The NFL’s apparent long-term war against the truth regarding concussions has shed more light on the effects of America’s favorite sport, one that despite rule and equipment changes, will never see its inherent risks fully removed.
I was introduced to the perils of pro football in high school, when meeting Carl Barzilauskas, father of my Bloomington South teammate and Indiana Mr. Football Bo Barzilauskas.
Carl, a defensive tackle out of IU, was drafted by the New York Jets with the sixth pick of the 1974 draft. He was runner-up for NFL defensive rookie of the year behind Pittsburgh’s Jack Lambert and went on to play six seasons in the league before retiring due to neck problems.
I met Carl a decade after his football career ended, by which time the 6-foot-6 mountain of a man had gone from his playing weight of 275 pounds to somewhere around 400. His movements were laborious, and despite his jovial nature, you could feel his discomfort with each step he took.
My next real look into the physical toll of the NFL came 14 years later in 2005, when I started covering the Indianapolis Colts. Like most teams, the Colts have open locker room media availability on Wednesdays, and there, usually three days after their last game, you could see men in their 20s and early-30s moving like arthritic senior citizens.
All-Pro center Jeff Saturday stood out the most, as the anchor of the Colts’ line most visibly displayed the effects of the hand-to-hand combat that takes place in the trenches. Along with his own frequent mobility issues, Saturday once had the worst bruise I’ve ever seen on a human — a ghastly, deep-purple contusion the size of a softball on his bicep, which left your mouth agape because the color and dimensions seemed utterly impossible. Over my three seasons around the team, I saw him have many similar battle marks as well.
If you’ve seen Saturday lately, you know how seriously he’s taken trimming down after his playing days came to an end in January. The 6-foot-2, 38-year-old retiree has dropped well over 50 pounds from his playing weight of around 300, and no doubt feels better than he has since his early 20s.
Former linemen like Saturday often lose weight in retirement, as they find they can’t function with that level of mass once their physical training regimens lessen. On the other hand, many skill players and linebackers balloon up the minute they don’t have to worry about maintaining speed anymore.
Regardless of position, life after pro football is often more brutal than the gridiron for former players. Alcoholism and drug abuse are rampant, as many try anything to dull their physical pain or the agony of no longer being in the spotlight. Sadly, nearly 80 percent of all players end up bankrupt, divorced or both.
Yet despite the physical and emotional damage often caused by their careers, the vast majority of past players say they wouldn’t have changed a thing, that whatever time they had on the field was worth whatever the consequences might be.
In the end, that is why we love the NFL. They are modern-day gladiators, sacrificing their bodies for the honor of their cities (and a big paycheck). Some are here and gone quickly (say, Bob Sanders), while others (like Saturday) bring their fire to the field and gracious personality to their community for lengthy periods of time. They are like comic book heroes, who put on their cape on Sundays.
Unfortunately, comic book characters aren’t real, and the misery that often follows an NFL career is.
— Brent Glasgow is a sports writer for the Hendricks County Flyer and the Westside Flyer. He may be reached by e-mailing to firstname.lastname@example.org or by calling 272-5800 ext. 190.