Sunday, November 15, 2009


In the summer of 1997 I drove from Chicago to Madison, Wis., to visit with Al Toon. In his home office whose windows overlooked Lake Mendota we spoke about his eight-season career with the National Football League’s New York Jets, during which he’d achieved All-Pro status several times.

We also talked about the last play of that career—on Nov. 8, 1992—when he caught a pass and turned upfield, only to be crunched between two Denver Broncos’ defenders. He had no memory of that collision.

“I saw the films and it wasn’t that big a hit,” he recalled. “I think most of the damage came when my head hit the ground.”

Toon said the resulting concussion was the seventh, eighth or ninth of his football life, “depending on how you counted them.” Some of the others, dating from high school, sidelined him for a game or two, some for just a couple of plays. But the symptoms of last one got worse instead of better, and he spent much of the next three years in darkened rooms enduring headaches, dizziness, acute sensitivity to light and lapses of memory and concentration.

He thought he was pretty much back to normal at the time of our meeting. Indeed, he’d invested his football earnings wisely and was well into a business career that included ownership of commercial real estate in the city where he’d gone to college, a directorship and vice presidency of a local bank and a partnership in a company that owned 18 Burger King franchises.

He had no illusions about a trouble-free future, however. “I’m told that with head injuries, you never can tell,” he said quietly.

I’ve been thinking about Toon as the impact of football concussions has gained news-media attention of late. Having written a page-one story on head injuries for the Wall Street Journal, I’m something of a journalistic expert—and early whistle-blower-- on the subject. That piece was titled “The Silent Epidemic,” because head-injury victims often didn’t appear to be hurt and treatments for their widely varying complaints were elusive. Despite some advances, that’s apparently still the case.

It’s especially surprising that many people still aren’t fully aware of the risk of head injury that football poses at all of its levels. The violence in the NFL, which tops the sport’s pyramid, is truly frightening, and becoming more so as the game evolves. Not only are the players ever bigger, stronger and faster, but the surfaces on which they’re playing produce far-better footing than the old grass fields, increasing the force of the collisions thereon. To fully appreciate this you have to witness the game from ground level, but it’s obvious even on television.

It’s well known that the effects of head blows are cumulative, but the extent to which they occur in football remains underappreciated. This came through clearly in a story in the Oct. 19 issue of the New Yorker magazine that, in part, described a University of North Carolina study that monitored with helmet-placed sensors the school’s football team members in games and practices. It said that if you drove your car into a wall at 25 mph and weren’t wearing a seat belt, the force of your head hitting the windshield would register 100 on the applicable scale. In one Tarheel practice—and not a “full-contact” one —eight “hits” registering between 82 and 53 were recorded. “Mini-car crashes” were taking place all over the field, with consequences one can only guess, the author wrote.

Another recent study hinted at those consequences over the long haul. A University of Michigan phone survey of about 1,000 retired NFL players showed that 6.1% of those aged 50 and older reported they’d been diagnosed with dementia, Alzheimer’s disease or other memory-related conditions, a rate five times higher than that of the general population, and the rate for ex-players in the 30-to-49-year-old range was 19 times above the national average. If that’s not bad enough, the kind of self-reporting the survey relied on typically understates a problem’s severity.

To the inevitable question of “What’s to be done?”, good answers are few. Better helmets might help but, given size limitations, there’d be a limit to how much. The league should be tougher on the kind of helmet-on-helmet hits that thrill the TV commentators; expulsion from the game seems more appropriate than the present yardage penalty and (sometimes) fine. A quicker recognition of concussions, and slowing the rush of the injured to return to action, would be a plus, albeit not a cure.

But we who watch, and those who play, like the game too well to press for the only sure cure, abolition. So let’s hope the boys are careful out there.

A bright note: Al Toon’s current Wikipedia biography says he competed in a triathlon a few years ago, and is now a Green Bay Packers’ director, so it seems his recovery has continued apace.

