As Martin Bayless and I stood in the end zone at Welcome Stadium Sunday during his annual free football camp for kids in the Miami Valley, he went through a partial list of the well-known NFL players who had come to Dayton over the years to help with the instruction and that’s when one thing stood out.
Actually, it was glaring.
“The late Hall of Famer Reggie White was here and so was another late Hall of Famer Derrick Thomas,” he said. “We had the late Junior Seau, Bruce Smith, Jim Kelly, the late Andre Waters, the late Todd Bell, Randall Cunningham, Boomer Esiason, Andre Reed, Broderick Thomas, the late Jerome Brown …”
A lot of those guys were gone now.
Six of the 12 he named all had died young.
I asked him if he had thought about what he just said: All those big strong guys dying early.
He thought about that for a few seconds without saying a word, then offered: “That’s a touching issue. They were friends, teammates, competitors. And they all came to Dayton — a town none of them was from — just to help the kids. We inducted them into our own Hall of Fame last year.”
I pressed him on why so many NFL players die young.
“With these guys there are different causes,” he said. “Some deaths were football related, some were not. You can’t make a sweeping generalization.”
- REGGIE WHITE , the great defensive lineman, played 15 years in the NFL for Philadelphia, Green Bay and Carolina, made 13 Pro Bowls and died in 2004 of a cardiac arrhythmia. He was 43.
- TODD BELL , the defensive safety out of Middletown High and Ohio State, played nine years in the league for Chicago and Philadelphia and was elected to a Pro Bowl. He died of a fatal heart attack. He was 46.
- DERRICK THOMAS, one of the most philanthropic pro players there was, spent all 10 of his years in the NFL as a Kansas City Chiefs linebacker. He made the Pro Bowl nine times. He died following injuries suffered in a 2000 car crash. He was 33.
- JUNIOR SEAU, another sure Hall of Famer when he is eligible in 2015, played in the league 20 years for San Diego, Miami and New England and made 12 Pro Bowls. Doctors found he suffered chronic brain damage during those two decades of big hits on the field and he committed suicide last year. He was 43.
- JEROME BROWN, the ever-affable defensive tackle of the Philadelphia Eagles, played five years in the league and made two Pro Bowls. He died in a car crash in 1992. He was 27.
- ANDRE WATERS, one of the hardest-hitting defensive backs to ever play the game, was in the league 12 years with Philadelphia and Arizona and was selected an All Pro in 1991. Neuropathologists found his brain — likely because of all the concussions he suffered while playing — had degenerated into that of a guy almost 90. He committed suicide in 2006. He was 44.
There is no denying the constant, high-impact hits of pro football take a toll on players. And no one knows that better than the 50-year-old Bayless.
After Belmont High and Bowling Green, he played 14 seasons in the NFL for five teams. Since then he has been associated with the league for nearly 14 years more as a coach, front office person and now working for the NFL Players Association.
A Washington D.C., based regional director for the union, he has eight teams specifically under his wing: the New York Giants, New York Jets, Philadelphia Eagles, Indianapolis Colts, Minnesota Vikings, Denver Broncos, Arizona Cardinals and San Diego Chargers.
He’s on the union’s health and safety committee and among other things he deals with teams’ adherence to practice rules — as far as when players can hit in the offseason and when they cannot — injury grievances and the issue of injured players being cut prematurely.
All those issues relate to the toll the game takes on players’ bodies.
And yet Bayless bemoaned the fact that players today “now get fined $75,000 for hits.” He added, “I wouldn’t make a check if I played today, because of the hits I delivered. It was no different than other guys. It’s a part of the game and you can’t take that away.”
But he did admit that “there’s no question” that constant football collisions impact players’ lives.
“During my career I suffered at least 12 concussions that I know of,” he said. “But the thing of the past was that you made yourself get up and if you couldn’t remember where you were or had blurred vision — if you couldn’t remember the plays — you took a deep breath and got back in the huddle and tried to get through it.
“My mental health and physical health have not really deteriorated right now, but you don’t have any control of that. I know I’ll have dementia down the way. I’m already forgetting things I shouldn’t.
“But then I played pro football for 14 years. It’s a violent game. You’ve got the biggest, fastest and strongest men in the world running into each other. And when you really hit another guy, everyone cheers you like you’re a Roman gladiator.”
And too often they mourn you soon after.