Tape, lowly tape. What would the world do without it? Ever since the ancient Egyptians first began soaking strips of linen in balsam sap some 5,000 years ago, then wrapping their dead pharaohs with it to ensure eternal life, tape has played a major though unsung supporting role in many of mankind's endeavors. Roman gladiators wrapped their calves and forearms, the better to survive the savagery of the Colosseum. Medieval knights taped their chargers' fetlocks to sustain the impact of jousts. During the Civil War, a Union physician named Gibney devised the overlapping, crosshatched taping that now supports the stressed or injured ankles, knees, elbows and wrists of athletes and accident victims alike. Automobile racing crews have been known to tape up wrecked cars and send them back onto the track. Certainly, without tape, lowly tape, the National Football League would collapse from popped Achilles tendons, torn knee ligaments, sprung ribs and separated shoulders.
During peacetime at least, the NFL is probably the largest single consumer of tape in the world. On the average, a team uses 125 miles of the sticky stuff in a given season, with the lion's share devoted to the limbs and ligaments of linemen. Joe Kuczo, the Washington Redskins' head trainer, estimates that he and his three assistants tape a total of 400 ankles a day during training camp. The Redskin tab for tape comes to $35,000 a year—roughly the yearly wage of a sturdy young interior lineman.
The need for tape and its allies (such as 4 x 8-inch "AstroTurf bandages" to prevent burns on artificial surfaces and the braces and harnesses that hold injury-prone players like Joe Namath together) is obvious. According to Dr. Edmund Enos, a former University of Connecticut and Canadian Football League player who now heads the biophysical education department at Concordia University in Montreal, nine out of 10 NFL players were injured to one degree or another last season, and 86% of all high school football players suffered some injury. Enos' statistics show that where the average life expectancy of a male nonathlete is 70 years, that of a football player is only 58. (Boxers, by contrast, can expect to reach 62. and baseball players 65.) "Injuries in sports have hit the epidemic stage," Dr. Enos says. For most injuries the cure is simple: slap on some more tape.
And trainers slap it on in a bewildering array of intricate, individualistic styles. There is the Louisiana Wrap, which employs cloth wrapping under the tape to prevent skin irritation; the Gibney Weave; the Basketweave; the Figure Eight: and the Stirrup, an under-the-foot-and-around-the-ankle wrap. Bubba Tyer, Kuczo's assistant, invented a wrap of his own for Mark Moseley's kicking foot. He tapes it so that Moseley's toes are always pointing up and his ankle is locked, giving him increased height and distance on kickoffs and placements.
"There's been a lot of improvement in tape over the last 20 years," says Dr. Edward Block. B.S., M.S., Ed.D., R.P.T., F.A.C.S.M., who has been head trainer for the Baltimore Colts since 1953. "The adhesive surface is less irritating. It used to be that almost everybody was sensitive to tape. Now relatively few players are. But the techniques haven't changed much since the days of the Egyptians."
Tape alone, though, wasn't enough to protect the painfully broken ribs of Johnny Unitas before the championship game of 1958. "We made a grueling, glorious device for John," recalls Block. "The thing weighed 9½ pounds and was made of hammered aluminum. It got hammered a bit more during the game, and afterward it took two of us to bend it back enough for him to take it off."
Although ankles get the most attention and most teams levy fines as high as $250 on any player who does not get taped before a game, hands are probably most frequently injured. "Many players have a tendency to jam their fingers," says Trainer Dom Gentile of the Green Bay Packers, "so we tape them together. Defensive linemen and linebackers use their hands a lot, so most of them have their whole hands taped. Offensive linemen don't tape their hands, but a lot of them tape their thumbs." Tape sticks both ways, however, so some wide receivers and defensive backs tape their forearms, the better to catch a pass or tackle a ballcarrier.
In the middle of last season, some offensive linemen began using thumb-knuckle-wrist protectors, boxing-style gloves cut down at the fingers, to protect their paws from helmets, cleats and facemask bars in the clangor of the Pit. The gloves save on the time-consuming taping chores of overworked trainers and also permit an occasional, knuckle-saving uppercut when the officials aren't looking.
The most publicized football injuries are those involving knees. The ligaments that hold those crucial and complex joints together are particularly prone to tearing under undue lateral stress. The roster of top running backs whose careers have been cut short by knee surgery is painfully long, including such names as Gale Sayers, Tucker Frederick-son and Steve Owens. Larry Brown of the Redskins has yet to regain his league-leading form since surgery a year and a half ago. The most famous bum knees in football, though, are Namath's. While most players with injured knees wear taping that runs from halfway up the calf to halfway up the thigh, Namath sports the Lenox Hill Derotation Brace, sometimes a pair, sometimes only on the right knee. These intricate gizmos, designed by Dr. James Nicholas and costing $250 apiece, permit free movement of the knee forward and backward, and act as a kind of armor against impact or stress from the side. Bob Maddox, a Kansas City Chiefs defensive lineman (now on the injured reserve list), wears one, and while the brace hampers his lateral movement, it gives him an unfair advantage at the line of scrimmage. Offensive linemen frequently "leg-whip" their opposite numbers, swinging their heavily taped and padded shins around to cut down the enemy. When the whipper's leg collides with the Lenox Hill Derotation Brace, the leg tends to smart. "If he gets hurt by the brace while he's leg-whipping, it's his fault," says Maddox a bit smugly.
