I Always Wore A Helmet—But Was It Good Enough?

Ed Raymond

Once when Democrat Lyndon Johnson crossed swords with Republican Representative Jerry Ford over a political issue, LBJ used his knowledge that Ford had played football for the Michigan Wolverines: “I think Jerry Ford played too many games without a helmet.” That exchange happened over 50 years ago.  With news about concussions, dementia, brain damage, and NFL lawsuits, parents are now concerned about having their sons and daughters play the game with helmets. (Yes, females do play the game.) Having played eight seasons of high school and college football between 1946 and 1954, I think I have a small porker in this pigskin argument.
Having played offensive guard, nose guard, linebacker, and center, I figured the other day that I was hit on some part of my body during over 14,000 football plays in games, practices, and scrimmages. That’s the life of a lineman. You hit some body and some body hits you on virtually every play. I never scored a point in  over 80 games. My team-with a laugh-gave me the honor of kicking  an extra point in the fourth quarter of my last college game. I missed. But as a pull-out guard I led many a running back across the goal line.
In eight seasons of football I never missed a game because of injury. I had a couple of broken noses, three missing teeth, and colorful bruises–but nothing serious. I also played eight seasons of high school, American Legion, and college baseball. I missed several baseball games because of injury, once because of a nasty shoulder separation after hitting a second baseman while stealing second. “Stuff” happens. Some readers suggest that I also have played too many football games without a helmet. I assume it’s a political opinion, not a medical one.

The Problems With Football? “Improved” Helmets, Slow Whistles, Rugby Scrums, Headhunters, And Gladiator Coaches

   Over 65 years I have watched thousands of high school, college, and pro football games. I still think it’s a great contact sport. The game is constantly changing. The hard-shell helmet with the foam inserts put the head too much in the middle of the game. In the old days we were coached to turn the head aside while blocking and tackling. For the last forty years the headhunters and the running backs have increased the use of helmets, thinking their brains are protected from shock. The crack of helmet on helmet from “spearing” began to dominate replays and sport stories.  Wide receivers going across the middle are greeted with lowered heads and murderous intent, often glamorized by press agents and idiotic fans who have never played the game. Some “personal foul” and “unnecessary roughness”rules have been changed to lower the number on injuries. We need more changes. I would like to see more ejections for the “Ultimate” gladiators who think they are in some Roman arena going for heads. We need to get the headhunters out of the game.
I see way too many slow whistles on “rugby” scrums. Ten linemen averaging 300 pounds sumo-wrestling each other to get another yard on the ground often trample knees, ankles, and heads. When the whistles blow--quit pushing!

I Was Blessed With Great  Coaches In Two Sports

I was lucky in eight years of football not to have what I call gladiator coaches. These are leaders who scream “Kill! Kill! Kill!” and look at contact sports as a physical Armageddon instead of a character-building game. At Little Falls I had Coaches Harvey Shue and Lou Filippi in football. They were both military veterans. Harvey never raised his voice and treated us like his sons. Filippi, a very excitable guy from Keewatin, yelled at us once in awhile, but only when we earned a chewing. By the way, Lou was the finest athlete in four sports I have ever seen in my life. He is the only St. Cloud State athlete to win 16 varsity letters in four sports: football, basketball, baseball and track. After college and three years in the Navy Lou was drafted by the Cleveland Browns, but he wanted to get on to the life of teaching and coaching. I never saw him play football, but when he was disturbed about our tackling he would put a helmet on, line up eleven players at the fifty-yard line and run through us, often without anyone touching him.
Lou was also my high school and American Legion baseball coach. I watched him play many games for the Little Falls “amateur” team. At 5’ 10” and about 200 pounds he was quicker than a cat, driving pitchers and catchers crazy when on base–which was often. He was a ballet dancer in shoulder pads, sneakers, shorts or baseball spikes.
I was also lucky to have had Fritz Bierhaus and T. Edison Smith come down to Little Falls after my senior year, looking for a guard-center in football and a left-handed baseball pitcher for Moorhead State Teachers College. That’s how I got to college, earning All-Conference recognition in  football and a broad English major with creative writing and journalism.

Washington Post Sports Writer Leonard Shapiro: “The Game Of Football Is Appealing And Apalling At The Same Time”

We have to remember that 95 percent of the people who play football in the United States, over 3.9 million, are under 18 years of age.  Only 68,000 play at the college level–and only 1,696 are on National Football League rosters. In a terrific article “Is Football Too Violent For Christians?” written by two Southern Baptist pastors, we discover that out of about four million players only four under the age of 20 died from the game in 2011. In the 1960’s we averaged about 25 football deaths a year. In 2011, cyclists had twice as many serious head injuries as football players and 91 cyclists 20 years or younger died.
To add some perspective to the data game about violent deaths, there have been another 30,000 firearm deaths since last year’s slaughter of innocents in Newtown, Connecticut, and 194 children, average age six, were killed by firearms, the youngest five months. But we ignore this second Holocaust of firearm deaths that has taken 1,384,171 lives in the last 45 years, more than the 1,171,177 military deaths in 237 years in all our wars around the globe. After all, we have been at peace without war for only 21 years of that 237. National Rifle Association and the gun lobby, you have literally oceans of blood on your hands and greedy trigger fingers.

