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This is an excerpt from Salon contributor Irvin Muchnick's "Without Helmets or Shoulder Pads: The American Way of Death in Football Conditioning," just published by ECW Press. Portions of the book have appeared previously in different form at Salon: reporting on the University of California's cover-up of the 2014 death of Ted Agu, and analysis of the on-field near-death of Damar Hamlin and its aftermath.
In his song "American Pie," Don McLean pinpoints "the day the music died": Feb. 3, 1959, when four early rock and roll luminaries went down together in a plane crash. In my own low-profile journey writing about football, it became no longer possible to consume the sport without a core cringe subsequent to Oct. 22, 1989. That was the day I attended a game between the San Francisco 49ers and the New England Patriots at Stanford Stadium outside Palo Alto, California.
The backstory involves what I was doing there and why the game wasn't being played, per normal scheduling, at Candlestick Park in San Francisco. I was following Joe Montana, the 49ers' quarterback, for a cover story for the New York Times Magazine. And the Loma Prieta earthquake, five days earlier, had forced Candlestick to be closed for repairs and the game to be relocated 30 miles south of its original planned site.
Though eventful for my career, the game itself was a trivial checked box on the football calendar. Under first-year head coach George Seifert, the juggernaut 49ers were en route to their second consecutive Super Bowl championship and fourth in nine years. Montana was in the midst of arguably the finest season of his Hall of Fame career. In the second quarter, he injured a knee on a hit in the pocket and was carted off. Backup Steve Young replaced him for the remainder of the game. (My main concern at the time was whether Montana had suffered a serious injury that would put him out of action for a lengthy period, jeopardizing my Times Magazine article. Turned out he was OK.) The 49ers pulled away in the second half, winning by a final score of 37-20.
I was unnerved by two sights.
The first was a play early in the game when a 49ers' safety, a hard-hitting Texan named Jeff Fuller, took down Patriots' running back John Stephens. Fuller either used poor tackling technique by leading with his head instead of his shoulder — or, as participants and observers have come to articulate to a fare-thee-well, the speed and territorial demands of this sport simply don't allow the time for textbook form on every play, at least not if you want to succeed. In any event, the two players' helmets collided head-on. In the kind of aftermath serially captured in the 1975 dystopian movie "Rollerball," Fuller was the one who didn't get up.
Bill Walsh, the 49ers' recently retired legendary coach, was doing commentary that day on the game's NBC broadcast. After viewing the replay, Walsh assessed the Fuller injury for the audience: "He's concussed."
Fuller was not concussed; he was partially paralyzed. Eventually most of the feeling in his body was restored, but he'd never play another down of football, nor ever again have full civilian use of his right arm. In the Stanford Stadium press box, I was sitting next to Dave Anderson, the Times' Pulitzer Prize-winning columnist. Anderson borrowed my media guide so he could crib information about Fuller for a short side news article about football's latest casualty, to supplement his regular column sizing up the 49ers' steamroller progression to another championship.
The second disturbing sight related to the game's changed venue. On the fly, the 49ers' media relations staff had needed to redesign procedures, since the Stanford accommodations were different than those of Candlestick, and in particular the distance between the press box and the locker rooms was considerably greater. They decided to herd all the print media writers down from the press box and deposit them along the 49ers sideline with about five minutes left in the fourth quarter. This set us up for a quicker hop to the locker rooms for timely postgame interviews.
Had this been a basketball game, we would have labeled what I proceeded to witness at close range "garbage time" in a blowout. The outcome hadn't been in doubt for some time. In football, however, there's no such thing as garbage time; there's no playing at half-speed, even after the rout is on, since almost every block and tackle, by definition, has a baseline of violent contact, often from a peculiar angle. Moreover, regardless of the score, the first-string players almost always remain on the field. From the standpoint of those manning the offensive side's "skill positions" in particular — quarterback, running backs, pass receivers — their counting stats of yards gained on the ground or through the air still matter, and the ratios of targets, completions and interceptions could still impact all-star team selections and the next contract negotiations. There's no incentive to hold back, regardless of the score. Indeed, according to the creed of these athletes, easing up can be the most dangerous formula of all for injury as well — relaxing best practices might confuse muscle memory and leave you more vulnerable rather than less.
I'd seen NFL practices from sideline proximity on many occasions. I also had viewed football game action from this perspective, not merely through an antiseptic television lens or a remote seat, though at no higher than the high school level. This time, for some reason, watching the inexorable, primitive cycle of the gridiron play out in the meaningless last minutes of a one-sided game — snap the ball; the equivalent of half a dozen car crashes in a few seconds; huddle up and do it again — bothered me. The capper came when the 49ers' running back Roger Craig swept around left end and into the usual chaotic pile out of bounds. This scrap heap of hulking male humanity landed perhaps seven feet away from me, and I wasn't in danger of being plowed over myself, as sideline photographers sometimes are. Still, the robotic pornography of the violence was unsettling in a way that, as a fan or journalist, I'd never before processed quite so intimately.
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When the game ended, I did the sportswriter thing, meandering through the 49ers locker room, chatting with various players, looking for Joe Montana. (He was not around, having been carted off hours earlier for X-rays to confirm that no knee ligament was unduly stretched, no cartilage too severely torn, no meniscus irreversibly mangled.)
A tap on my shoulder and there was Mike Holmgren (later the Super Bowl-winning head coach for Brett Favre's Green Bay Packers) saying hello. My Montana story for the Times Magazine would be a breakdown of the craft of the quarterback position, not a conventional profile, and Holmgren, the 49ers' offensive coordinator, had given me more than an hour of his time a week earlier, on a morning before the start of practice in Santa Clara, to explain in detail just what it was about Montana's footwork, mechanics and other attributes that stamped him as state of the art.
Shaking my head, I said to Holmgren, "That Jeff Fuller play — that was scary."
Holmgren replied, "They're all scary."
More than three decades later, that day continues to inform my views of where football is headed, whether quickly or slowly.