Because we know more today than we ever have, so many people who read about Gale Sayers and Dwight Clark over the weekend found themselves scrutinizing their stories of disease, pain and mortalityfor an answer to the obvious, inevitable question.
They found that Clark himself, and Sayers’ family, looked for the same answer. It’s the one people no longer are naive enough not to expect.
"Like the doctor at the Mayo Clinic said, 'Yes, a part of this has to be on football,'"Sayers’ wife Ardie told the Kansas City Star about the cause of the dementia that became public in a story late Saturday night.
"It wasn’t so much getting hit in the head … It’s just the shaking of the brain when they took him down with the force they play the game in."
Some 24 hours later, Clark got to that point midway through his open letter revealing his diagnosis with ALS, Lou Gehrig’s Disease.
"I’ve been asked if playing football caused this. I don’t know for sure. But I certainly suspect it did,"Clark wrote. "And I encourage the NFLPA and the NFL to continue working together in their efforts to make the game of football safer, especially as it relates to head trauma."
The awful price that football extracts just looms larger as the players paying it become sharper and more full-color in our memories. The number of players from Sayers’ era who are meeting this fate, and who can trace it to football, keeps growing, while their actual numbers are shrinking.
Fates, whichonce seemed justconsequences of age or bad luck or tragic personal problems, now are unveiled as connected to the sport they played for America’s entertainment.
Sayers is 73. Another Hall of Famer from his heyday, tight end John Mackey, lost his battle with dementia six years ago, at 69. Sayers’ story mimics Mackey’s in numerous disturbing ways: public appearances where he didn’t recognize friends or acknowledge fans or connect with highlights of his own career.
Besides Clark, at least two well-known NFL players since the turn of the century have publicly fought ALS — O.J. Brigance and Steve Gleason — but the possible connection to their playing is a very recent development.
In fact, as a third player diagnosed with ALS shows, the connection is downright complicated.
Kevin Turner challenged the NFL’s settlement of the class-action concussion lawsuit based on his post-career struggles. After he died a year ago this month, the renowned researchers at Boston University discoveredTurner actually had CTE, whichproduced symptoms almost identical to those associated with ALS.
Which makes the news about Clark a few degrees more chilling.
Turner was just 46. Gleason turned 40 on Sunday. Brigance is 47. Clips of their NFL exploits (including Gleason’s legendary punt block in the first post-Katrina Saints game in the Superdome) are available 24-7.
Nor do you have to be that old to have seen Clark, now 60, make “The Catch"for the 49ers 35 years ago. Or to have seen Mackey score a touchdown in Super Bowl V in 1972.
Or to have seen "Brian's Song,"in which, among other emotional themes, Sayers suffered what was once believed the worst consequence of playing football, wrecked knee ligaments.
For years, the sights of players limping at young ages, shaking hands with gnarled fingers or struggling to turn their necks from side to side werethe saddest sights fans could imagine.
They'renow being replaced by the effects of brains deteriorating and taking bodiesalong with them— sometimes violently, as the Junior Seaus, Dave Duersons and Andre Waterses haveshown.
It’s wreaking havoc through more and more generations of players, coming closer to even the youngest ones.
The time at which we see players being debated in free agency, even the draft, paying the price of playing this sportgets closer every day.