There is something jarring and strange about being near a NFL-sized person as a full-sized adult. We don't generally see people of Vince Wilfork's considerable personal width in our day-to-day lives, and the unique star power of Robert Griffin III, whatever it's worth on the football field, is not something found at most workplaces. For all the For They Are Modern Gladiators mythos and branded awe that surrounds every NFL thing, there is also the difficult physical fact of these people -- men, to be sure, but also bigger and stronger and faster than other men, and so seemingly just different. But of course they're just men, because what else could they be?
This is "men" in its most basic descriptive sense, now, not the weirdly loaded hair-trigger thing recently rage-sobbed about on bad sports radio, or the more sentimentalized abstraction puffed into pomp-sogged caricature during the NFL's last few dumb weeks. This is "men" as in "adult male human," just like the adult humans who consume and care about the NFL, with all the associated strengths and weaknesses and good and bad urges. All the same moving parts, all of them just as crucial and just as vulnerable as they are in everyone else.
As strange as it is to be around NFL players as an adult, for all those very good reasons, the players never seem bigger than they do to a kid. We grow up with the athletes we watch, and then outgrow them: they're godlike clusters of pixels and then they are, briefly and implausibly, our chronological peers, and then they're avatars of our own shrinking invincibility -- these are the years when we realize we'd be considered on the downside of our careers, were we pro athletes instead of professional What We Are's. And then they're receding abstractions, progressively less like us.
They stay the same age, as the young replace the old, but we keep on moving, eventually losing them in our rearview. More and more their fashions and tastes and appearance are unlike ours, and so more strange in the way that young people can seem to not-young people. And then, at some point, we're all the way back around and we're kids again, and the players are as abstract as they ever were -- humans, as we hopefully remember, but mostly once again characters in a TV show. All far away and again unlike us, objects again of our wishes and whims.
That is, if we're being honest, no place for an adult to be. The football we watched as kids, and the way we watched it, should not be the game we see as an adult. I still remember that old football very well, particularly the violence of it -- unchanged, for all the rule changes since -- which seemed then so outlandish and fake and so weirdly harmless. I didn't know what I was watching, or know that I didn't know.
Before I knew what anything was, and probably while wearing football-themed pajamas, I watched Joe Theismann's leg get split open on live television. One of my favorite players on my favorite team did it to him. It was shocking and gross, but I didn't really understand it, because I saw it as a boy, with a kid's non-understanding of consequence and from across the yawning empathy gap of adolescence. I was just watching television. I could care a lot about everything that happened on the field and still not really care at all.
Leonard Marshall, who was a star defensive lineman on the Giants teams of my youth, was one such player I cared about and didn't. Tony Dorsett, the best player on the Giants' best-hated rival, was a player I watched Marshall try to tackle, and sometimes actually bring down -- one of the greatest running backs of his or any era, but to me a pest and an enemy and someone I wanted to see thrown to the turf, separated from the football, knocked out of the game. Maybe even hurt, if I'm being honest, because I didn't know what that meant or felt like, or have any idea what it meant to want that for Tony Dorsett or anyone else. I would've been happy to see Leonard Marshall do it.
And now they are very badly hurt. Last week, Leonard Marshall and Tony Dorsett and other retired NFL players were diagnosed with chronic traumatic encephalopathy -- the trauma-induced brain injury previously diagnosed in dozens of NFL players, always after death -- after undergoing tests at UCLA. Marshall and Dorsett are alive and functioning, if also bowed under the heavy weight that retired NFL players disproportionately bear -- they suffer in body and mind, they forget things, forget their own selves. Overwhelming depressions crash over them and stay. The ex-supermen think of suicide. They are older men, now, half their lives past their last moment on the field, and they have been stripped not just of what was theirs -- the grace their talent gave them, the significance the rest of us conferred upon them because of that talent -- but of the basic peace the rest of us have. They are, again, unlike us.
The players, men though they are, must stay boys in order to deny the danger and hurt of what they do enough to go on doing it. "All NFL players are teenage males," the former Packers lineman and college coach Bill Curry told Joe Posnanski last week. "I don't care if you are 37 years old. You have to be a teenage male to play that game at that level." Their efforts, in turn, let the adults watching be little kids. This is an experience that's giddy and awed on its bright side. It's demanding, petulant, and small on the other -- imagine a loud living room of adults making those little-kid violence sounds that whiskey-lunged super-child Chris Berman, in a moment of accidental satiric genius, brought to his ESPN highlight segments.
The good thing in all this is that these men now know what is happening to them, and why. Another thing, which could be good or could be just another thing, is that all involved, them and us, now understand more clearly what comes with this sport and that job. We've been understanding that more clearly for a while now. We're still figuring out what to do with it.
The wounded men do not have the luxury of our fan's abstraction or ambivalence or choice not to care. They have a problem in their heads that will kill them, and they have to figure out how to live with that problem, and try to solve it. Dorsett told the Dallas Morning News about his determination to "beat" CTE, which is not something the medical establishment believes is possible just yet. The most promising experimental treatment for the disease seems almost impossibly symbolic: it quite literally involves shining light on these clouding brains.
No one knows yet how well any of this will work. Money will be spent on research, and smart people will work on this problem, and Tony Dorsett and Leonard Marshall will doubtless bring to this new struggle the same wild determination and strength that put them on those fields, those decades ago, in the games that helped us forget that they were made of the same breakable stuff as any and everyone else. It's all awful, but at least these players know more now than they did before, and at least now the people who might solve this problem can get down to work.
Some of those people who might solve that problem are us, if we can find the strength to care about this and make that caring stick. Leonard Marshall wants an apology from the NFL; the rest of us might just want to see this unimaginably rich league take some care of the men who gave themselves to the game. For all the huff and puff about men in and around football of late -- beyond the usual It's A Man's Game maundering in broadcasts and the whinging I Am A Man And That Means Give Me Everything I Want bleating on the Damon Bruce-ier corners of sports radio -- we understand this supposed crisis in masculinity better than we might admit.
The games are transporting and great, but we always wake up from them as ourselves. That is, as adults who know that the better part of being an adult is responsibility and knowing what to do with it. This, not eating a Cheezy Ranchero Crunch-Beefer on the bumper of a car or buying a specific brand of fart-seltzerish lite beer or caving on various other whims, is the thing that men do when they do good. Those are kid things, little tantrums thrown in malls.
We, men and women, learn the difference between power and strength just by growing up. The first is the infantilizing thing given us by remote control and willed distance: the power to dismiss, to shut down, to so casually condemn and judge and forget. This is loud, and can sound like strength, but it isn't. Strength is a more demanding thing than that, quieter and tougher and more fulfilling. It's a risk to care about something, to see things as they are, to try to solve a difficult problem. It's more work, and more difficult. It's more valuable, too.