Where's the Beef?
This is an article from the Oct. 24, 1994 issue
How can you have any sympathy for Chris Doleman? The Falcon defensive end tried and failed to engineer his own departure from Atlanta last week at the trading deadline because he was disgusted with how he was being used. During the off-season, Doleman was traded to the Falcons for a No. 2 pick from the 1994 draft and a No. 1 from '95, and signed a contract that pays him $5.4 million over two years—a huge commitment for a pass rusher with a history of beefing over his pay. "I'm not interested in going to Pro Bowls or being All-Pro anymore," he told the Atlanta Constitution last month. "I want something that's bigger than that. I'd like to win a Super Bowl."
But, though the season was not yet half over, Doleman convinced the Falcons to let his agent, David Falk, try to find a deal for him. Doleman, it turns out, doesn't like defensive coordinator Jim Bates's scheme, which has defensive linemen tying up offensive linemen in order to free linebackers to do most of the pass-rushing. But Atlanta didn't get a nibble when Falk talked trade. "Doleman has to be kidding," said one general manager. "He was never happy in Minnesota, he talked his way out of Minnesota, he got an incredible deal with the Falcons, and now he wants to be traded? The guy's never going to be happy. We had no interest whatsoever."
Doleman deserves to be scolded for being a malcontent on a young, improving team. But the Falcons have to accept some blame for giving a pure pass rusher a $3 million signing bonus to be a run-pass player. Now Doleman comes in only on pass-rushing downs. "They brought me here and paid me a lot of money, and I'm very grateful for that," says Doleman. "But you have to put a guy in the right situation so he can work."
"The only thing that will help him is a three-sack game," says Viking defensive line coach John Teerlinck. "He needs to be allowed to rush the passer."
No. What Doleman needs is to be reminded of how the Falcons satisfied him six months ago when no one else would.
Eight days after his head collided with Bill linebacker Cornelius Bennett's knee, Bear running back Merril Hoge described how he felt: "I feel like I've got a bad flu and a head cold, and I've been living in a sauna for two days, and I've just gotten hit by a truck. My equilibrium is all screwed up. I'm completely exhausted, and I've done nothing. The other day, I started eating some scrambled eggs. But they were hot. I started blowing on them, blowing and blowing. The next thing I knew, I looked at my fork, and I'm blowing on a mandarin orange, and I had no idea how it got there or why I was blowing on it. I guess I thought it was still the egg."
Hoge was painting a vivid picture of a man suffering the lingering effects of a severe concussion. On Oct. 2, as Hoge lunged forward to clear a hole for running back Spencer Tillman, the front of his face mask collided with Bennett's knee. Five flattened bars on the face mask smashed into Hoge's face, one of them cutting his chin. He wobbled through one more play before leaving the field for the afternoon.
That night and into the next day, he didn't know he had a wife or a daughter. By last Friday, nearly two weeks after the injury, Hoge was still listless and nauseated, "I want to get my life back," he said after undergoing a neurological exam in Pittsburgh. On Monday, the 29-year-old Hoge announced his retirement.
Hoge's condition is a grim reminder of the steep price exacted by the NFL's fearsome collisions. A concussion is, literally, a bruise of the brain. While trainers around the league say there has been no apparent increase in the number of concussions, Pittsburgh neurosurgeons Julian Bailes and Joseph Maroon have recently begun testing the fine-motor and short-term memory skills of Steelers, as they begin their careers, to give doctors a basis from which to compare the effect of concussions on those players who incur them.
There are some players who think that suffering a concussion is a badge of toughness. "It's pride," says safety Andre Waters of Arizona. "What I usually do is get a lot of ammonia and sniff it. It probably takes about 20 minutes for my head to clear." When he quarterbacked the Saints, Bobby Hebert suffered a concussion in the first half of a game against the Bucs in 1989 on a hit that also cost him three front teeth. But when backup John Fourcade had to leave the game with an injury late in the first half, and the Saints didn't have a third quarterback, Hebert, memory lapses and all, finished the game, which New Orleans lost.
"It was a foolish thing to do," Hebert, now with the Falcons, said last week. "I was delirious in the huddle. My equilibrium was all screwed up when I dropped back to pass. On the way back to New Orleans after the game, I was throwing up on the plane, and I had a terrible headache. But it's one of those things when you play football. I figure the team's counting on me, and I've got to be a hard-nosed guy."
This, obviously, is where the medical staff must step in and say No màs. Doctors say their concern is heightened if one concussion is followed quickly by another, which was the case with Hoge. Six weeks before the game with the Bills, in a preseason game at Kansas City, Hoge suffered a concussion that prompted the following sidelines exchange with a Bear trainer.
"Where are you?" asked the trainer.
"In Tampa Bay," Hoge replied.
"How do you know that?"
"I can hear the ocean."
That, of course, was the ringing in Hoge's ears. Hoge was given the O.K. to open the season, and when he broke his hand against the Jets on Sept. 25, Hoge told the Bears he didn't want to wear a cast; the pain wasn't so bad, he said, and he would just play with it wrapped. The severe concussion came the next week. Hoge did not lose consciousness on the play, but he never felt doctors stitching his chin or setting the bone in his hand when they decided to place a cast on the break that night.
Last week Hoge spoke with players and trainers who have had severe concussions. His talk with former Jet receiver Al Toon, who had to retire in 1992 after suffering the effects of several concussions, was the most compelling. "He shed light on some things I really didn't want to believe," Hoge says. "He had so many of the same things happen to him that have happened to me."
The experience left Hoge wondering if football is really worth it—if it was worth searching fruitlessly in a Pittsburgh hotel room last Friday for his own car keys and after 20 minutes realizing he was using a rental car, not his own. In one phone conversation with SI last week, he suddenly interrupted himself.
"Have I forgotten about you since we've been talking?" Hoge asked. "Sometimes I go to answer call-waiting, put people on hold and forget about them. They call back, and I don't remember putting them on hold."
The NFL's new drug policy is still being hammered out, but one proposal from the players' association may not fly with some of the league's more conservative owners. Under the existing rules, a player who tests positive for drugs a second time is suspended without pay for four weeks. Under the new proposal, a two-time offender would not be suspended—and therefore not publicly identified—and would be allowed to play while undergoing outpatient treatment, though he would probably forfeit his salary....
The best defensive free agent in 1995 might not be linebacker Cornelius Bennett of Buffalo. It just might be rangy, 27-year-old safety Stanley Richard of San Diego, who has returned two interceptions for touchdowns....
The Lions have demoted outside linebacker Pat Swilling, who has played in the last five Pro Bowls, to second-string. With only eight sacks and 46 tackles in his year and a half as a Lion, Swilling has been a major disappointment. Coach Wayne Fontes believes that Swilling has yet to get over the death of his father 13 months ago. "Ever since his dad passed away," says Fontes, "he has not been the same player."