The amazing thing about John Madden’s NFL head coaching career is that it lasted only 10 years. His last season was in 1978. It all but ended in August of that year after the most infamous preseason game in league history, the one where Patriots wide receiver Darryl Stingley was stretchered off the field, unable to move, after being leveled by a hit so violent from Raiders defensive back Jack Tatum that it is outlawed today.
For two months after that exhibition, well into the raft of games the NFL says count, Stingley remained hospitalized, paralyzed from his neck down, in a hospital south of Oakland not far from where Tatum — who later titled his memoir “They Call Me Assassin” — waylaid him. And for much of that time, as Sarah Pileggi wrote in a 1983 Sports Illustrated profile of Madden, the coach was a daily visitor to Stingley’s hospital bed. Madden’s wife, Virginia, too. They would drive the hour-and-a-half or two from the Raiders’ base north of Oakland to the hospital where Stingley learned that his condition would never change. He would be a quadriplegic for the rest of his life.
Madden, who died in December 2021 at 85, retired at the end of the 1978 season. Stingley died at 55 in his hometown of Chicago in April 2007.
And in between Madden’s retirement from coaching and Stingley’s death, Madden became the face and voice of the NFL. Through his broadcasting, he captivated the public as pro football’s biggest fan. More significantly, through the video games with which his name became synonymous — called Madden NFL now, five decades later — he became the game’s most influential impresario.
Who knows how many of the estimated 184 million NFL fans grew up on Madden games, including versions in the early 1990s where a player could get laid out by a tackle and — if you can imagine it — scooped up by an ambulance? The cartoonish scene is just like the one that so distressed Madden in 1978 and may have moved him to leave the sideline and the one that traumatized the country Monday night after Buffalo’s Damar Hamlin collapsed on Cincinnati’s field and had to be resuscitated before an ambulance could ferry him to a hospital.
Nonetheless, most of us, like Madden after witnessing Stingley’s injury, will all but recover from our shock, our nausea, our indignation, our moralizing, and tune in again. Starting this weekend. We’ll even watch with heightened interest as Cincinnati and Buffalo return to separate fields. Those were the teams pitted against each other when Hamlin was felled making a tackle that apparently induced cardiac arrest, leading to a collective plea to suspend the contest and, in subsequent days, not to resume the game at all. The league heeded both sentiments, for the first time.
But we’ll be back, no matter.
No matter that what afflicted Hamlin was the latest reminder that pro football is more than a contact sport; it is a collision sport in which hits can be so violent that its players’ lives are at stake with nearly every snap. No matter that we learned in the early 2000s that the human head-on collisions in the game caused a brain damage called chronic traumatic encephalopathy, or CTE, that can trigger memory loss, confusion, depression, violent outbreaks and suicide. No matter that we’ve long known that the game has left a legion of walking wounded former players hobbled, if not disabled, by too many injuries to joints and too many surgeries to repair them.
No matter that the game has been unfair to the Black men who’ve come to predominate it by treating their neurological damage as less than their White teammates’ based on a rubric called race-norming, founded on the racist premise that Black men’s cognition is inferior. No matter that the league is facing a class-action lawsuit led by a Black former head coach, now an assistant, Brian Flores, alleging the league, and several teams in particular, discriminate against non-White head coaching aspirants in hiring practices.
As a fan, I’m not suffering the bodily and brain damage. But am I not complicit by tuning in every weekend, Monday and Thursday? Is my fiending not part of the problem?
I managed to quit boxing, about 10 years ago. But that was because of yet another corrupt decision in a bout, not because of the abject brutality of the sport. Not because I was haunted, as I should’ve been, by one of the most memorable interviews I’ve ever conducted. It was with mid-1990s super featherweight champion Gabe Ruelas months after he TKO’d Jimmy Garcia, who died after suffering brain injuries during the bout. I remember Ruelas saying that after he decided to return to the ring, which was the only industry for which he had employable skills, it was hard to train, because he saw Garcia’s face in every speed bag, heavy bag or sparring partner he punched.
I’ve had relapses with boxing but never with pro football. Because I’ve never quit it.
I didn’t quit it while watching a former NFL player who became a friend become one of several dozen retired players to be afflicted with ALS, that incurable and fatal neurodegenerative disease that football players are four times more likely to develop than other adult men. Steve Smith died just before Christmas 2021, and his widow, Chie, who cared for him in his decline so lovingly, decried even louder the vicious toll of the game.
I didn’t quit it that January 2009 afternoon in Pittsburgh toward the end of the AFC championship game, when Steelers defensive back Ryan Clark looked like Tatum as he crashed into Ravens running back Willis McGahee with such a thud that it resounded behind the sealed windows of the press box and rendered a raucous stadium silent. McGahee was supine with his hands clenching. Clark was slowly rolling to his side. Clark was helped off the field by teammates. McGahee was carted off like Stingley, but he survived to walk and play another day.
“When Damar Hamlin falls to the turf and when you see the medical staff rush to the field and both teams are on the field,” Clark said the other day on ESPN, where he works as an analyst, “you realize this isn’t normal. You realize this isn’t just football.”
This weekend, when most of us return, you’ll realize football is more than a pastime. It’s an addiction.