NFL must help prevent head trauma
More than 50 years later, it remains one of the NFL’s most iconic images.
One future Hall of Fame player stands over the prone body of another. Philadelphia Eagles linebacker Chuck Bednarik has his taped fist raised in celebration. New York Giants running back Frank Gifford lies motionless after a devastating hit and the ensuing concussion when his helmet crashed into the Yankee Stadium turf.
This was the signature moment in Bednarik’s stellar career. He has signed numerous autographs on photographs of the play that read, “This f—— game is over. Sorry Frank.”
So is Kim Wood.
Wood knows he could have done nothing to personally stop the blow that sidelined Gifford for two seasons. Rather, Wood wishes he would have viewed the picture from a different perspective while serving as the Cincinnati Bengals strength coach for 28 seasons.
Instead of only celebrating the collision as a prime example of tough-nosed football, Wood said he shouldn’t have turned a blind eye to the head trauma that Gifford suffered, like other ill-prepared players of his and future generations.
“I’m still for Charlie Bednarik hitting a guy like that,” Wood says. “But I’m for the Frank Giffords being better prepared to be hit like that.”
This was the main purpose of a Wood-sponsored symposium for more than 100 invitees last weekend in Cincinnati. The “Legends of Strength” featured such industry heavyweights as Wood, former University of Michigan strength coach Mike Gittleson and 27-year NFL veteran Dan Riley. They explained and demonstrated neck-training techniques — and the science behind them — to help prevent concussions or limit their severity. Five NFL teams (Cincinnati, Detroit, Minnesota, Baltimore and San Francisco) had representatives in attendance, as did numerous colleges and high schools.
Wood emphasized neck strength during his time with the Bengals from 1975 to 2002 as a way to help defuse concussive forces. But in retrospect, he would have tried to do even more to try and prevent an epidemic that is affecting football on all levels.
“I’m fessing up. I didn’t know the brain was as vulnerable as it is,” said Wood, who also was the co-founder of Hammer Strength weight equipment. “We’ve got to prepare people for the same type of hits that caused Frank to get leveled by Chuck.
“We’ve got all this information about kids and brain damage. But nobody is talking about any preventative measures.”
Wood is right. Faced with a growing problem after years of neglect, the NFL has become proactive about concussion treatment and the effects of head trauma on retired players.
The league recently changed its testing and rules to better detect concussions and prevent players from returning prematurely. It actively supports youth concussion legislation that is now approved in 21 states and pending in 13 others (plus the District of Columbia). The league provides grants for medical testing and, along with the NFL Players Association, has sponsored helmet research.
Further attempts to lessen the risk of cumulative head trauma from repeated blows will likely come through reduced practice mandates once a new labor pact is reached between the NFL and its players. The same goes for new equipment guidelines that may require the use of mouth guards as well as other padding.
But the NFL has fumbled when it comes to taking steps that may prevent concussions in the first place.
Neck training among NFL teams isn’t mandatory. Retired NFL journeyman tackle Adam Stenavich was stunned when such exercises weren’t part of the strength programs during his stints with Carolina, Green Bay and Dallas. They were when Stenavich was with Michigan and the Houston Texans under Gittleson and Riley, respectively.
Like fellow Michigan teammate and current Pittsburgh Steelers linebacker LaMarr Woodley, Stenavich attributes his concussion-free football career largely to neck training that provided additional physical support beyond a helmet and mouth guard.
“It’s weird with the different philosophies,” said Stenavich, who attended last weekend’s symposium as a Michigan graduate assistant coach. “If training your neck can prevent multiple concussions that can lead to a brain disorder, it’s stupid not to.”
Another disconnect exists between strength coaches and the NFL’s head, neck and spine committee. There are six “prevention” subcommittees, none of which include a strength coach to help offer suggestions.
Just as disturbing is the strength coach culture itself.
On many teams, the job has gradually changed since the boom of personal training programs in the 1990s. The quality and execution varied by teams, but the top priority of NFL strength coaches was assigning “football-specific” exercises designed to protect players from injury and produce on-field results.
In today’s NFL, many strength coaches are expected to adapt their programs around what the players want or risk getting fired.
“If all our focus is on performance and not prevention, we throw the sport in crisis,” said Mark Asanovich, a 14-year NFL strength coach who spoke at the Legends of Strength symposium. “That’s why we have the epidemic of concussions and escalation in injuries.
“When I first got in the league 16 years ago with Minnesota," Asanovich said, "if Cris Carter would have gone into Denny Green’s office and said, ‘My guru down in Florida has me doing this,’ Denny would have said, ‘With all due respect, players play and coaches coach. Now get the hell out of my office. We’re not going to do what you want, but we’re going to give you what you need.’
“Now because of the money and how things have evolved, unless you have a strong head coach, if a high-paid player says, ‘Listen, we’ve got to do this, this and this,’ guess who gets called down to the principal’s office? The strength coach. It’s, ‘We’ve got to appease (the player). Even if it’s going to hurt him, we’ve got to keep him happy.’ There is pressure to do that.”
Riley attributes some of the inmates-running-the-asylum mentality to outside trainers, especially those who brag of “innovative” techniques. Those programs may generate physical gains but are often not conducive to helping protect a player from injury or improving gridiron skills.
“There’s so much stuff out there that’s not evidence- or science-based,” Riley said. “The industry has become clouded. The more wacky (the training) is now, it seems the more people gravitate toward it.
“It makes it harder for strength coaches if they don’t have support from the head coach and players are allowed to go out and get their individual guy. That (trainer) will do whatever he has to do to keep the guy happy: Let him show up late, maybe not have to work hard. Some athletes are sold on the fluff that this is what made them successful. They can’t separate that this had nothing to do with being a successful player.”
The problems may become magnified once the lockout is lifted. Players were forced to train on their own this offseason rather than under team supervision. One NFL strength coach told FOXSports.com that he is not only concerned players won’t be “football ready” if/when the preseason does begin but head coaches may exacerbate injuries by pushing too hard during practice.
Asanovich has another concern.
“I guarantee you: (Players) are not out there training their necks in the performance centers,” he said.
Asanovich believes NFL commissioner Roger Goodell should mandate such training leaguewide. This would likely have a trickle-down effect to college programs and then youth leagues, where an increasing number of parents are not allowing their children to participate because of brain-damage concerns.
During his seminar, Gittleson offered a sobering reminder about potential liability for strength coaches in lawsuits from affected players who will claim negligence contributed to their post-football ailments. The first workman’s compensation lawsuit filed by an ex-NFL player (Ralph Wenzel) claiming football injuries caused dementia is pending in California court.
With an unfavorable outcome, the NFL could find itself susceptible to a slew of other related lawsuits. Although the NFL has deep pockets, other leagues and organizations — especially at the youth and high-school levels — may not be able to weather similar litigation.
That’s why Wood believes the sport must become even more proactive in trying to prevent head trauma before it happens.
“People are going to have to change their programs,” he said. “Otherwise, it could be the death of football.”
That would truly be “game over.”