The members of the '86 Bengals are certainly worried about the long-term effects of head trauma. Players like Fulcher and fellow defensive backs Barney Bussey and Robert Jackson say there are little things they have trouble remembering. Collinsworth says the same—though he notes, "How do you know if that's because you played football or because you're in your 50s?"
In their day players chuckled when wobbly teammates would get up and stumble toward the wrong huddle. Today, those guys are typically taken out for the rest of the game. "We knew guys were not right after they were sent back in the game," says kicker Jim Breech, 55. "You've got three fingers up? Oh, yeah, you can go back. You're fine. I don't think anybody had any idea how it would ultimately affect people."
Reggie Williams says that early in his career, playing while dizzy or hurt "was a badge of honor." He tells a harrowing story of getting a concussion and what he called "a broken face" against the Oilers. "I fractured the left orbital socket in my eye," Williams says. "The old-school attitude at the time was that you can't let a rookie go into your end zone standing up. So I hit this running back at the goal line, and on the other side of him was [Oilers guard Mike] Munchak. And so I was hit with 500 pounds on my nose. It was the most crushing knockout. The pain was excruciating, but there was no [visible] damage—I showed the doctor my nose at halftime, and he said, 'You're O.K.' It wasn't until I blew my nose to go into the game in the second half that my eye blew up like a balloon. And I went to the doctor and said, 'See, see, I'm hurt!'"
Today, Williams feels fortunate he's as mentally acute as he is. "I know I put my brain in a hard place more than once," he says. "But I want to have rich experiences with my kids and grandkids. That would be the biggest thing taken from me—not to be able to look forward, to understand. So I do cognition games. I do crossword puzzles. I read interesting books. I watch movies in foreign languages. All to keep my mind engaged."
Fulcher and Bussey have sons who play at Ohio University. Both kids would like to follow their fathers into the NFL. Michael Muñoz, an All-America tackle at Tennessee, could have signed with an NFL team as a rookie free agent but chose not to after being passed up in the 2005 draft. "Maybe it is better that he's working [in business] with an MBA and doing pretty well," his father, Anthony, says. "He's not putting his body through what I put mine through. But I would have supported him if he had wanted to. He's a smart kid. He knew the risks."
Kelly, the former linebacker, says, "If I had a son, I would tell him to use his athletic ability to obtain his college degree. I see my college buddies [from Washington] who didn't get an opportunity to play in the NFL, and the majority of them are a lot more successful. I would say 90 percent of the guys who didn't make the NFL are a lot more successful now in their 40s than the guys who made the NFL at 21, 22, 23. And in a lot better condition."
Eric Kattus, 48, a backup tight end in 1986, says, "I have three sons, younger boys, and they're really bothering me to play football—and I would prefer they don't play. Until they can really control the concussions and any kind of brain damage that happens, I don't want them to play. It's a very physical game that just takes a tremendous toll on your body."
Martin didn't have that luxury as a kid growing up in Washington, D.C. For him the reason to play football was socioeconomic—he had to make it out of the projects. He sent the same message to many of his Taft players: Use football to make a better life for yourselves.
At practice Martin would mix life lessons with football ones: The adversity players overcome on the field mirrors what they will have to overcome in life. Those were the lessons he was taught as a kid and in college and with the Bengals. Football lessons. Unchanging ones.
One week this fall he was out on the Taft practice field, working with his quarterbacks. The weekend's opponent was susceptible to the option, so Martin took the ball in the backfield and began to show quarterback Kendall Bobo how to pitch the ball, or fake the pitch and turn upfield if the halfback was covered. Martin ran out of the backfield, made a cut, took a couple of strides, then stopped.