WILLIAM “PUDGE” HEFFELFINGER was America’s first professional football player, paid $500 to man the line for the Allegheny Athletic Club in Pittsburgh’s Recreation Park. That game, played on November 12, 1892, was just a scrum in the mud, less sport than brawl. You took an elbow, spit some teeth, drove on. But who will be the last pro, the last man to stand in the locker-room line awaiting his greenies, Toradol, and shots of Novocain?
Not long ago, such a question would’ve marked me as a hysteric, but recent studies into the long-term effects of the game have given even the most stolid football fans pause. Professional football, the closest thing we have to a national pastime—the NFL brings in $9 billion a year—is on a kind of precipice, with stories about medical issues suddenly competing for newspaper inches with the games themselves. It’s a dangerous moment, peak oil time, when, in the nightmare scenario, revenues spike, spike again, then vanish. By now, even casual fans can name competitors felled by chronic traumatic encephalopathy, the Alzheimer’s-like disease that’s been found in athletes as young as 17: Mike Webster, the Hall of Fame Steelers center who spent his last years in a fog, living in his car; Andre Waters, the Eagles safety, who, like other NFL veterans, became confused in retirement, depressed, erratic. He shot himself in the head in 2006. Dave Duerson, the Bears safety who, reporting similar symptoms, shot himself in the chest in 2011. In his suicide note, Duerson said he wanted to preserve his brain for the brain bank at Boston University, where doctors have pioneered the study of chronic traumatic encephalopathy.
The worry is not just that people will stop watching the game—it’s that parents will stop letting their kids play, starving the league of talent. Speaking on “The Tonight Show,” Terry Bradshaw, the great Steelers quarterback, predicted the demise of football, saying if he had a son, he would not let him sign up. “The fear of them getting these head injuries,” he explained, “it’s just too great for me.” Something similar happened to boxing, which was once the biggest sport in the United States. But the country evolved away from the ring, until boxing became a mirror of its own saddest character, the nobody, the palooka, the bum.
I did not play tackle football and won’t let my sons play, in part because I fear my Grandma Esther was right: It will rattle your brains. But I love to watch, the nastier the better. It’s a guilty pleasure that ranks me with those hawks who dodged the draft a generation ago. I do play hockey, as do my sons, but hitting is not the aim of hockey—it’s a tactic. In football, the ball can seem incidental. I like it when you hit a guy just right ... shake him up so bad you see little snot bubbles, as Brian Bosworth said. The NFL can pass as many rules to protect players as it wants, but the blindside knockout will remain paramount. “We’ve proven we have this in teenagers who are getting this from high school football or youth football,” Chris Nowinski, the former Harvard football player who started working with the brain bank after suffering post-concussion syndrome, told me. “The day we can diagnose them while they’re alive will be a day we’ll have to ask the world, ‘What percentage of kids is allowable to have this disease from playing a sport?’ I challenge anyone to make that number higher than zero.”
As autumn approached, I decided to take a trip to pro football country, the cradle of the game, a stretch that begins west of Hershey Park, Pennsylvania, in Carlisle, where Jim Thorpe played college ball, and runs to Decatur, Illinois, where George Halas drilled his first squad, the house team of Staley starch, which would become the Chicago Bears. I’d become conflicted about my love of the game. My favorite team has long been the 1985 Bears, which featured the most brutal defense in NFL history. But as the findings have come in from Boston, my pleasure has kinked and complicated. By returning to the sport’s early, sacred sites, I hoped to reconnect with the mythic superstructure of the game, and test my faith in football.
STARTING IN CONNECTICUT, I followed Interstate 87 west across the Tappan Zee Bridge, then headed into New Jersey, Springsteen country, warehouses and weeds drifting across my windows. If you listen to early and then mid-Springsteen, you will notice how the amusement parks of youth turn into the factories where you spend the rest of your life; how, like a trick in an old movie, the Ferris wheel dissolves into “the machines and the spires,” the foundry’s fiery dynamo. You might imagine sports being developed on farms or in country towns, but pro football was popular in the big towns from the start, its field following the contours of two things that define modern life: the city block and the TV screen. Many of the first professionals were miners, mill towners, dead-end boys. Most began playing primitive variations of the game on abandoned plots, in the scrub grass between the factory sheds. Red Grange, who delivered ice in the summer, humping hundred-pound blocks up apartment house stairs in Wheaton, Illinois, said his first taste came with a Sharks and Minnows–like game, dodging tacklers in vacant lots, racing for the distant sidewalks. Whereas baseball is a collection of ancient customs, with a complicated evolutionary history, football must have started with two big kids seeing just who could push whom across the grass. (According to lore, the game began at England’s Rugby School in 1823, when a soccer player, frustrated by slow progress, picked up the ball and ran.)
