Last month, I posted my shortest blog ever. Above a photo of a Parkinson’s-ravaged Muhammad Ali arriving for Joe Frazier’s funeral in Philadelphia, I wrote this line: Is it a good thing to have been “The Greatest of All Time?”
Three people commented and of those, two concluded unequivocally that, yes, it was worth it for Ali to have sacrificed the quality of his later life for the opportunity to be “The Greatest of All Time.”
I respectfully disagreed, saying that I had inherited from my parents, particularly my father, a more cautious approach to life. When my father would say things like, “Don’t throw rocks, it can put your eye out,” it stuck with me. Of course, I went on to do a lot of stupid things, but I still carried a healthy fear of what could happen when I did those stupid things.
Now, we’re in the era of “concussion awareness,” if you will, where a lot of journalists, particularly at The New York Times, are exploring the risks of long-term brain injury from participating in football and other violent sports, like ice hockey and boxing.
Yesterday, The Star ran in its sports section an Associated Press story about NFL players who said they either had hidden concussions or would do so, if they were able to avoid detection.
The story said: “In a series of interviews about head injuries with The Associated Press over the last two weeks, 23 of 44 NFL players…said they would try to conceal a possible concussion rather than pull themselves out of a game.”
Frankly, that astounded me. What it reaffirmed for me is that a lot of these players simply aren’t very smart.
Take, for example, Maurice Jones-Drew, a running back with the Jacksonville Jaguars. Listen to what he had to say on the subject:
“The bottom line is: You have to be able to put food on the table. No one’s going to sign or want a guy who can’t stay healthy. I know there will be a day when I’m going to have trouble walking. I realize that. But this is what I signed up for. Injuries are part of the game. If you don’t want to get hit, then you shouldn’t be playing.”
Consider a couple of things there.
A: You have to be able to put food on the table.
Here’s a 26-year-old guy who is about half way through a five-year, $31 million contract that carried a guaranteed signing bonus of $17.5 million. So, he has collected well over $20 million on that contract. Just how in the world, then, would he have trouble putting food on the table?
B: I know there will be a day when I’m going to have trouble walking. I realize that.
Do you think he really believes that? Hell, no. He probably thinks he’s going to be one of the lucky ones. I bet he envisions himself walking away unscathed and then going on to work as a coach or TV commentator.
Then there’s Peyton Manning, 35-year-old quarterback for the Indianapolis Colts.
He has had three neck operations in less than two years and has been out the entire 2011 season. Manning does not state unequivocally that he plans to come back next year, but he has made statements that indicate he will try to do so if doctors give him the OK.
At the same time, unlike Jones-Drew, Manning is giving plenty of thought to the risks of continuing to play.
“Ashley (his wife) and I have new twins…and it’s important for me to be in good health to play with them, to roll around on the floor and have some fun,” he was quoted as saying in an Associated Press story. “The football thing will answer itself in the next few months.”
I certainly hope he makes the right decision…which is clear, right? Hang up the cleats, the jock strap, the shoulder pads and walk out and don’t come back.
Manning, according to the Association Press story “has signed three contracts with the Colts worth a total of $236 million and earned millions more in endorsements.”
He has a Super Bowl victory (2007) under his belt and ranks third in career touchdown passes and passing yards.
I can understand how it might be difficult for top athletes in violent sports to walk away when they’re healthy, leaving others to bask under the arc lights, when they’re young and think their bodies can hold up to about anything.
But here’s the thing: Many people, as they get older and wiser, start thinking more about longevity and quality of life than leaving an indelible mark and making gobs of money.
Many years ago, not long after I had arrived in Kansas City, I heard a priest give a sermon in which he talked about a boy, 15 or 16, who was shot to death in a robbery while working at a veterinary office. The priest cited the case as an example of how we never know what the next day will bring, what might happen to us.
I’ll never forget the priest’s seminal words that day: “All we can do is live as well as we can for as long as it lasts.”
The older I get (if I make it to March 4, I’ll be 66), the more I understand the importance of making choices that yield the best chance of doing just that.
I think that wise priest’s words should be posted on the walls of every NFL and NHL locker room, in every boxing gymnasium and along pit road at every stock car and Indy car track. Maybe those words would penetrate some of the mostly thick skulls of those competitors and get them thinking farther out than the next game, the next match, the next race.