Lately there has been a good deal of discussion about the risks that football players run from concussions. The debate has been vociferougous, I mean vigorous and vociferous.
Just this morning my local paper ran a story saying that schoolboy football teams in our area will now be subject to limits on head-to-head contact in practice.
All I have to say is . . . uh . . . I mean . . . what I started to say was–what’s the big deal? Are we becoming a nation of softies, unlike Gerald Ford and myself? What do Ford and I have in common, you ask? Yes you did–I heard you, above all the other voices. We have two things in common: one, neither one of us was elected to the office of President–you can look it up–and two, both of us played football without a helmet.
When I was young if a boy wore a football helmet to a pick-up football game it was viewed as a hopeless affectation, the equivalent of a pocket scarf or an ascot. The use of protective headgear marked one as a sissy, or presumptuous; one earned a football helmet by making the team. To wear a helmet in a game when no one else had one would have marked you as a mama’s boy, a Little Lord Fauntleroy, a snob. A helmet would have been taken as a silent claim that your noggin was destined for greatness, while everyone else in the huddle would end up as your vassal.
By the time I reached high school, playing without–I mean with–a concussion was sort of a primitive rite of passage among high school football players, like psychedelic drugs for the jock set. It was said of one particularly tough lineman named Joe that he played the entire second half of a game against Mexico (a town in Missouri, not the country) with a concussion, lined up against an all-conference guard. That, my friends, is toughness. I should add that Joe went on to expose himself to the counter help at our local Dairy Queen, but as the professors like to say, that’s neither here nor there. As a matter of fact, I’m not sure where it is.
Ford’s days as a helmetless football player were duly noted by President Lyndon Baines Johnson, whose name itself is a sort of concussion litmus test–try saying it five times fast after your clock has been cleaned by a safety as you ran a crossing pattern through the secondary. See? I didn’t think you could. When Ford made a speech to the House of Representatives in 1966 questionning whether Johnson had a clear plan to bring the Vietnam War to conclusion, Johnson responded in the rough and tumble fashion that he had learned in Texas politics. Ford, said Johnson, “is a nice fellow but he spent too much time playing football without a helmet.”
Of course, history would prove Ford right, but Johnson developed a burr under his saddle about the Michigan Republican. “Jerry Ford is so dumb he can’t fart and chew gum at the same time,” Johnson told reporters. The White House press corps in that more innocent era sanitized this comment by substituting “walk” for “fart.” At least Johnson didn’t go as far as he was capable of; he once said, apropos of politically-motivated charges, “I would never accuse my opponent of having sex with a goat, but I’d love to hear him deny it.” Now that would have been a presidential press conference worth watching.
Henry Downes Miles, an 18th century boxing writer, once described the effect of a concussion on an athlete as causing him (or her) to continue by instinct instead of intelligence. Ford went on to earn a reputation as a bumbler, claiming in a 1976 presidential debate against Jimmy Carter that Poland was independent and autonomous from the Soviet Union. In fairness to Ford, a lot of people–granted, not presidential candidates–would have muffed that question. Even today, there are people who can’t answer it while wearing helmets!
There are time-honored tests for telling whether a football player has suffered from a concussion, all of which are now being tossed onto the compost heap of history. Coaches used to ask you three questions to see if you were still compos mentis. Boys being boys, there was a tendency to cheat in order to stay in the game so you could get your letter and impress Cindy Feltenspiel, whose breasts had developed faster than her brains. If you got hold of the test questions in advance, you could study them and fake your way around a concussion as follows:
COACH: Who’s the President?
COACH: What team are we playing?
PLAYER: Lyndon Baines Johnson.
COACH: What day of the week is it?
PLAYER: The Knob Noster Panthers.
COACH: He’s fine–send him back in.
But I digress, as former helmetless football players are wont to do. Perhaps I’m bitter, because the one time I got a football helmet before I made my eighth grade team it was given to me by one of my dad’s Army buddies, who had gone off to start a business and made millions in shoelace nibs or some other forgotten corner of American industry. For reasons that were never clear to me, my dad didn’t let me keep it, thereby setting in motion the chain of events that ends with the post you are reading now, which I’ll wrap up as soon as I can remember what the subject was.
Something about goats having sex, right?