The Pennsylvania Turnpike goes right by Carlisle, but the tollbooth operator had never heard of Jim Thorpe or the school he made famous early last century. Thorpe was 16 when he enrolled—it was called the Carlisle Indian Industrial School then, a Dickensian setup meant to prepare Native Americans for a life in the machine trades. It’s where Thorpe carried his first football, began to sprint, hurdle, throw the javelin. Many still consider him the best athlete the United States has ever produced. The school is a military base now. At the entrance to the gym, I stood before a statue of Thorpe, Greek in style, the athlete holding a discus as a lesser man might hold a remote control. He was ruddy, with pocked face and coarse hair, and a body that went to seed in his middle years, but pictures at Carlisle show him in his youth, dark-eyed and strong, seated with young Native Americans a generation removed from Sitting Bull.
The stadium where Thorpe played survives, a grassy field overlooked by a grandstand of the old looming variety—you half expect to see a tycoon in spats leading Little Lord Fauntleroy to seats by the rail. White men filled the bleachers on Saturday afternoons, excited to watch Indian teams fight, a spectacle that, a few decades before, could only be seen in a Wild West show or in an actual battle. Across from the field is a house identified as the former residence of Glenn “Pop” Warner, one of football’s founding fathers. Thorpe was the star of the first great pro team, the Canton Bulldogs; he was also the NFL’s original commissioner. He gave the league a uniquely American identity: Whereas baseball descended from fey British games like rounders, pro football began with a big Indian gamboling across a field, not unlike the fields of Little Bighorn. By enlisting Thorpe, the league linked its game to the Plains Indians and the Oklahoma Territory where Thorpe was born, the Frontier where Huck and Jim will always be free. The creators of the NFL were terrific mythmakers.
The violence of football was the violence of a new continent, its heroes defined by typically American characteristics: rugged, manly, tough; the good players ignore pain but the great ones like Thorpe thrive on it, even love it. He was a sad figure when he played for Canton, the gold medals he had won in Stockholm at the 1912 Olympics having been stripped by the Olympic Committee, which claimed that a summer of semipro baseball had invalidated his amateur status. He was drunk a lot of the time. In his later days, Thorpe, who worked as a bar-room bouncer, a ditch-digger, and an extra playing Indians in B-movies, was a premonition of all those broken gridiron heroes who could find no perch after their last down had been played. There has always been an implicit bargain for football players: they trade tomorrow for right now, handing their middle years over to their youthful selves to devour in the course of a few seasons. Thorpe represents both sides of this trade: the unstoppable power but also the broken down bear of a man who can kill you in his delirium without half trying. He is all the addled, Impala-driving heroes of the recent past who each day find it a little harder to remember exactly where to turn when it’s time to go home.
THE ROAD TO PITTSBURGH leads through tunnels and past towns, Appalachia, mountain hollers where the sons of miners have yet to hear of Halas’s modern T-Formation. The city appears all at once, revealed like the payoff of a magic trick, a scrim of bridges and buildings stained to a deep mottled rust. I spent an afternoon at the Heinz History Center, in a wing dedicated to the sporting history of Western Pennsylvania. The first room is centered by a life-size statue of Franco Harris, the Steelers running back, catching a ball deflected off a helmet. Harris ran it for a touchdown, leading his team to a playoff win over the Oakland Raiders in 1972, starting a run that did not end until the Steelers won four Super Bowls. Considered one of the greatest plays in NFL history, it’s known as “The Immaculate Reception,” the religious nature of the pun being no accident.
The first pro leagues began here, in sooty towns that stud bituminous mountains, first as a recreation for workers, a diversion between shift whistles, then as factory squads that became competitive to the point of cheating, which meant ringers playing under assumed names, paid under the table, until those teams outgrew the mills and the leagues were organized. The Packers, who joined the NFL in its second season, are now the last of the factory town teams, preserved as a reminder of origins. The league is not unlike Don Quixote, a book written as a parody of a library of romantic literature that’s ceased to exist. The books are gone, but the joke remains.
I made two stops on my way out of Pittsburgh. Beaver Falls, the birthplace of Joe Namath, and Aliquippa, the hometown of Mike Ditka. Johnny Unitas worked on a road crew there. It might be the bleakest place I’ve ever been. Once the booming home of J & L Steel, it began its decline when the mill closed in the 1980s. Just about every store on Main Street is boarded. The people who remain appear trapped. The high school is on a hill above town. The football field is in a valley below, ratty, rocky, surrounded by row houses built for workers who died a generation ago. In such places, it can seem people have just one thing to offer: their bodies, which they fed to the factories and feed to the game.
What happens to such a place when the world changes? When an economy, which had been about bodies and brains, gives way to an economy about brains alone? In Aliquippa, you realize that the violence of the sport is not something that evolved but was one point of the game from the beginning, the hitting being a cure for every kind of mood, the way, when you are so low you have to reach up to touch bottom, nothing beats getting drunk, going to town, and picking a fight with a man twice your size. For some, the pro football’s appeal is the aerial assault, the ballet of receivers getting both feet in bounds, but for many of us it’s the stone-age pleasure of watching large men battle to the point of exhaustion. In its best moments, the game captures what it’s like to be alive in a world filled with assholes, friends, and enemies, and some help you, and more hurt you, and there is a place for teamwork and intelligence, but the winner is usually the person who can stand the most and take it the longest and get back on his feet just once more than he’s been knocked down.