Do We Learn Anything From Blocking, Tackling Power Plays, And Headers?

There’s no doubt all sports are over-emphasized at the school level, whether elementary or university, absolutely doing great damage to academic programs because of screwed-up priorities. But schools need a wide range of extra-curricular activities to promote the cultural growth of all students. In my 36 years as a teacher, elementary and high school principal, district administrator, and college teacher, I have seen many students stay in school and prosper because of athletics, music, drama, debate, and other sponsored activities. The purpose of a school is to expose students to a smorgasbord of offerings so they can choose  careers and lifelong activities. There is more to life than making money. Students should not be charged a fee to participate in school-sponsored activities either.
Today football is making  news because of former NFL players suing the NFL for ignoring traumatic brain damage while encouraging “headhunter” play by linebackers and defensive backs. Remember the Monday Night Football TV commercial of two opposing helmets crashing into each other and then blowing up into little pieces? What message did that send? You will always have a certain number of idiots attend NASCAR races so they can see fiery crashes and cars flipping. You will always have a certain number of idiots attend any level of football, whether sixth grade, Oak Grove, NDSU Bison, or Oakland Raiders, so they can see wide receivers blasted coming across the middle or helmet-on-helmet kickoff returns. Those attitudes are not changed easily. A certain number of spectators in the Roman Colosseum  were always ready to give the thumbs-down to the losing gladiator in the arena so they could watch the sword plunge.

 Football Can Survive If Played Right

Football is a contact sport like that other major contact sport: hockey. Hockey in America is simply another football game played on skates. I repeat, you will always have a certain number of hockey fans come to the arena to see violent body checks, players smashing each other into boards, and the traditional “fights” among enforcers and their ilk. It’s like WorldWide Wrestling with just a touch of honesty. By the way, hockey is beginning to clean up its act, too.
Football is a good school activity that should be saved. Pop Warner football with its seven age and weight divisions is going to use the guidelines established by USA Football, an organization sponsored by the NFL. Pop Warner Football has 275,000 players in 1,300 associations and will use the Heads Up Football training program. This program teaches players to keep their heads up while blocking and tackling and turning heads aside when tackling. Pop Warner rules prohibit “face tackling” and “spearing.” My high school coaches taught and coached “heads up” football 65 years ago, so it can be done today. We have to eliminate the injury-prone blocking in the back, speed up the whistles to prevent scrums, and call the late and out-of-bounds hits. Above all, we have to take the helmet and the headhunters out of the game as much as possible. It can be a great game again. Football players can make changes in their style of play to make the game more safe. If they don’t change, put them on the splinters. Concussions will always be around regardless of sport. Even basketball has changed rules about fouling players running full speed for a layup. Flagrant fouls are grounds for ejection from the game since 1981. Some baseball pitchers will start wearing helmets in 2014 to prevent concussions from line drives. As a pitcher I have heard that whistle of line drives going by my ears.

A Few Other Notes About The Game

I see Bison nose guard Ryan Drevlow measures out at 6’ 4” and weighs 281 pounds. I played nose guard over 60 years ago at 5’ 9” and 180 pounds. The football field has gotten a lot smaller from nutrition and weight training, but there is still room for little people in high school and college football. I have watched Bison Ryan Smith since he was a sophomore at Wahpeton High. He is hardly visible at 5’ 7” and 175 next to Bison tackle Billy Turner at 6’ 6” and 314. But with his exceptional physical skills Ryan could play skill positions for any school in the country. There’s room on a team for many sizes!
Before we get too excited about brain trauma in football, remember we can get a concussion in a slippery parking lot or tripping over a coffee table. According to the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health, NFL players live longer then men in the general population, have a lower rate of cancer, less heart disease, and a much lower suicide rate. Actually, cheerleaders have a much higher rate of serious injury than football players.
Football can be a great game. We learn to handle our strengths and weaknesses. We also can develop certain skills while learning how to subordinate ourselves to the much greater goal of team victory. We also can learn the hard way that laziness, lack of preparation, and inability to focus by individuals can really hurt a team.
P.S.:(1) If we think football is big around here, Allen, Texas recently won the 5A high school championship before 53,347 fans. Allen is the largest high school in Texas with 5,388 students. (2) Of the 24 high school football players picked for USA Today’s All-USA Team, 21 are black. (3) Each U. of Minnesota scholarship football player cost $199,826 in 2013. Each full-time student cost $20,688. Ohio State spends $456,023 per player. (4) You could buy a ticket for a penny just before the Gopher-Syracuse Texas Bowl game. It was over-priced.