Until I graduated from high school, I was quite unaware of college sports, professional teams, and such things as college bowl games. About the only sport I was aware of, besides my own hometown football and basketball teams, was the World Series, and that was only because the teachers, as well as many of the students, in my high school insisted on having a radio playing in the study hall and broadcasting those games that were being played on school days. I suspect that, if the administration hadn’t approved of that practice, there would have been a lot of fake excuses written to explain a lot of absences, and probably a rash of teachers “coming down with something” during the series.
Once in college in Iowa City, the part of my education that occurred outside the classroom developed at a surprising rate and I became an avid Hawkeye fan. Going to the games was easy in those days. Students had season tickets to all the home games. All we had to do was show our student I.D. card and pick up our ticket at the ticket office; already paid for as part of our student fees. We were used to walking around campus for classes (students who had cars– and they were few– kept them off campus and mostly walked everyplace like the rest of us).Walking from downtown to the stadium was a pleasant stroll. There was a reserved student section. Not exactly on the 50-yard-line, but down front where the cheerleaders could engage us and where we could actually see the players well enough to recognize them by their faces and not just their numbers. Once each season, the dorm where I lived invited the teams to dinner and they were scattered among the tables in the dining room. I was fortunate enough to have shared one of those occasions with six other girls and Alex Karras at one of the tables.
Cal Jones attended one of those dinners another year, though I didn’t get to meet him at that time. I had a rather memorable introduction one frigid January morning when I was trying to walk down the ice-glazed sidewalk west of Old Capitol. I didn’t fall, though I don’t know how I avoided it, and I found myself gaining speed as I glided down that steep, slippery walk. I didn’t know how in the world I would ever stop this toboggan ride and keep from shooting right out into the traffic on Madison Street and possibly on into the river. At the bottom of the hill, stood a large figure with arms out-stretched, seeming to wait for me. I didn’t know if he could stop my careening plunge or not, but it was a moot question because I couldn’t stop or change my direction if I tried. I found out what a lot of football players had already learned. Running into Cal Jones was very much like slamming into a brick wall.
That team was a memorable one, they went to the Rose Bowl that year, and Alex Karras was chosen an All-American in both 1956 and 1957. I was impressed by his poise and good manners at that dormitory dinner (we were served T-bone steaks as I recall. Not our usual dorm fare). He visited casually with all the girls at the table, though I was too shy about my knowledge of football to mention that topic. Not too many years later, I watched him in the movie “Blazing Saddles” and was further impressed. I hadn’t really had a conversation with Cal Jones, it was more a babbling, breathless jumble when I thanked him for saving me from what would have surely been a bad fall at best. And I was, later, sad to hear about his death in a plane crash.
The reports of Alex Karras’ death and his battle with dementia that we learned of recently was another piece of bad news and a reminder of how long it’s been since I was a student. I guess it’s not surprising that his brain was apparently damaged by all those blows he took during practice and football games. I sincerely hope that all the things that have been brought to light lately regarding head injuries in contact sports will lead to some changes. I hope for saner rules, better protective equipment, and better treatment for such injuries. I certainly don’t want to turn football into a kindergarten game right up there with “Farmer in the Dell” but we do need to stop damaging our healthy young athletes in the pursuit of glory and trophies. Even Olympic Gold is sorry compensation for injuring a brain, limiting a future, ending a life.
I’m pretty sure that the boys and men who play football and other relatively violent games, would be among the first to agree that it isn’t worth the sacrifice of a long, healthy life. Perhaps it will be the players themselves who finally insist that changes be made. I should think that even the highest-paid athlete would think that his well-being is worth more than that paycheck.