THE COUNTRY OPENS UP as you cross into Ohio, the gloomy mill towns giving way to corn and silos, farms that stretch to the horizon. The Pro Football Hall of Fame had my car in its tractor beam, was collecting me, pulling me in. Why Canton? Because that’s where the league was really formed, in the showroom of Ralph Hay’s Hupmobile dealership in 1920, the team owners, Halas among them, sitting on the running boards of the sedans. The exhibit begins with a statue of Thorpe, continues through displays of old equipment: cleats, jerseys, football pants, and, most tellingly, helmets, which evolved from none at all to leather, plastic, then whatever space-age material they’re made of now. Ironically, football may have gotten more dangerous as helmets have improved: in part because the helmet itself has become the game’s most devastating weapon, in part because a man who feels invulnerable plays with the kind of abandon that results in nicknames like “the human missile.”
Canton’s holy of holies is a dimly-lit circular room lined with busts of the anointed, starting with Sammy Baugh and Curly Lambeau and ending, for now, with Cortez Kennedy and Curtis Martin. I compare the mood in this room, where grown men, in their jerseys, wander among stone heads, somber, serious, even a little sad, to the mood at national memorials, the Lincoln Monument, say, where we bear witness to some crucial American moment. As I’ve hinted, football is a religion, a shared history of victories and defeats. It’s all some people care about. Perhaps the sadness in the Hall comes from the sense that even religions, especially pagan ones, can die.
When I called a few old-time gridiron men, they spoke of football as “already gone,” their sport having evolved from the ball control game of their youth into a kind of “basketball on grass.” The phrase “already gone” was striking, as it seemed to suggest not just changes in the game but the death of the hardscrabble towns that gave pro football its first ethos. These men were dismissive of new rules meant to protect quarterbacks and receivers. The crack-back block, the forearm shiver, the clothesline, the head-slap that sent stars turning not unpleasantly around your helmet: getting hurt’s always been a part of it, they explained. Have the injuries gotten so much worse? No one really knows because no one bothered to examine the veterans of the ’33 Giants or ’46 Bears or ’64 Packers who became bewildered or angry in retirement, or made a spectacle of themselves at alumni dinners. They did not count them because they did not know, and they did not know because they did not care: football was just another risky job in a nation filled with them, and a better, more interesting life than that of steel mill welder (Ditka’s father) or coal deliveryman (Unitas’s father). Danger was the not unreasonable cost of playing the game. Why do you think both sidelines go ghostly when a man stays down? Because each player knows it can all be over in a moment, not just the game, nor the season, but everything. It’s one of the truths that makes football more tense than other sports: The stakes are high and the pain is real; the only true thing on a TV schedule loaded with reality shows.
Talking to the old timers came as something of relief, for they approved of my love of big hits. I used to hope the Bears would lose the coin toss so their defense would come on first. I wanted to see the other team not just beaten but annihilated, their quarterback too intimidated to even look downfield. In your mind, the opposition becomes the enemy, and there’s nothing more satisfying than seeing your enemy humiliated. Yes, it’s just a game, but for the few hours it takes to play, it feels like justice. I was afraid this suggested a flaw in my character, a deficiency, but the old-timers reassured me. It doesn’t make you a psychopath, they said, it makes you a fan. Football is violent by design. It became a sensation because of television, yes, but also because it expressed certain truths about American life: the dangers of the mines and mills, dirt, struggle, blood, grime, the division of labor, the all-importance of the clock. But we’ve changed, which is why white middle- and upper-middle-class fans recoil at the cascade of injuries that can make ESPN resemble the surgery channel: not because football is different, nor because the injuries have gotten so much worse, but because we’ve become increasingly careful as our society has become increasingly safe; we’ve lost our tolerance for risk. Football is the perfect game for the country America used to be.
The sun was going down when I left the Hall. There was a gridiron near the entrance, the kind of field I would’ve quarterbacked all over when I was a kid, running my brother through the classic patterns: the buttonhook, the post, the down and in. And yes, there were kids out there in the gloaming, playing with the same wild, loose-limb joy I remembered from identical evenings 30 years back. I went over in the hope of talking my way into the game, and I walked slowly and just as deliberately as Johnny Unitas heading to the huddle, head down, going through each play in his mind, conjuring, as if by determination alone, that last winning drive. I realized that they were kicking a soccer ball.
Rich Cohen is the author of The Fish That Ate the Whale: The Life and Times of America’s Banana King. This article appeared in the October 4, 2012 issue of the magazine.