Monday, November 2, 2009


The unfairness of life is brought home to me every spring and summer by the performance of my favorite baseball team, the Chicago Cubs. They always come through in that respect. In recent years, however, the punishment has continued into the fall, delivered by my favorite football team, that of my alma mater, the University of Illinois. Now THAT is unfair.

I’m feeling especially put-upon these days because the erstwhile Fighting Illini are in the throes of a season that’s bad by even their standards. At this writing they are 2 and 6 in the won-lost column with four games to play, and despite Saturday’s welcome win over so-so Michigan, it’s hard to see how they can wind up better than 4 and 8. I’ve put my orange-and-blue gear into storage, and it’ll take a heckuva good basketball season to persuade me to uncrate it.

It’s not as though we Illini expect much from our gridiron representatives—a six- or seven-win season and a dot-com bowl game would satisfy us nicely. But even that modest goal has been elusive. Illinois hasn’t put together successive winning seasons since 1989-90, and have been on the plus side in just five campaigns since then. Over four recent seasons (2003-06) it had a combined won-lost record of 8-38.

It probably wouldn’t be so painful if we were perennially terrible, like Indiana. Then we could simply ignore football and save our enthusiasm for basketball, where we’re usually decent. About once a decade, though, we have a quite-successful year—such as 2007’s 9-4 record and Rose Bowl appearance—and convince ourselves that some magical corner has been turned. Inevitably this proves illusory and we’re back in the pits, where we started.

Why this should be so is a mystery. Illinois is a populous state with a rich annual crop of football talent. Trouble is, the best of it matriculates at places like Notre Dame, Michigan and, lately, even Southern California. Yes, Champaign-Urbana, where the U of I is situated, is widely viewed as a dull, rural place, but it’s not any worse in that regard than Iowa City, Ia., South Bend, Ind., or godawful State College, Pa., for heaven’s sake. Iowa and Wisconsin, which have fewer athletic resources than Illinois, consistently have managed to field good-to-excellent football teams in recent years. If they can do it, Illinois also should be able to.

The usual key factor in such a situation is coaching or the lack of it, and the chair of Illinois’s incumbent headman, Ron Zook, has become quite warm. Zook formerly was the coach at Florida, where he posted a 23-14 won-lost mark over three seasons. While that would have been fine in Champaign it got him fired in Gainesville, where expectations are higher. At Illinois, he’s had but one winning season in five, with the arrow pointing down..

By all accounts Zook’s industry has been exemplary; he’s your typical workaholic football coach for whom putting in a half-day means working 12 hours. He’s said to take his cell phone into the shower for fear of missing a call, and probably sees his family no more than a few hours a week in season. He’s gotten high grades as a recruiter, but this year’s woeful gangs on both sides of the ball put that rep into serious question.

Most disheartening has been the play of quarterback Juice Williams, the team’s leader on offense. He was sprightly as a sophomore during the ’07 Rose Bowl run but before Saturday had been sodden as a senior, a flat-footed and inaccurate passer and heavy-legged runner who had more turnovers than TDs. His regression speaks ill of Zook’s ability to develop talent, a college coach’s primary charge. Zook never has been much praised as a game-day strategist.

So fire the guy, right? OK, but then what? Recruiting (as it is) will be set back further and a new “system” (whatever that is) will have to be installed, meaning at least a couple more very bad years before any turnaround can be expected. And if the new guy succeeds there’s a good chance he’ll be lured away by a stronger program, as was the live-wire basketball coach, Bill Self. No matter how you look at it, the outlook isn’t brilliant.

But so as not to be totally negative, I do have a suggestion for short-term improvement. Illinois is known for slotting players out of position, such as Bobby Mitchell, an NFL Hall of Fame wide receiver who was an underutilized running back at Illinois, and Ray Nitschke, the all-time great pro linebacker who was a second-string fullback in Champaign. At 6-foot-2 and 235 pounds, Williams is bigger than the current Illini linebackers, and, probably, stronger and faster as well. His pro prospects as a QB are slight so let’s try him there next Saturday. It couldn’t hurt him or the team.