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Mind games: Players scoff and the NFL flourishes even as concussions exact a greater toll

SAN JOSE, Calif. – Interest is booming. Seriously, look around the SAP Center on Media Night.

There’s a grown man dressed up as a leprechaun. This self-appointed celebrity calls himself “Rocky the Leprechaun” and hands out business cards.

Miss Universe is here and she’s dabbin’ with Carolina players. Aqib Talib shows off an $80,000 watch. Thousands paid $27.50 a pop to watch players being interviewed. And on Sunday? About 115 million will watch Super Bowl 50.

Business is good for Commissioner Roger Goodell. And yet, there’s an uneasy undercurrent that threatens the game’s existence. Former Super Bowl hero Antwaan Randle El said he wouldn’t be surprised if football isn’t around in 20-25 years. Here’s why: doctors keep finding the brain disease chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE) in deceased players. On Wednesday, the New York Times reported that deceased Super Bowl champ and current Hall of Fame finalist Ken Stabler had Stage 3 CTE and two-time Super Bowl quarterback Earl Morrall had Stage 4 CTE.

And, oh, the number of documented concussions in the NFL rose from 115 in 2014 to 182 in 2015.

This dark cloud over the game will not disappear. There will be more deaths, more CTE revealed, more mothers refusing to let their sons play a violent game. Yet those who will square off Sunday are not concerned about the future.

Take it from Antonio Smith, the Broncos defensive end in his 12th season.

“We have to quit being as soft as we are,” Smith said. “Men have done dangerous jobs since the beginning of time. Men choose to do dangerous jobs. It’s a conscious decision. We can definitely find more ways to protect each other out there on the field but nothing is 100 percent safe. Yeah, we have to find ways to protect guys but this game will live on.”

Smith views football as cathartic, a way for men in our society to release inner rage.

“If you don’t give some guys – naturally born the way we are – this outlet, what else do you have out there in society?” he said. “There’s a reason for gladiators, there’s a reason for soldiers. There’s a reason for everything.”

This postseason has, once again, been captivating.

Green Bay and Arizona staged a finish for the ages. Tom Brady and Peyton Manning dueled again in a thriller. The entertainment value of the NFL is still strong, still drawing ridiculous sums of money. But the painful truth is that CTE revelations likely will force Goodell to dull his product.

The near-elimination of kickoffs, near-quarantine of quarterbacks, crackdown on head-to-head collisions and growing protections for “defenseless” players could be the tip of an iceberg. The looming unknown is if football might one day resemble a patty-cake, Pro Bowl-level of physicality. Football would no longer be football.

This might be an impossible balance to find.

Players in Super Bowl 50 are not concerned. First, Smith says the NFL is led by the “best businessmen in the world.” He believes they’ll devise a way to keep this game alive and well. Smith thinks back to his childhood in Oklahoma City, when he played tackle football on concrete. No way does he ever want the NFL to look like it does in Hawaii.

He points to technology. New inventions. A new type of helmet, he thinks, could help.

“I guarantee you,” Smith said, “we can find a way to protect heads more and find a way to keep concussions out of the game. It’ll be hard for us both to find the ground but I guarantee you there’ll be a way for this game to live on.”

One of the nastiest cornerbacks of this generation isn’t so sure about that logic. Carolina’s Cortland Finnegan, still chasing a ring 10 seasons in, believes violence will always be a cruel reality of the game, an inevitability no science can stop.

“There’s not a helmet in the world that you haven’t got a concussion in, to be honest with you,” Finnegan said. “Unless we start playing tag football like they were doing in the Pro Bowl, it’s not going to happen.”

And, no, he doesn’t see the NFL watering the product down to that low. The adrenaline, the testosterone, will always drive the game. Meanwhile, awareness will grow. With more Stablers, more Morralls, more parents will become educated about the dangers. It’s on families at the grass-roots level to make a decision.

Finnegan uses himself as an example. His mother didn’t let him play tackle football until middle school.

