not only tolerates that violence, it celebrates those who survive it. The damaged men in the hotel lobby aren't legends in spite of their limping.

In many ways, they are legends because of it.


Curtis Martin: Literally, football saved my life. Not just a quote or just saying it. Football really saved my life.

Me: Do you want your kids to play?

Martin: Initially, my thought would be: I don't want my kid to play because I know what I had to go through. But I'd say I would want my kid to play in the sense that I don't think there's any better game to learn about life. Football taught me how to be a businessman. Football taught me how to be a caring individual, a giving individual. Football has done so much for my life that I would trade everything. I would trade the Hall of Fame for what football taught me as a man.


Roaf/Martin
US PresswireWillie Roaf, left, and Curtis Martin pose with their busts during the 2012 Pro Football Hall of Fame enshrinement in Canton, Ohio.

After the speeches ended, a crew of workers began tearing down the stage, pulling up the floor from the high school football field, rolling up cables, unplugging lights. It was time to leave. For a few days, I'd been hanging around former football greats, struggling to articulate even to myself exactly what I was looking for, or what questions I wanted to answer. In the empty stadium, the thought crystallizes: What if brains are the new knees?

In 2012, the legends struggle to walk to the elevator. In 2062, will they even know what an elevator is? It's an overdramatic question, but it's the simplified version of everyone's fear, the worry at the heart of the neurological questionnaire. Is there a generation of football stars -- household names and faces, modern celebrities -- who have already been ruined and don't know it yet? What if Favre can't cut his food at the reception? Might Peyton Manning come to Canton and not recognize Eli? Will Ray Lewis remember dancing during player introductions? That's what everyone is really asking, right? And nobody knows the answers, so people look for clues.

I stared at the gouges in Dawson's helmet, and thought about the player he'd replaced on the Steelers' offensive line: Mike Webster, a Hall of Famer who died at age 50, five years after his induction, depressed and suffering from dementia, living out of his pickup truck. Football killed Webster, and Dawson watched it. He's 47 now. Every player knows what could happen, and they hope they've been spared. Right now, Dawson is fine. He thinks he'll stay that way.

For a night, at least, those questions could wait. The players, and their families and friends, went down the hill to big, white tents. Food filled long tables, and drinks moved across the well-stocked bars. Music thumped out into the darkness, and a journey that began when these men were just children came to an end. Tomorrow would be the first day of the rest of their lives.

Wright Thompson | email

Senior Writer, ESPN The Magazine
Wright Thompson (@wrightthompson) is a senior writer for ESPN.com and The Magazine. He has been featured in seven editions of Best American Sports Writing and lives in Oxford, Mississippi.