Getting While the Getting is Good
NFL fans have seen Patrick Willis, Jake Locker, Jason Worilds and Maurice Jones-Drew retire this week. All are veterans. And all are getting while the getting is good, at relatively early stages of their careers.
I think back to my old friend, the late Peter Gent, former NFL wide receiver and the author of North Dallas Forty (and other books). We used to talk on the phone a great deal. Me from Tampa, mostly wanting to know more about writing books and life in the NFL, and he from Bangor, Michigan, out of the kindness of his heart.North Dallas Forty
Gent’s stories of playing wide receiver in the NFL in the 1960s brought to life the gruesome injuries and carnage incurred. Recently I revisited one of my interviews with him and came away with some of his more vivid memories from back in the day.
Like Sept. 24, 1967 when he ran a drag across the middle of the New York Giants’ defense. Quarterback Don Meredith delivered a low spiral and Gent extended himself horizontally to make the catch. An instant later he found himself sprawled on the turf with the ball in his possession — not yet down according to the rules — leaving him vulnerable as a wounded animal while waiting for further punishment.
“I could have gotten up right away, but that’s the best way to get hurt — when you’re half way between getting up off the ground,” Gent remembered. “There were a lot of guys around me, so I just kind of laid there and waited for a guy to touch me to end the play.”
Giants linebacker Vince Costello opted for no mercy.
“He drove his helmet right into the middle of my back,” Gent said. “[The hit] broke off three tranverse process [part of the vertebrae], tore four ribs from my spine and did nerve damage. The incredible thing was [Cowboys head coach] Tom Landry didn’t want to call a timeout.
“Here I am, one leg was totally numb, and the other was on fire. The trainer runs out and tells me to move my leg, and they wouldn’t believe that I couldn’t move it. Finally, they lift me up by the armpits — never calling timeout — and drag me off the field. They just laid me face down at the 20 and left me. The rest of the team was way up the field. I mean here I was with partial paralysis and they just drag me off the field.”
North Dallas Forty and the subsequent movie of the same title were front-runners in illuminating the abuse of players by National Football League teams. He later wrote The Franchise and North Dallas After 40, which depicted the NFL as a big business, guilty of exploiting players, fans and generally anybody it could in the name of money. His dark works are fiction, leaving room for debate by NFL moguls how well-founded his characters and portrayal of the NFL’s inner-workings were.
Landry denied the 1967 incident in a subsequent telephone interview, telling me, “I really don’t have a lot to do with Peter Gent. I didn’t read his books or see his movie, but from what I’ve heard there are some things that aren’t right.”
One thing could not be disputed. Gent’s body took a beating. Crippling neck and back injuries served as reminders of his NFL days until he died. He wore a TENS unit (transcutanous electrical nerve stimulator) on his back that fed jolts of electricity to relieve his muscle pain. Occasionally, those electrodes would burn his skin. And sleep never came easy and when it did, it never lasted long.
Gent’s NFL encouraged players to play with injury.
“The NFL was a lot different back in 1964 when I started,” Gent said. “The roster was 40 players — there was no taxi squad or reserves. So if you didn’t play, you were gone.
“My first injury occurred during training camp in 1964, a torn hamstring. In order to just to make it through practice, I needed Novocain. I was friends with the trainer, so I got him to inject me. He was doing me a favor. Otherwise, they wouldn’t have kept me around. I had to play all year with the tear, which caused more tears.”
Gent called 1966 a relatively injury-free year, noting. “I had a couple of broken noses, but nothing serious. You don’t ever play a game without getting injured.”
Gent appeared on the “Dick Cavett Show” with Hall of Famers John Mackey and Dick Butkus. The trio intended to broach the subject of player abuse.
“It would have been a really good show, but we couldn’t get that dip-shit Cavett to shut up,” Gent said. “Anytime we started to get any kind of good flow he’d interrupt with some typical dumb jock jokes.”
What Gent remembered most, though, was a poignant moment before the show with Butkus.
“He told me they [the Bears] used to inject his knees on Thursday,” Gent said. “I told him that must have been some powerful stuff. If they had to shoot him up on Thursday, they were doing it so he would be over the side effects, like vomiting or whatever, by Sunday.
“So here’s Butkus telling me about having to sue the Bears. Tears are in his eyes. They didn’t break his body; they broke his heart. On the Cavett show, I knew if he got steered that way Dick would again cry, which would have been very effective. I mean, I’m real easy to dismiss as some kind of malcontent. But when you see somebody like Dick Butkus get abused, it grabs your attention. He loved the Bears, loved football. Wanted to play for the Bears since he was a little kid. That’s just how cold those sons of bitches are.”
A lot has changed in the NFL since Peter Gent played. But the sacrifices a player makes to his body remain the same. I wonder if early retirement will become a more popular option for future NFL players, getting out while the getting is good so they can enjoy the rest of their lives.