- Rich Cimini, ESPN New York Jets reporter
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Scenes from an opulent ballroom, an NFL gathering of pride and pain:
In walks Joe Namath, nattily attired and wearing that iconic smile. He's the magnet and everybody in the room becomes a paper clip, pulled to the legendary quarterback. It's the VIP cocktail hour for the United Way Gridiron Gala on Tuesday night at the Waldorf-Astoria Hotel in Manhattan, where Namath draws the biggest crowd in a place filled with current and former players.
God bless Namath, he looks terrific, glowing with his Florida tan. Surrounded by businessmen and well-to-do fans, he signs, poses and charms, Broadway Joe lighting up Park Avenue.
Namath, 68, has endured his share of hardship, during and after his career, but he has aged gracefully. Not everybody gets that from the game.
On the other side of the ballroom, the quiet side, Ted Banker says he recently underwent his fifth back surgery. Banker, a guard for the New York Jets in the 1980s, reaches into his pocket, pulls out a smartphone and punches up a picture that shows an MRI of his lower back.
"See those things?" he says, pointing at the picture. "Steel rods."
Banker, 51, says he sustained eight documented concussions in his playing career and, with all the talk about brain trauma in the aftermath of the Junior Seau suicide, he's worried about his future.
So is former Jets wide receiver Wesley Walker, standing near Banker on the quiet side. When he was young, Walker, 56, was the fastest player on the field, but now he moves slowly, his shoulders slightly hunched. Four years ago, he underwent neck surgery, receiving a plate, a "cage" and 14 screws in his neck area.
Fourteen screws, 13 seasons.
"It's scary when you look at Junior Seau, and I played against Dave Duerson," he says, referring to the former Chicago Bear who committed suicide last year. "I don't think I've ever gotten that depressed, but I get out of bed some mornings and say, 'God, Jesus, I don't want to do this anymore.' I'm in chronic pain. I get two to three hours of sleep a night, and that's with Ambien."
Walker says he didn't suffer any concussions in his career, that he's not too concerned about memory loss. Then, for the second time in five minutes, he introduces an acquaintance to his wife. He realizes his faux pas, apologizes and suspects that maybe he does have an occasional spell.
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?
This brings us to Harry Carson. He's in the ballroom, not far from Walker. Actually, he's one of the honorees at the gala. Carson, 58, diagnosed with post-concussion syndrome in 1990, is a crusader for retired players. He says the Seau suicide was jarring to the men of his generation.
"Guys are thinking about it much deeper now than they did before," the New York Giants Hall of Famer says. "Because when we played, we took it in stride, playing dinged. It was part of the game, but nobody told us at that time there might be some residual effects. You had to play through it to survive.
"Unfortunately, there are (former) players that are very good friends of mine, younger than me, who said emphatically, 'I don't go out and speak to groups anymore because I'll lose my train of thought.' I've had players call me and say they have problems with short-term memory. They're concerned because they've always been sharp, they've always been witty, and now they're dealing with this thing they didn't see five or 10 years ago."
Banker says he experiences serious headaches. He tells his wife to keep an eye on him, just in case he suffers memory loss.
"You hear all these things, with dementia and everything else," says Banker, who also had five knee operations and both rotator cuffs repaired. "I'm getting to that age now -- 51-- and it's real."
Banker remembers his worst concussion episode. It occurred in 1986, when the Jets jumped to a 10-1 start. Of course, he played the following week.
"We were going down to Miami on Monday night, and I was taking aspirin like a mad man, all day, every day," he says. "My parents flew in to go to the game in Miami. I didn't even say hello. I couldn't even go down and see them. I played that night. About midway through the first quarter, (John) Offerdahl was coming on a blitz and I just stuck my head into his thigh, and I don't remember anything."
Banker harbors no bitterness toward the league; he recognizes he willingly participated in a violent game. Walker is less forgiving.
"These issues that are being addressed now should've been addressed a long time ago, and I'm not sure they've tried to do enough with it other than play the politics of it because guys are having serious problems," he says of the NFL.
"This is a business, and I'm not so sure they care about the players," Walker adds. "In the long run, it's about the money and it's a big business. They obviously have to do something to protect their image."
Some people are calling the current state a concussion crisis that could impact the future of the sport. The NFL will survive, according to Carson, who's not so sure about his fellow former players.
"I'm thinking about what we went through as players, what we didn't know, how we played the game and how many of those players are dealing with the residual effects of concussions," he says.
So the proverbial question: Would you do it again knowing what you know now? Walker isn't so sure. Banker is sure; he'd absolutely sign up for another career in football.
"If I was young, 22 years old, I know I would," he says, smiling as the thought. "I just know I would. I just love the game. Obviously, people love it. Look at the numbers. It's a shame this has to be part of it, but it is.
"They're trying to do everything they can to make it better, which is a good sign. I hope it never ends, the game. What would Sunday be without a football game in the fall?"
It's like a drug, this game, not all that different from the drug Banker takes every few hours to prevent his surgically repaired neck from throbbing.
Two sides to the ballroom.
Joe Namath has aged gracefully. Not everybody gets that from the NFL.