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ONE TEAM, 25 YEARS ON
PETER KING
December 12, 2011
In a first-ever comprehensive survey of football's long-term effects on an entire NFL roster, SI polled the former members of the 1986 Bengals, whose physical and psychological conditions a quarter century later range from near complete normalcy to near total disability. But no matter their current hardships, the vast majority say they have no regrets
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December 12, 2011

One Team, 25 Years On

In a first-ever comprehensive survey of football's long-term effects on an entire NFL roster, SI polled the former members of the 1986 Bengals, whose physical and psychological conditions a quarter century later range from near complete normalcy to near total disability. But no matter their current hardships, the vast majority say they have no regrets

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Residual injury Of the 39 players surveyed, 28 (72%) had at least one surgery during their NFL careers, and 16 (41%) reported postcareer surgery for an NFL-related malady. Twelve players (31%) said they have an impending surgery to address something that happened in the NFL. And 36 players (92%) said they are bothered by an NFL-related ailment from their years in the game.

Daily pain The average player has three body parts that hurt daily.

Head trauma Seventeen players (44%) said they have memory loss, ranging from forgetting what they had for dinner the previous night to forgetting a conversation they just had. Thirteen (33%) reported daily headaches and believe they stem from football. Only two players said they didn't think they had suffered a concussion in an NFL game (though compared with today, diagnoses of head injuries were often primitive 25 years ago).

Replacement surgeries Four players (10%) have had a total of eight knee or hip replacements.

Most compelling might be the collective attitude toward pro football among these old Bengals, especially given the recent raft of stories about former pros suffering postconcussion symptoms. Only five players (13%) said they wouldn't want their sons or close relatives to play in the NFL, while another five said they would have mixed feelings about someone close to them playing pro ball (page 78). The drumbeat from player after player was loud and clear: They knew the dangers, chose to participate and understood there would be physical consequences down the road. That doesn't mean some of them aren't bitter about the NFL's postcareer health coverage and other medical issues that plague them. What it does mean is that most wouldn't trade their NFL days for anything.

"I'd do it again in a minute," says Ray Horton, a cornerback on the Bengals and now the Cardinals' defensive coordinator. Horton, 51, retired after the 1992 season, his 10th, with one significant knee injury, a torn left ACL (he chose not to have surgery) and feels no daily football-related pain. "[The NFL] affords a great lifestyle. Are there inherent risks? Yeah, but those coal miners in West Virginia and down in Chile, they have an inherent risk in their jobs. The soldiers who go over to Afghanistan, they have an inherent risk in what they do. Firefighters have an inherent risk. Are you kidding me? To play a sport I love the whole time and to just lose a knee—guys come back from Afghanistan with no legs."

Says guard Bruce Reimers, 51, who had a knee replaced last January, "I wouldn't change a thing."

But hard-hitting safety David Fulcher, 47, might. He hurts from Achilles, shoulder and back injuries he had during his career, and from the multiple concussions he says he suffered in the NFL. Fulcher was a rookie in 1986, and he played eight seasons. "I went out there and rammed my head against another man's helmet or chest, got hurt, and now—things are starting to happen to me now," says Fulcher. "It was worth it while I was playing, but now I feel like, no, it wasn't worth it whatsoever."

Among the 39 Bengals interviewed, three—Williams, linebacker Emanuel King and defensive lineman Jim Skow—say they have the kind of disabling injuries that mean they'll probably never live completely normal lives. During his career Skow had two shoulder surgeries, plus operations on his nose and neck; he's facing more neck surgery down the road. Playing seven years in the NFL, he says, "was like trading body parts for money."

Compared with 1986, today's players are bigger and faster, so it's natural to think the physical and mental fallout 25 years from now will be worse than it is for the '86 players. But those older players had tougher working conditions than players today, particularly given the new rules limiting contact in training camp and padded practices during the season. In 1986, Cincinnati played 13 of 16 games on harsh AstroTurf fields, including home dates at multiuse Riverfront Stadium. In 2011 the Bengals will play five games on grass and 11 on the springier next generation of artificial turf, including the FieldTurf at their home, Paul Brown Stadium. The unforgiving old artificial turf took a toll—on the legs and joints, on the head when helmets hit the surface flush, and on the exposed skin. "In our day," says Martin, "it wasn't the hits that hurt the most. It was hitting the ground."

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