By Ben McGrath
The violence of football has always been a matter of concern and the sport has seen periodic attempts at safety and reform. But recent neurological findings have uncovered risks that are more insidious. Credit Photograph by (CLOCKWISE): Tannen Maury / epa / Corbis; John G. Zimmerman / SI / Getty; Fred Vuich / SI / Getty; Walter Iooss, Jr. / SI / Getty; David Drapkin / Getty; Morris Berman / Getty
I still remember my first football game. It was 1983. I was six. My father took me to our local high school, in northern New Jersey, and we sat on the home team’s side, but it wasn’t long before my allegiance began to waver. The opponents, from a town called Passaic, were clearly superior—or, rather, they had a superior player whose simple talents were easy to identify in a game so complex and jumbled-seeming that even lifelong fans do not fully understand it. He wasn’t the biggest person on the field, and probably not the fastest, but he was strangely fast for a big person and unusually big for a fast person. He played both sides of the ball: running back and linebacker. He was also the kicker, and he returned punts. In my memory, he scored a touchdown, kicked a field goal, and sacked the quarterback for a safety. 12–0. As my father and I searched for his name in the program, a man seated a couple of rows in front of us spun around and said, “They call him Ironhead.” I was smitten.
“He would lower his head into opponents’ stomachs, and one opponent said it hurt so much
that Heyward’s head had to be made of iron”: that explanation for the name that made him my favorite player appeared in Heyward’s obituary in the Times. in 2006. The anecdote referred to his habit while playing “street football,” without a helmet, as a “wayward” boy in Passaic. He was only thirty-nine when he died, from a brain tumor. Even the hardest of heads is vulnerable to disease. I’ve never read or heard any suggestions that the cancer was related to Heyward’s football career, but when the executives at the N.F.L.’s headquarters, in Manhattan, talk about “changing the culture” of the sport, as they have been doing with increasing urgency in the past few months, in response to growing public concern over concussions, the use of the head as a battering ram, with or without a helmet, is near the top of the list of things they’d like to disown.
Colonel Geoffrey Ling, a neurologist with the Defense Department, had come to the InterContinental to share some of the government’s research with the N.F.L.’s medical brain trust. (Concussions among the men and women returning from Iraq and Afghanistan, one doctor told me, could be “the next Agent Orange.”) “If you look historically, what really hurts our soldiers from blasts is artillery shells, mortar shells,” Ling said. “The combat helmet was designed particularly for mitigation of fragments. It does have some ballistic protection. You could shoot at the thing point blank with a 9-millimetre pistol, and you won’t penetrate it. That’s pretty doggone good. I’m surprised New York City policemen aren’t wearing the doggone thing. But, like, I wouldn’t play football with the thing. It ain’t that good.”