By Ronald N. Guy Jr.
Washington’s 38-16 Week 1 loss to the Pittsburgh Steelers was a comprehensive destruction of a franchise desperately trying to sow some semblance of a winning culture. Pittsburgh treated Washington like a Southern Maryland spring thunderstorm treats a freshly planted garden full of vulnerable vegetable plants. When the hail and gale force winds subsided, it was a total loss.
Washington was outplayed, outcoached and outclassed as an organization. Whatever momentum Washington had from last season’s playoff berth and whatever mojo QB Kirk Cousins had after his record-setting 2015-16 campaign was completely eviscerated after three brutal hours of physical and strategic domination (and the fog carried over this week against Dallas).
The Black and Gold are contenders; the Burgundy and Gold are pretenders. It’s that simple.
Washington was universally bad, but its defense was horrific. Pittsburgh ran at will, created explosive plays in the passing game, neutered Washington’s pass rush and routinely uprooted the line of scrimmage and shoved it downfield.
Watching the destruction, I longed for perspective from Sam Huff, Washington’s tough-as-nails Hall of Fame middle linebacker and one half of the long-time “Sonny (Jurgensen) and Sam” must-hear game day color commentary. Huff would have shredded this defensive abomination and, in doing so, validated the frustration of irate fans.
But Dr. Huff, having retired in 2013, was unavailable. Huff did make news in the week following the game, but it had nothing to do with a tongue lashing of the defense. Sadly, it seems the icon is suffering from dementia and an ongoing legal dispute between his caregiver and daughter garnered the unfortunate attention.
For former NFL players and their families, Huff’s story has become all too familiar. While prior generations unknowingly put their long-term health in peril, the disturbing facts are now indisputable: Football increases the risk of degenerative brain disease. Huff didn’t know that; current players do and with this knowledge comes confusion. Do you stop playing a game you love? Avoid it altogether? And if you’re an NFL player, do you truncate a lucrative and rewarding career?
In short, how do you balance today’s risks against tomorrow’s consequences?
With early retirements more common, it’s clearly on players’ minds. After a particularly harsh beating during the season opener against the Denver Broncos, Carolina Panthers QB Cam Newton was asked about long-term health concerns. Here is the reigning MVP's response: “I’m worried about winning. That’s it. Winning. Winning football games. That’s why I’m here. I’m not here to worry about retirement plans. I’m not here to worry about pensions. I’m not here to worry about workers comp. I’m here to win football games. Simple and plain. This is a contact sport. This is a physical sport.”
Part of me loves that response - LOVES IT. Passionate. Competitive. All-in. Another part of me, a new conscience-laden version, worries about Newton and his peers and their post-NFL life. A 2014 NFL report indicated that 30% of NFL players will suffer from degenerative brain disease, making them twice as likely as the general public to be diagnosed - and many will be diagnosed at disturbingly young ages. Huff is part of the 30%. Will Newton be? It is a difficult outcome to consider.
But life is a thrilling, hazard-infused odyssey. Living in a risk-free bubble – a place with no fried foods, red meat or alcohol, where sexual pursuits are closely legislated and where everyone drives the speed limit - sure would be a drag. And even then, there are unavoidable stressors – relationships, careers, parenthood, etc. – that can be clear and present dangers to human health.
Hunter S. Thompson captured our earthly journey well when he said, “Life should not be a journey to the grave with the intention of arriving safely in a pretty and well preserved body, but rather to skid in broadside in a cloud of smoke, thoroughly used up, totally worn out and loudly proclaiming ‘Wow! What a ride.’”
That about sums it up, indeed. Of course how that quote is interpreted and applied – how an experience today is balanced against a potential consequence tomorrow - is unique to every person, pro football quarterback or not.