If I knew then what I know now: Confessions of a maverick pro quarterback

A pro quarterback’s confession

9 minute read
With the Eagles, circa 1975: Is that determinaton in my eyes, or sheer terror?
With the Eagles, circa 1975: Is that determinaton in my eyes, or sheer terror?
My name? What's a name? What are you talking about? And why am I crying so hard? And who am I? What am I doing here? Where am I?

To a football player, a concussion kind of feels like the end of a bad dream. You're kind of dreaming, but you're also kind of awake.

Fortunately for me, whenever I suffered a concussion I would start crying like a baby and I would scare the death out of all the coaches, doctors and trainers, so they wouldn't let me play again for at least a week. Typically I would black out for about 15 minutes, and then I would wake up crying on the bench.

Back in the '70s, when I was playing for the Philadelphia Eagles, they called a concussion "getting dinged." It was no big deal.

Awaiting the ambulance

Football is a zero sum game, just like war. The basic strategies are the same. Every game produces casualties. And every player hopes to just make it in one piece to the next game and avoid the inevitable succession of broken necks, broken legs or running backs lying motionless on the field after being knocked unconscious, waiting for the stretcher to take them to the ambulance and then to the emergency room for tests.

One time in the '70s, I threw a touchdown pass while I was blacked out. It was really weird afterward, in the film studies, to watch a ten-play drive that I had absolutely no recollection of at all. No memory of it at all.

The linebackers were often able to recover from a concussion in about ten minutes and return to the game. Thank God I would start bawling, because the studies now show that the most dangerous and damaging concussions are those that occur close to each other.

Football etiquette

Oh, by the way— in case you know any pro football players: It's impolite to ask, "How many concussions have you experienced?" When players get together and talk, we never ask each other how many concussions we've suffered. We all know we've all experienced concussions, so usually we just don't bring the subject up.

But if you were wondering, the National Football League average is three per player. More than 4,000 former players have sued the NFL on the concussion issue in a class action lawsuit. Some 145 former Eagles players are plaintiffs in the suit. I'm not involved. But most of the guys I know are.

After my third and last concussion, I started to ask myself: How did I get here? Where did I go wrong?

Mom's misgivings

I started playing quarterback in the fall of third grade in Colorado. Little did I know that I would play quarterback every fall for the next 19 years. I really liked football. It's a very difficult sport; it was always a challenge for me, and I loved playing quarterback. I love throwing the football. Throwing a tight spiral is the most beautiful thing in the world.

But my mom never really wanted me to play. She was a nurse and thought it was too dangerous. Even in high school she was never able to sit in the stands and watch me play. Especially when everyone was chanting, "Kill Boryla." That was the game when they broke my nose and I had to have it operated on later that week.

I was an All-America quarterback at Stanford. But in my junior year I also found the Gospel. My favorite verses are, "Be still and know that I am God" and "Be in this world but not of it." That's how I made it through pro football— studying the Bible alone by myself while my teammates were out partying.

Welcome to Philadelphia

In 1974 the Eagles traded their first- and sixth-round draft picks for me, and before I knew it, I was headed to the Land of Cheesesteaks. I had never seen the Eagles play a football game. I didn't even know what their uniforms looked like.

There I was, a long-haired hippie quarterback feeling like I'd stumbled into a Godfather movie set, where everybody looked like they were with the Mafia. Even Frank Rizzo, the mayor, looked to me like a Mafia hit man. I was terrified I'd get whacked before I even got on the field. And as a skinny quarterback, I was afraid of everyone on the field, too— except, of course, the kickers.

The FBI intervenes

My rookie year, during our first big game against Dallas, my friend Marion Reeves made a big mistake: He fumbled the ball on our own ten-yard line in the fourth quarter. The tide of the game turned on that play, and we lost by three points.

When we returned to Philadelphia, the FBI met our plane in the middle of the tarmac. We knew the FBI agents because they had spoken to us during training camp about the huge Mafia presence in Philadelphia and how many millions of dollars were bet on every Eagles game.

Now the agents explained to Marion that they were moving him to an undisclosed location for a week. The FBI was nice enough to put an armed guard around Marion's house, too.

I must have had that "deer in the headlights" look that I used to have when I was scared. Dick LeBeau, the special teams coach, just looked at me and said, "Welcome to the NFL, son."

Impacting the crime rate

I started the last three games of that season, and we actually won all three— the first time in NFL history that a rookie quarterback started and won three games in a row. At the end of the season, coach Mike McCormick showed me the front page of the Philadelphia Inquirer. The headline said that the crime rate had dropped dramatically in Philadelphia because the Eagles had won three in a row.

"Can you believe this?" he said, and he just started laughing.

In 1977, when I became a free agent, I signed a four-year contract, payable over 15 years. I had never seen so much money before. I had never seen so many zeros on a contract. And I hated it.

If I played out this contract, I would never ever have to work again. But I was having nightmares.

Poise above all

The NFL teams always tried to convince the players that none of them could make it on their own. They wanted the players to think that their only chance to succeed in life was NFL football. So you needed to play until you dropped.

The coaches always told me to keep my poise, no matter what happened. I had to go into the huddle with confidence and call the play with confidence. That was not easy when my back had just been crushed from a vicious sack or my arm had been drained by a six-inch hypodermic needle at halftime. I never particularly liked the needles. But I learned to block out the pain. I learned how to look poised no matter the chaos.

The huddle was the one place where I felt safe and secure. No one ever got hurt in the huddle. No coaches yelling at anybody, just us guys trying to survive another year, hoping it wasn't our day to be knocked out for good, hoping that some day we'd be able to play tag with our grandchildren.

Well, I'm 61 now. No grandchildren yet. But I think I'm going to make it.

Sushi and violence

During the Middle Ages in France there was a huge competition among French cities to see who could build the biggest, most outrageous cathedral. In the U.S. today we have a contest to see who can build the biggest football stadiums, with the most luxurious skyboxes, where fat white cats can sit and eat caviar and sushi while they watch black, Samoan and Hawaiian players bash in each others' heads and reduce their lifespans: to 52.7 years, roughly equivalent to that of an American coal miner (and 26.5 years below the lifespan of an average American).

Today the average NFL career lasts only three years. That's right: You play three years in the National Football League and lose 26.5 years off your life.

Saying goodbye

It was very difficult to quit football, especially at the height of my career. I had worked so hard all those years. All the sweat, all the blood, all the stitches on my face, all the broken bones... but I just didn't know why I was supposed to quit, and I couldn't talk to anybody about it.

All I knew was that I had to leave. I knew that there was something wrong with pro football, but I couldn't put my finger on it. The coaches tried to pretend that the team was a family. But it wasn't a family at all. It was a meat grinder.

The first autumn after I retired from football was really the first time that I noticed the leaves changing. It was the first time I really enjoyed Thanksgiving and was able to eat as much as I wanted.

I love autumn now. I absolutely love all the color, the changing leaves. The harvest moon almost looks like it's gold, like you can reach out and touch it. Strange— I never noticed it before.♦

This article is excerpted from QB, a forthcoming one-man play.
To read responses, click here and here and here.
To read a response by Dan Rottenberg, click here.

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