Foot Soldiers of a Different Sort

The TV types back home have been wearing poppies for a week now, and the day of remembrance has arrived. On another front of stylized war, the sporting airwaves have been spiked with tales of a truly offensive lineman for the Miami Dolphins and the out-of-bounds brutality he is said to have inflicted on his team-mate. There is much hand-wringing from the shocked public, which is countered by furious defence by insiders, arguing that civilians – and I use the word purposely – cannot know the ferociously masculinized world-of-the-wars that is an NFL locker-room. For today, I will only say that Mr. Incognito (that’s actually his name) “did not act alone”, and cite a superbly indignant piece on the “warrior culture” and its insistence that Being a Man involve sometimes being less than human. Now, it’s two other offensive lineman – the grunts, the hewers of wood and haulers of water, the spear-carriers of this quite incredible game/industry of football – that I want to mention, for an entirely different reason: they’re done with it, gone too soon as some fans might lament.

I read about them the same day. One was an NFL pro, one a wannabe in the high echelons of the NCAA “student athlete” zone of professional apprenticeship. Josh Williford played for Louisiana State University, a usual top-ten program in the best league in America. He’s 6’7” and weighs way north of 300 pounds, and in a game in October of 2012, he lost his mind.

Cuts heal, but we’re not so sure about concussions. I’ve been there — different field, same blankness — more than once. Man down, way down.

Well, consciousness, anyway, after a blow to the head that left him face down on the grass for scary moments, and then unable to drive or attend classes for a month or to suit up for the season’s last seven battles. By spring football, he had won back his job as the Tigers’ starting left guard. In August, Goliath fell again, and this time the headaches, the disorientation, and the inability to do the simplest things painted a clear picture. He knew, in a way that most athletes just don’t, and can’t acknowledge. It’s over. I was struck by how the Dennis Dodd article ended. Williford said, “I played a lot of football and had a great career. You don’t want football to be the last thing you do in life.”

John Moffitt was the pro, and at about the middle of his third NFL season, playing off-and-on for the Super Bowl-contending Denver Broncos, he has just walked away. The retirement of substitute spear-carriers wouldn’t normally come to anybody’s attention, except for the roaring insatiability of the 24-7 sports news cycle and the strangeness of a guy bailing in mid-stream like that. (Man, why wouldn’t you just hang around? Go to the Super Bowl? Cash that cheque?) Yes, and leaving about a million contracted dollars behind him, such are the economies of American sport. (Did I make a million bucks in my 24 years of teaching? Maybe just.) Unlike his college counterpart, there is no direct mention of head trauma, though no doubt lots of people think he’s a nutcase. I found his comments shockingly but quietly sane. Refreshingly sane. He used that gosh-darned nearly unpatriotic word “enough”, though, and more than once.

Blocking off the inevitable mutterings of his craziness, Moffitt told CBS Sports, “It’s really madness to risk your body, risk your well-being and risk your happiness for money.” Unimaginable as this may be for couch-bound lovers of the NFL dream, the man just wasn’t happy anymore. “I don’t need the Super Bowl experience. I played in great stadiums and I played against great players. And I had that experience and it’s enough.” [Blasphemy!] Then he turned to the question of money, and good gracious, he used the e-word again, in a series of questions and answers that don’t deserve to be confined to the sports section. “How much do you really need? What do you want in life? And I decided that I don’t really need to be a millionaire….I just want to be happy, and I find that people that have the least in life are sometimes the happiest. And I don’t have the least in life. I have enough in life. And I won’t sacrifice my health for that.” [Heresy! The witch must die!]

O-line guys, the Richie Incognito case notwithstanding, often have the reputation of being the brightest guys on a football team, despite their willingness to have their bells rung and their joints ravaged to clear the road for the running and pitching stars of their teams. They are the ultimate Team Guys, which makes the self-preserving, intelligent words of these two ex-combatants all the more remarkable. Enough was enough.

Comment (1)

  1. Sherri Yazdani

    Just caught this one 🙂 It left me with good feelings for lots of different reasons. Did I ever tell you Parisa played o-line?! Gotta love o-linemen! (and women) Thoughtful piece.

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