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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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On Oct. 25, 1987, at Three Rivers Stadium in Pittsburgh, Mike Martin scored his first NFL touchdown. He caught a pass from Esiason on a 10-yard pivot route, then cut up the sideline, making five Steelers, including All-Pro strong safety Donnie Shell, miss on his way to the end zone for a 41-yard score. "That's the play I show my players when they wonder if I really played in the NFL," Martin says. "My game was quickness."

It's a good thing Martin has that video, because something else happened to him that day in Pittsburgh: He suffered a likely concussion in the second half. After the game, when reporters came to talk to him about his first career touchdown, he said, "Really? I scored?" The game now is mostly a blank.

"They asked me on the sideline if I could go in and just catch the ball [on a punt return]. I wouldn't have to run. Still a little groggy, but I told them I was O.K. I still don't know how I caught the ball. I could barely see."

He thinks of moments like that because of what happened two years ago in the locker room at Taft High. As he did after every game, Martin had his team kneel to recite the Lord's Prayer. "Our Father, who art in heaven," he began, "hallowed be thy name...."

When he got to the line "and forgive us our trespasses ..." what followed out of his mouth was gibberish.

"Hey, Coach!" a player said when it was over. "You messed up the words!"

Same thing happened the next week. "Hey, fellas, my bad," Martin told his players. "Pick me up here."

"I've been saying it my entire life," he says, "and I just forgot. I'd get in the car after the game and try to remember the words."

Martin has noticed other things since he turned 50. Sometimes he forgets why he's phoned people, and when they pick up, he'll have to apologize. He's an NFL analyst on a Sunday night sports show in Cincinnati, and he says that on a couple of occasions he has totally lost his train of thought and changed the subject inexplicably.

And then there are the headaches, which he says put him "in a somber mood." As with many of his former teammates, he has no idea if they are a direct result of what he says were multiple concussions. That, of course, has been the premise of neurologists who have studied the brains of deceased former NFL players. Football, evidence suggests, might be as hazardous to one's mental health as to one's physical well-being. Dr. Ann McKee of the Veterans Administration Hospital in Bedford, Mass., has studied more than 20 former NFL players' brains, as well as those of high school and college players who have died, and found chronic traumatic encephalopathy in all but one. "I have never seen this disease in any person who doesn't have the kind of repetitive head trauma that football players would have," McKee says.

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