Heroes and Helmets

Autumn’s guilty pleasure

By Bill Fields

I don’t usually get nervous before an interview, but a few years ago, when the subject was a childhood hero, I confess to having had the jitters.

A friend of Sonny Jurgensen kindly passed along his phone number so I could try to get him for a story I was writing about his youth in Wilmington years before he was a star quarterback in the National Football League. He was north of 80 by this point, the ginger hair long gone white; the golden arm that could zing passes to a receiver on a down-and-out better than anyone, alive only on NFL Films. Our call was brief and his answers perfunctory. Despite the disappointing substance of the conversation, I hung up pleased that I’d gotten to speak with Number 9 in burgundy, gold and white decades after his autographed photo hung on my bedroom wall.

He was why I drew plays in the dirt and threw passes at the trunk of a pine tree if no one was around. I wasn’t tough enough for football despite all the neighborhood prep; a year of Midget League was enough. But I care about football these days in part because — like many who grew up in pre-Panthers North Carolina — I cared so much about Sonny and his Washington teammates more than 50 years ago.

I still root for the team that Jurgensen led out of the huddle from 1964 to 1974. My alma mater, the University of North Carolina, is supposed to be strong this season. Maybe the Tar Heels will make it to the ACC title game and beat Clemson. My adopted college team, Ohio State, has enlivened my autumns since I became a fan thanks to my girlfriend, for whom Buckeye football is her only sporting interest. We went to a game in Columbus several years ago. Even though it was a cakewalk non-conference matchup, the stadium was filled on a beautiful Saturday afternoon, making it a day I won’t forget. The Saturday after Thanksgiving, thanks to the annual Michigan game, has become much more than another day in a long holiday weekend. What football fan doesn’t hope that the pandemic will have eased enough to allow the stands to look like they once did?

As another football season kicks off, though, the sport seems an increasingly guilty pleasure given the growing evidence of long-term damage from repeated hits to the head in a game in which the athletes seem bigger, stronger and faster every year. The NFL increasingly is in the same sentence with CTE, chronic traumatic encephalopathy, a progressive brain degeneration that can afflict those who play contact sports. Pro football players are handsomely paid in the current era — as opposed to the athletes competing long ago when many of us got hooked on watching them play — but the riches come with a potential cost much greater than arthritic joints in retirement.

It has always been a brutal game, but the CTE studies and evidence have quantified the brutality in ways impossible to ignore, and dementia hurried along by blows to the head is a much different outcome than seeing a man who used to sprint like a gazelle have trouble getting up a flight of stairs.

Like many others, I will still watch, grateful for the games in which nobody is seriously hurt. I hope the rules of the game continue to evolve so that they might lessen the potential for severe injury, that more athletes leave the game without suffering long-term effects from their careers.

This fall I will be thinking about another red-headed football player, my great-nephew, a senior at his North Carolina high school. He is an all-conference defensive end, a quick and strong teenager who loves his chosen sport despite the hand fractures he has sustained as a prep athlete. I hope he has a great season — and decides he’s had enough football.  PS

Southern Pines native Bill Fields, who writes about golf and other things, moved north in 1986 but hasn’t lost his accent.

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