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Football and concussions: Old school, new school, and a conversation with Jerry Kramer

Posted By Peter Wehrwein On February 5, 2011 @ 1:19 pm In Alzheimer's Disease,Exercise and Fitness,Memory,Men's Health | Comments Disabled

Tomorrow night at 6:30 p.m., tens of millions of television sets will be turned on as Americans sit down and participate in that unofficial national holiday called “watching the Super Bowl.”

For many, it’s an excuse to see funny ads and the half-time show and to eat (how many of those spanking new Dietary Guidelines will be broken?), drink, and socialize.

But for those of us who do like to watch the game, the fun and excitement (as long as it’s a close game) isn’t quite so simple any more. There’s a cringe factor, some guilt. The controlled violence of football is a big part of its appeal, but now we know that serious brain damage can occur as a result of the concussions suffered because of that violence.  And the evidence is piling up that playing pro football puts players at risk for early, disabling dementia and perhaps other kinds of neurocognitive deficits.

Autopsies of retired football players with those kinds of problems have found brain damage similar to that suffered by boxers. In boxers, the condition is called dementia pugilistica. The less formal (and unkind) way of putting it is to say they’re punch drunk. Researchers are using the term chronic traumatic encephalopathy for football players (and wrestlers), but both the injury to the brain and the symptoms appear to be similar.

Concussions in Instant Replay

The game tomorrow is between the Green Bay Packers and the Pittsburgh Steelers. Even people who don’t follow football may be aware of the team from northern Wisconsin and its coach in the early 1960s, Vince Lombardi. The Super Bowl trophy is named for Lombardi, and there’s currently a Broadway musical based on his life.

And one of the best—if not the best—first-person accounts of playing professional football came from Jerry Kramer, the right guard on many of those Lombardi teams. Kramer used a tape recorder to keep a diary during the 1967 season, which culminated in Green Bay’s winning the second Super Bowl (this year’s game will be the 45th).  A sports writer who went on to have a broadcasting career, Dick Schaap, helped Kramer shape his recordings into a best-selling book, Instant Replay. Right guards and other offensive lineman tend to labor in near total obscurity. But as luck would have it, Kramer earned his 15 minutes of fame, and then some, when he threw a block in the 1967 “Ice Bowl” championship game against the Dallas Cowboys that allowed the Green Bay quarterback, Bart Starr, to score the winning touchdown on a quarterback sneak as time was running out. The winning play and Kramer’s block were shown over and over again on television, thus the title of the book.

Instant Replay  holds up more than 40 years after it was published, and re-reading it is a nostalgic experience, the proverbial window into a simpler time.  The players aren’t rich: Kramer is paid $27,500 for the season, plus an extra $25,000 when the team wins the Super Bowl. They go hunting and bowling together. There are team sing-a-longs and volleyball games. Kramer paints a picture of deeply felt camaraderie and admiration for Lombardi, although part of what makes the book successful is that it’s not overly sentimental.

Concussions are mentioned several times. In a game against college all-stars, a Green Bay fullback gets hit, wobbles back to the huddle, and then  passes out. In the same game, Max McGee, the team’s fun-loving  wide receiver, is concussed and clings  to Kramer’s jersey to stay standing up:

He laid his head on my shoulder, looked up at me and kept saying, “I knock out. I knock out.” His bell had been rung, as we say, so we ushered him off the field.

Kramer mentions having had four or five concussions over his college (he played for the University of Idaho) and pro careers. During the 1967 season, Kramer got a concussion from being kneed in the head during the first half of a game against the Chicago Bears. Here’s an excerpt of his diary entry about that game:

I remember very little about the game. I have a vague recollection of half-time, of trying to get some plays straightened out. I couldn’t remember the plays. I mean I could remember the real old plays, the ones we’ve used for six, seven years, but the new plays, the ones we put in during the last two years, I just couldn’t remember. I drew a complete blank. I don’t even know how long I played today.

Talking to Jerry Kramer

A few days ago, we tracked down Kramer for a phone interview.  He’s 75, does speaking engagements, and is co-founder of an Arizona company that promotes ways to maximize a healthful lifespan.  He was open, talkative and down-to-earth: older,  yes,  but it was very much the animated, companionable voice of the Instant Replay diarist.

His mother and brother had Alzheimer’s disease, so Kramer said he is “acutely aware of the situation,” and the possibility of brain damage and dementia from multiple concussions. So far, though, he said, his recall is pretty solid. He can still summon up  passages from Thoreau, one of his favorite authors, and can recite the poem “Invictus.” In our conversation, he talked vividly about the scoring drive that led up to his famous Ice Bowl block. Sometimes there are momentary pauses in his thinking, but they don’t last long: “The computer is sometimes a bit slow, but it’s still working pretty good.”

Attitudes about concussions have changed completely since his playing days, said Kramer. “You just got dinged and dinged. That was old school.” If you got a concussion, he said, the answer to the trainer’s question about how many fingers he was holding up was always two, because the trainers would always hold up two fingers.

But blocking done by the offense line has also changed, Kramer explained. Offense lineman are now allowed to use their hands much more, so “it is much more of pushing contest.”  When he was playing, the linemen had to keep their hands clenched close to their chest or they would be penalized for illegal use of the hands. So Kramer and other linemen charged head-first into opponents, usually aiming for the chest but not avoiding helmet-to-helmet contact, either. In Instant Replay, Kramer describes his helmet as the best weapon he’s got.  

Leading with your head “was the best way to block” in his day, Kramer told us. “It was the best way to get the job done.” Yet interestingly, Kramer says that most of the concussions he suffered came from being kneed or kicked, not from head-first blocking.  

Kramer is very much in favor of the National Football League’s recent  efforts to limit concussions and some of the most violent helmet-to-helmet collisions. Today’s players are bigger and faster than they were when he was playing, he said: “Greater mass and greater velocity mean greater energy at the point of contact.”

And Kramer has seen what has happened to some his former teammates. 

McKee, who died four years ago from a fall off the roof of his home, was demented in his later years; someone had to watch Max if he came to Packer alumni events or autograph signings, Kramer said. His good friend and fellow lineman, Fuzzy Thurston, “struggles a bit.” Hall of Fame defensive back Willie Wood lives in a nursing home. There are others whom Kramer didn’t want to name. Kramer said that there has been some improvement in the pension and disability benefits for retired players, and he mentioned the special fund for demented players called the 88 plan.

He was planning on going to the game tomorrow and predicted it will be close. It’s a safe bet that Kramer will be rooting for the Packers. 

And all football fans should be rooting for rule and equipment changes that protect players from brain damage that causes dementia long after the games are over and our cheering has stopped.

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