Maddox' remark raises the interesting question: To what extent are these "protective devices" used as weapons? Ernie Stautner, the standout defensive tackle of the old, losing Pittsburgh Steelers and now a defensive coach for the Dallas Cowboys, was much feared and respected by his opponents. Stautner's forearms were always heavily taped, and rumor had it that he wore flattened tennis-ball cans under the wrappings, thus giving him a harder wallop. Again and again, officials checked Stautner's arms before a game and found no such contraband. Ralph Berlin, the current Pittsburgh trainer, says that Stautner taped cylindrical tape cartons to his forearms. Whatever, Stautner's forearm shiver was so effective that when he retired he taught his replacement, Ben McGee, to use it. In a game against the New York Giants, Rosey Brown and McGee suddenly came to blows and were thrown out. Later, the placid Brown was asked what had infuriated him so much that he would swing at a mere rookie.
"Man, I been taking those blows from Stautner for 10 years," he said. "That was bad enough, but when this rookie started beating on me, I decided I'd had enough."
To prevent the use of hidden plating, NFL officials question trainers about the players' wraps before each game. Wrist or forearm casts must be covered with three-eighths of an inch of Styrofoam or sponge-rubber padding. If not, back to the dressing room for a rewrapping.
Taping, particularly of the ankles, has been commonplace in the NFL since the league's inception in 1920 and has permeated football down to the Pop Warner level. So now many players take it as a matter of course, having been taped ever since grade school. However, there is a school of thought which holds that taping is unnecessary and that its main value is to offer psychological rather than structural support. Dr. A. B. Ferguson, a professor of orthopedics at the University of Pittsburgh medical school and a physician for Pitt's football team, says, "By the time an athlete gets through the third year of high school he feels that going in without tape is like going in without pants." Dr. Ferguson contends that taping does not protect against injuries and takes the emphasis away from protective measures that should be used. Moreover, he says trainers are worried they won't have anything to do if wrapping ankles is discontinued.
Indeed, there are enough outstanding players who are not taped excessively to form an All-Star squad. Quarterback Ken Anderson of the Cincinnati Bengals refuses to have his ankles taped, but as Trainer Marvin Pollins says, "He's got ankles like tree stumps." Cincinnati's team physicians don't require taping, and about 15% of the team goes tapeless. Minnesota Vikings Coach Bud Grant, who didn't use tape himself as a player, lets the matter rest in the hands—or feet—of the individual. Defensive Tackle Jim Marshall, who has started every Viking game, goes light on the sticky stuff, and his sidekick, Alan Page, tapes only a couple of previously sprained fingers. Steve Odom, the Green Bay wide receiver and kick returner, feels tape slows his moves. "I don't like anything on my ankles," he says. "I don't use any adhesive tape, just a gauze wrap backed by gummed sponge rubber. And I only use that because I'd be fined if I didn't."
Most trainers are aware of the growing body of medical opinion that sees tape as largely useless, and some even agree that it might be—in sports other than football. "It's not proper to compare football with hockey, rugby, soccer, basketball or baseball," says Raider Trainer George Anderson. "In all of those sports, the general rule is that the contact follows the ball or puck. In football, the contact is there all up and down the line, regardless of where the ball goes. So the contact in football, I'd say, is easily five times greater than in those other sports." But even the "tape myth" adherents agree that taping is necessary to prevent cuts and abrasions, particularly on the new, harder artificial surfaces.
The modern trainer has many new devices in his "crash cart" and training room to augment the use of ancient, controversial tape. There are Buck Rogers gizmos like the ultrasonic "ray gun," the EGS (Electrogalvanic Stimulator) and the Neuromod Pulse Generator to ease aches and pains on and off the field. A device that has been around for a while—and around which revolves one of the few funny anecdotes to emerge from the world of aches and pains—is the "quick-heat packet," a pouch of chemically treated fluids that is taped over a sore spot and serves as a pain-killer for pulled muscles.
During a Dallas-Washington game a number of years back, Linebacker Sam Huff of the Redskins blitzed Cowboy Quarterback Don Meredith and knocked him sprawling. As Dandy Don lay on the field, a huge, red stain began to spread on the front of his jersey. Huff looked down almost tearfully as Meredith, knowing that it was only the chemical from a ruptured "quick-heat packet," gasped histrionically, begging Huff to lean closer so he could catch Meredith's last words to his mother. Beside himself with remorse, Huff promised he would honor Dandy's dying wishes. Then a Dallas trainer trotted up, took in the scene and burst out laughing.
For all that, the work of the pro football trainer is rarely a laughing matter. Dealing as they do every day with pain and injury and with the prime requirement of remaining cool in times of crisis so they can make decisions that will help rather than aggravate injury, they fight a constant battle between objectivity and compassion. Baltimore's Block is one of the most thoughtful of the breed. "The fundamental problem of athletic training," he says, "is like that of the space scientist. Speed. Anytime you run a machine at its topmost limits—and the human body can be considered a machine—you're absolutely going to encounter problems. Mix a jointed machine like a human body into a system, call it a team, and oppose it with a similar system, and naturally you're going to need a training room."
And miles of tape. Lowly tape.
Scouting reports and bottom-line projections for each of the NFL's six divisions begin on the following page. Mark Donovan analyzes Central developments, Joe Marshall inspects the Eastern front and Ron Reid tells who'll win the West.