Greenwich Time

NFL still star-crossed on head injuries


“Paper Head,” they would call him, mostly because athletes so love to bust on each other over any perceived idiosyncra­sy, but Irv Cross’ nickname came just as assuredly from the everyday ignorance of things not yet understood.

A couple of things happened this week to illuminate a kind of cultural then-and-now of NFL concussion­s, with Cross, the late Pro Bowl defensive back and groundbrea­king broadcaste­r getting remembered mostly as one of the game’s great gentlemen.

But his brain took such a pounding during nine seasons with the pre-Super Bowl era Eagles and Rams that a postmortem analysis released Tuesday by researcher­s at Boston University indicated Stage 4 CTE (chronic traumatic encephalop­athy), the most debilitati­ng form of dysfunctio­n related to repeated blows to the head.

“Toward the end,” his wife, Liz, told The Associated Press in Philadelph­ia, “he saw things that weren’t there.”

Meanwhile, the NFL’s continuall­y suspect ability to see things that are very much evident regarding concussion­s was absorbing another round of introspect­ion in Indianapol­is,

where league officials in conjunctio­n with their medical advisers seemed resolved to “get the head further out of the game.”

Concussion­s were up in 2022, particular­ly among quarterbac­ks, the league’s marquee position, so the Rams have proposed that roughing the passer calls be reviewable by replay, Judy Battista of NFL Network reported. The distinctio­n at issue, she explained, is the sling vs. the slam. Slamming the quarterbac­k to the ground should be penalized, the Competitio­n Committee feels, but merely slinging him is a natural part of the play.

Wish that I could report that defensive linemen of the 1940s were often scrutinize­d for whether they were slingin’ or slammin’ Slingin’ Sammy Baugh, but alas, there’s a lack of evidence.

There is reportedly little stomach among the owners for expanding replay into that particular area, but you can expect further action to protect the head, including the increased use of Guardian Caps in practice. Guardian Caps are those softshell layers added to the standard hard helmets and are designed to lessen impact by as much as 33 percent, with the added benefit of making everyone

look like The Great Gazoo. (Google it.)

A 33 percent reduction in wallop sounds good, but the force generated by many NFL collisions, even going all the way back to Cross’ era, has proven deadly to too many, including Steelers Mike Webster, Justin Strzelczyk and Terry Long.

Cross told his wife that he was once hit so hard he nearly swallowed his tongue, but he was fortunate that CTE symptoms didn’t present until much later in life.

In his 70s, Cross approached long-time Philadelph­ia columnist and NFL Hall of Famer Ray Didinger about doing a book on his life. In addition

to a distinguis­hed career with NFL Films, Didinger is a playwright, having created “Tommy and Me,” about Eagles receiver Tommy McDonald, another Hall of Famer.

“In our conversati­on, Irv said he was dealing with health issues, which sounded a lot like CTE,” Didinger told me this week. “Like many former players, he had mixed emotions about his career. He loved playing but said something that stuck with me. He said, ‘We were like hamburger being ground up.’ It was a powerful statement and, sadly, very true. I saw it up close with Tommy in his later years. Tommy had Stage 4 CTE. It was awful.”

Cross died in February 2021 and had long since isolated himself in paranoia. His wife said he was afraid he’d be asked a question and wouldn’t know the answer. He suffered from depression, mood swings, memory loss, a horrid end to a life of virtually uninterrup­ted accomplish­ment.

One of 15 children his parents raised in Hammond, Ind., Cross excelled in football and track at Northweste­rn. He was drafted by the defending NFL champion Eagles in 1961, wound up starting at cornerback before the season ended and played through 1969. Soon after his playing days ended, he became the first African American man to work full-time as a national football analyst, then joined Brent Musberger, Phyllis George and Jimmy “The Greek” Snyder on a pregame show that was the prototype for every such iteration that followed. In his post-broadcast life, he became a college athletic director.

That’s the kind of curriculum vitae that should preclude any lingering “Paper Head” aspersion, but Cross’ head injuries were more than a decadesold memory. Though he played in an era when players were rarely sidelined by concussion­s (they’d merely been “dinged” or “had their bell rung” in the football parlance of the day), Cross missed significan­t time with his concussion­s.

Didinger vividly remembers reading about one late-season Eagles practice when snow began to fall. One of Cross’ teammates yelled, “Cross, put your helmet on, what if one of these snowflakes hits you in the head?’” Everyone laughed, according to the story, including Cross.

No one’s laughing anymore, but that doesn’t mean the league is where it needs to be on concussion­s.

“I do think there’s more education about the risks of football and I do think there’s more awareness of concussion management, but I still think we’re way, way behind where we should be,” Dr. Ann McKee, a professor of neurology and pathology at BU, said in the AP story. “We need to educate young athletes that this is the risk that they are undertakin­g. We need to educate coaches to keep head trauma out of the game. We need to do more managing of athletes by monitoring them better. I still think there’s a very cavalier attitude toward CTE. There’s a lot of denial.”

 ?? George Rose/TNS ?? CBS Analyst Irv Cross speaks during a regular-season game in 1985.
George Rose/TNS CBS Analyst Irv Cross speaks during a regular-season game in 1985.

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