SANTA FE -- Marv Levy, the greatest football coach in New Mexico history, was also the wisest.

He had only one rule when it came to evaluating injured players.

"I turned it completely over to the medical department," Levy said by telephone from his home in Chicago. "And I was never one of those coaches who would second-guess a doctor. I never said, 'Oh, c'mon. He can go.' "

Now 88 years old but with total recall of his career, Levy was decades ahead of his time.

He became head football coach at the University of New Mexico at age 32 in 1958. Intense and cerebral, Levy was always sensible about the dangers of football. Too often he was alone.

In that era and for almost another generation, coaches at all levels would forbid their players from drinking water during practice. They considered thirst a sign of weakness. Each sweltering summer, a player or two somewhere across America would have a brush with death because of heatstroke.

What coaches could not have known back then was the danger of CTE -- chronic traumatic encephalopathy. Players with a history of concussions or other head injuries have this disease. We do not know how many because only after someone dies do we get a conclusive diagnosis, provided that the brain is examined.

Clearer to us is the number of former players with memory loss and dementia because of concussions.

Fred McNeill, who played for 11 years with the Minnesota Vikings, attended law school while still working fulltime as a linebacker. He graduated tops in his class. But after football, McNeill was fired from a series of jobs before anyone realized that this proud, talented man was the equivalent of a punch-drunk fighter in an expensive suit.

McNeill's story is all too common among players at the highest level.

Levy, who coached the Buffalo Bills to four Super Bowls, had plenty of experience with concussions. One of his favorite players in Buffalo was an undersized defensive back named Mark Kelso. He wore a specially designed helmet after a series of head injuries.

"Thankfully, Mark is doing well now," Levy said.

Terrific football players are the last to acknowledge concussions.

One of them was former state Sen. Clint Harden of Clovis. So reserved is Harden that few in the Senate realized he was a varsity quarterback at the Naval Academy and the University of Utah in the 1960s.

Harden said he had one concussion that he knew of, and it happened in a high school game. An opposing rusher knocked him out with a blow that landed on the bone behind his ear.

"I thought I was all right until everybody else realized that I had called the same play five times in a row," Harden said.

Harden jokes that he played in a time when he could fold up his helmet and put it in his back pocket.

"Now you look at these guys and it's like Darth Vader," he said of the weaponry.

Football's long-term dangers began making an impression on me last year. My favorite player on my favorite team, Troy Polamalu of the Pittsburgh Steelers, admitted that he lied to the coaches about the extent of his head injuries so he could get back into games.

Polamalu, so distinctive with his thick mane of hair and wondrous ability to fly to the quarterback even though everybody in the stadium knew he was coming, has given me more thrills than I can count. But, as silly as it might sound, I am worried about him.

So my resolution for fall is to give up the Steelers and forget about football. The game no longer seems like a game. I don't want Polamalu or anybody else to end up the way Fred McNeill did.

 

Milan Simonich, Santa Fe Bureau chief of Texas-New Mexico Newspapers, can be reached at 505-820-6898. His blog is at nmcapitolreport.com.