Sun, Dec 28, 2003 - Page 24 News List

The price of putting on the hits

NY TIMES NEWS SERVICE , NEW YORK

Ask former All-Pro New York Giants linebacker Harry Carson what's wrong with him and he laughs. "How much time do you have?" he says. Carson, who played 13 seasons in the NFL, has a laundry list of health problems.

"Anyone who plays the game leaves with something. You learn how to deal with it," he said. "I have a disk problem that affects my sciatic nerve, back pain, numbness down my leg into my foot, spasms in my back, an atrophied posterior deltoid muscle in my right shoulder, knee pain ..."

Then there's the headaches, memory loss, and blurry vision associated with being diagnosed with post-concussion syndrome two years after he retired in 1988.

"I really don't know how many concussions I had, something like 15 to 18," he said. "We were trained to be warriors, who never wanted to sit. We played hurt. We all had that macho, John Wayne mentality. Most people get knocked around, [but] I was never unconscious. I was stunned and saw stars, and it faded to black. A lot of players don't even know they had one."

Carson, who was a Hall of Fame finalist last year, said his memory loss cost him a television broadcasting job. But he'll never forget a 1985 collision in a game against the Washington Redskins at RFK Stadium.

"The Redskins had John Riggins, who liked to use his power. He tried to run over you," Carson said. "I was a linebacker who didn't have a lot of speed. It was power vs. power. I remember hitting John solid and getting back up into the huddle. We're holding hands in the huddle. I'm the signal-caller on defense. I look over at [assistant coach] Bill Belichick and everything fades to black and comes back. He's flashing the sign -- Stack cover two -- or whatever and I can't distinguish what he's saying. So if I don't understand, my sign is to tap my helmet. He flashes again and I fade again to black and then it comes back. Then I tap my helmet."

This happens yet again.

"At this time the Redskins are already at the line of scrimmage. [Linebacker] Gary Reasons calls the play. I knew I was in trouble. Physically I was fine, neurologically I was not there. In the heat of battle, you learned to play. I stayed in the game, I probably should not have. Under those conditions, players are gonna play. It's hard for a player to come out. You suck it up and play."

Carson says he completely supports the Center for the Study of Retired Athletes. "It's extremely important, you have to have a neutral body out there to conduct credible studies, with no bias. It's tremendously helpful. We've sort of been in the dark in our own sphere. You can't often get the truth from management in the NFL."

Carson, who promised himself he never would get overweight after he retired, likes to walk the city streets. People still recognize him, even the homeless in Central Park. A thoughtful man, he still visits regularly with teammates who admire his speaking out about the dangers of concussions. But couldn't part of the depression he suffers be from not hearing the roar of the crowd and being catered to? After winning the Super Bowl, what do you do for the next 50 years?

Carson smiles. He always could take a hit.

"When I was depressed, I was still playing. It wasn't like I was not playing well. I was a captain, All-Pro, and I was depressed and I couldn't put my finger on why. I can remember going to [the Giants' medical staff] and they said, `Anything wrong?' I said, `I'm depressed and I want you to put it down.' Physically I was fine."

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