February 10, 2012

1976 Newspaper Article: Death and Football: During the week that led up to Super Bowl X in 1976, Clark Booth of the Boston alt-weekly Real Paper wrote a prophetic piece on the brutality of pro football, describing the dark side of the sport as a "world of nightmares, cripples and early death." Talking to players and sportswriters before the Dallas Cowboys and Pittsburgh Steelers decided the championship, Booth documented the life-shortening toll the game was exacting on its players even back then -- and the denial of the consequences. Among the many harrowing stories is that of Stone Johnson, a 23-year-old Kansas City Chiefs rookie kick returner who died in 1963 after a tackle. "He was running back a kick when he got hit," another journalist told Booth. "He was instantly paralyzed from the neck down and they say he started to yell, 'Oh my God ... Oh my God ... Where's my head? ... Where's my head?" Johnson's No. 33 is retired by the Chiefs though he never played a regular season game. "I remember being thunderstruck reading [the story]," writes New York Times columnist Joe Nocera, who tracked down Booth and revived interest in the article.

posted by rcade to football at 08:07 AM - 5 comments

Barely related: the Boston Phoenix (which took over Real Paper a long time ago) has been fighting with the NYT and Nocera over posting PDFs of articles instead of linking to them.

posted by yerfatma at 09:21 AM on February 10, 2012

Terrific article, and the ads are almost as good. Don Law knew how to put on a show.

posted by yerfatma at 09:39 AM on February 10, 2012

I'd never heard of Stone Johnson before reading that story. He doesn't have a page on Pro Football Reference, but his number is retired.

There's a lot of prophetic stuff in that article, which shows that things like the steroid/cancer fear and second concussion danger were known for a long time. It's startling to read so much fatalism from some of my childhood Cowboys heroes. D. D. Lewis' life went off the rails, as he tells school audiences now that he's clean and sober.

posted by rcade at 09:55 AM on February 10, 2012

As a life long Chiefs fan, I have never heard of Stone Johnson. Of course, I wasn't alive at the time, but for the organization not to recognize the event more publicly, and permanently is a disservice to him and the sacrifices that players make for the game.

Chiefs fans are well aware of Joe Delaney, a promising running back who played for two seasons before a tragic drowning death in 1983. His death, while noble, heroic and tragic (he was attempting to save 3 children) was not football related and doubly saddeniing in that he didn't know how to swim. Delaney's number 37 while not retired, has not been used since.

How many other stories are there similar to this out there?

posted by Tinman at 10:57 AM on February 10, 2012

I think two NY Giants were killed serving in WWII, and the Jets (or whatever they were called at the time) had a player die during a game with an injury somewhat similar to Stone Johnson's.

I remember a Lions player dying during a game when I was in high school. Early 70's.

Aside from the NFL, I think that more guys have actually died during collegiate football careers than in the pros.

Also, international footballers supposedly have an in-career mortality rate that is off the charts compared to the other sports.

My interest in this has recently increased while helping a high school athlete with possible heart issues that may prevent her from continuing to compete.

Looking into youth sports health and fatality issues is extremely distressing. Here's one example of what turns up: a list of news items just on youth sports cardio-related issues since 2007. Scroll down to the bottom of the page without counting just to see the magnitude. It is beyond anything I could have imagined.

posted by beaverboard at 02:35 PM on February 10, 2012

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