Football: Helmet-to-helmet hits ain't nothing




This football season had plenty of talk about rules and concussions. It’s a serious issue: Plenty of quality NFL quarterbacks have had their careers cut short because of concussions, and even though “hard hits are part of the game,” after a weekend of brutal helmet-to-helmet hits on defenseless players this October, the mayhem had the football organization talking of cracking down on the foul, with talk of suspensions, ejections and even harsher punishments.

If some of this seems silly, it is. Football is a tough game, and people tune in with hopes of seeing Steeler James Harrison crush the heads of a couple Browns in one game. Heck, when Dunta Robinson was slammed by DeSean Jackson, you could hear the helmet crack on TV, the dramatic announcer crying out at the moment of impact. Footballers are our gladiators — hopefully, without the gore. Then again, when football gets bloody, that’s when the most sensible reforms are pushed through.

If this sounds like so much later-days speculating, as the season draws to a close, what got us thinking about it was reading Kate Buford’s excellent biography of sporting legend Jim Thorpe, Native American Son. Football or baseball, pentathlon or decathlon, the Indian-blooded Thorpe, known for his ability to mete out savage hits himself, was a colorful character who missed the sporting bonanza that started in the 1920s, and took a long, sad, boozy road down, briefly being hired by Harry Bennett’s goon squad at Ford’s Rouge complex before dying in a trailer park in 1953.

But not only is it the moving story of an early Olympic hero and mythical football great, it also chronicles how the rules of football changed in the 1900s and ’10s, becoming less a rugby scrum and more the game we know today. But what forced those changes? Mayhem. Bone-crushing, blood-spilling, back-breaking mayhem.

To get a handle on it is not to speak of hits or concussions but of crippling injuries and death on the gridiron. To quote Buford’s book (our emphasis added):

“Prompted by thirty-six fatalities during the 1909 season, new rules had been put in place in 1910 that laid the foundation of the modern game: four fifteen-minute quarters; seven men back again on the scrimmage line; substitutions allowed; elimination once and for all of mass rugbylike scrums pushing the ball carrier forward.”

Thirty-six freakin' fatalities? Looking back 100 years, that cheap hit on Todd Heap doesn’t look so bad anymore, does it?

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