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Bob Angelo

Thoughts On The Game
  • Writer's pictureBob Angelo

The Tragedy of Damar Hamlin

To say that “football is only a game” demeans the persons who play it and coach it professionally.

Bottom line: it’s a contact sport. Those of us who’ve played learn early on that the game is rough. Even in Pop Warner, kids jam fingers, sprain ankles, hyperextend joints, and suffer concussions.

That’s why parents sign releases.

In high school, the casualties mount. The college game is even faster and more prone to injuries.

On Monday Night Football (Jan. 2nd), Buffalo Bills safety Damar Hamlin tackled a Cincinnati Bengals receiver, rose slowly to his feet, then collapsed into cardiac arrest. Teammates and opponents wept as they watched CPR being administered on the field. ESPN’s broadcast team ran out of referential things to say.

Nobody had ever seen anything like this before at an NFL game.

As my wife and I watched, I found an internet article on former Detroit Lions wide receiver Chuck Hughes. In 1971 in Tiger Stadium, Hughes ran a decoy pass route away from the intended receiver. On his return to the huddle, Hughes tumbled to the turf and began to convulse. An NFL Films cameraman shot medical personnel pounding on Hughes’ chest.

He was pronounced dead later that afternoon.

A postmortem on Hughes revealed undiagnosed advanced arteriosclerosis. In short, he was a tragic accident looking for a place to happen. But what about a 24-year-old Pittsburgh kid presumably in perfect health? Who catches the blame this time?

As I write this, Damar Hamlin remains hospitalized in critical condition. A half century has passed since one man died and another man required resuscitation to survive an NFL game. Shall I cavalierly declare, “It’s been awhile, it was bound to happen again?” I think not, although I am surprised it hasn’t.

Years ago, I produced a video called: The NFL Jar ‘em and Daze ‘em Circus, a 12-minute tribute to big hits, blindside sacks, and NFL players colliding violently with each other, not to mention crashing into walls, falling into sideline ditches, and, in a rare image, running headlong into a sideline hard-mounted television camera.

NFL commissioner Pete Rozelle banned it from ever being see in this country.

A decade or so later, Rozelle’s successor Paul Tagliabue asked for input on the modern game. I handed Steve Sabol a note that said, “It’s a gladiator sport that’s not designed for knees and necks.”

I know, I witnessed grown men colliding with one another in person on the ground at more than 850 NFL games. I also pointed out that players don’t do what they do for free.

The league has tried to make the game safer for its players.

But these guys aren’t playing two-hand touch or flag football out there.

Grown men come together each summer then emerge from pre-season prepared to do battle.

The bonds they build and share justify the risks they take. When these bonds evaporate, so does morale and the will to win. Head coaches soon follow.

NFL Football is a prized profession with a huge and loyal following. Players are rewarded handsomely for their efforts. The minimum salary for an “active” NFL rookie is $705,000. The NFL average player salary exceeds $2 million. Players know what they’re getting into, and they no longer need their parents’ signatures.

But when casualties occur, America is reminded of the peril players face each and every time they suit up. The tears that Damar Hamlin’s tragic event elicited on the field in Cincinnati and in living rooms nationwide reminded me of a Steve Sabol production from the 1960’s called “More Than A Game."

Indeed it is.

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