Despite the NFL’s best “Heads Up” efforts to keep the game afloat at the Pop Warner level, this could become the norm. Look to Marshall, Texas. The Boys and Girls Club in the East Texas town – one highlighted in “Friday Night Lights” – has replaced its tackle football program with flag football.

Said Finnegan, “I played flag football until middle school, until my mom felt confident enough that I could take care of myself.”

The professional agitator Finnegan is one remnant of a different era. He’s seen the league change in his own career, chuckling that he has “six figures in fines” to show for it. Retired players from as far back as the ’50s, he said, tell him they appreciate his game, though the game is changing.

A dawn of a new NFL is, gradually, in the works.

Panthers linebacker Shaq Thompson suffered two concussions at the University of Washington. On one, he was stumbling and didn’t know why he was stumbling – he had led with his head on a tackle. Thompson believes, right or wrong, that concussions can be prevented by players simply changing the way they tackle. He points to his coach in college, Chris Petersen, emphasizing rugby-style tackling.

Popularized by Seattle head coach Pete Carroll, this leverage-based tactic forces players to take their head out of the equation. Defenders must track the ball carrier’s nearest hip, target the thigh and then make contact with a shoulder. The idea being that this is how our football forefathers tackled in leather helmets without facemasks.

The first day Petersen taught rugby-style tackling to his 18-, 19-year-olds, they were baffled. As a kid, Thompson was instructed to lead with his head, to use the helmet as a weapon.

“If you want to get concussed,” Thompson said, “go ahead and lead with your head. If you don’t, the right way to do it is to put your head to the side and make a tackle.”

“You can still hit somebody squared up with your head to the side. Rugby players do it all the time. Why can’t football players do it? That’d change the game a lot. You can still have the physical contact, but there’s not going to be as many concussions.”

He’s told this packed arena at Media Night is full of fans who cherish violence. It’s a form of oxygen on Sundays for many, American as apple pie and country music. Nobody wants to the NFL oversaturated with arm tackles.

An animated Thompson cuts in.

“There will still be violence!” Thompson insists. “Go home and watch rugby. There’s still violence – with your head to the side. There’s still violence. It’s the leading with your head. You can still make a big hit.”

This is either true optimism, a light at the end of a concussion-riddled tunnel, or sheer blind denial. Hint at the sport’s slow death to former players and they shake their heads.

“Come on, man,” former 11-year pro and two-time champ Osi Umenyiora said. “It’s so ingrained in American culture right now. It’s part of the United States right now. It’s not going anywhere. They might try to make it safer and try to eliminate some of the injuries you see. But it’s such a physical game, there’s really no way you can take that out of it.”

There’s no need for the players of today to sign any sort of waiver, he adds. Even though there was one player in the Buffalo Bills’ locker room who offered a quizzical “What’s that?” when asked about CTE this season, even though Kevin Kolb couldn’t remember a trainer, a doctor, a coach, anyone in Philadelphia, Arizona or Buffalo informing players of the disease, most players realize the game’s inherent dangers.

“We know right now that if you play football, CTE can happen,” Umenyiora said. “If you choose to play, these are the dangers that happen.

“If you choose to play, that’s really on you.”

If there’s a pot of gold at the end of the rainbow – a multimillion-dollar contract that can completely change a man’s life – players will continue to play. The key to Ray Brown, Carolina’s assistant offensive line coach, is the players and coaches forming “a partnership” on the subject.

“Of course there are going to be some adversarial positions on certain topics,” said Brown, who played from 1985-2005. “But at the end of the day, if they’re not working together this league is not going to survive. Whether it’s health issues, pay issues, citizenship issues on how we can impact the world.

“Come on man, if we can be the best sport in the world, surely we can impact society.”

Football is king. Just gaze at the oversized banners of Peyton Manning and Cam Newton covering buildings in downtown San Francisco. Smith flashes a pearly white smile and cites other countries where soccer fans break out into bare-knuckle brawls.

“Would you rather have football,” he said, “or a whole country running around, ‘Let’s duke it up!’?”

Let’s check in with Smith 20 years from now.

email: tdunne@buffnews.com

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