This is Diana Nyad for KCRW, and this is The Score.
This Saturday will be like so many other late September Saturdays. College football, spirits high, marching bands at full throttle, will romp from goal post to goal post in the idyllic fading light of early fall all over the country. Rivalries, from small liberal arts colleges to huge football-elite universities, will bring hundreds of thousands of students, townies, and alumni into stadiums, from Maine to Florida, from Ohio to Oregon. But Saturday will be particularly special at The Citadel in Charleston, South Carolina. Marc Buoniconti will take the field at his old alma mater at half time. His number, 59, will be retired and there will no doubt be few dry eyes in the stands during that ceremony.
Marc Buoniconti will turn 40 tomorrow, a day before his honor, and that means that he has now lived half his life as a quadriplegic. It was 21 years ago that the strong young linebacker, following in his famous Hall of Fame linebacker father's footsteps, threw his body into a rigorous tackle against East Tennessee State. Marc collapsed, never to get up on his own two legs again, and he says he knew at the very moment he hit the ground that he was paralyzed.
It's an absurd understatement to say that football is a dangerous sport. Sixty-one percent of all pros suffer at least one concussion during their careers. Neck and back injuries, severe arthritis, and of course crushed knees are simply part of the gridiron experience--and that goes for pros, college and even high school players. One offensive lineman underwent 29 surgeries over the course of his 12 years with the Denver Broncos. The quintessential NFL warrior was the Raiders' Jim Otto who went under the knife 40 times due to his on-field collisions. Collision is the right word. Most every football player uses the car-crash analogy to help those of us enjoying the game from our living rooms understand the severity of the hits. These guys are pursuing each other at about 25 miles per hour. And the collisions happen at a frequency of about 70 times per game. Count that up over a season, and even over a short career of less than 4 years averaged by NFL players, and we understand why 50% of all pros retire because of injury.
Pre-season games, full-tackle practices, the regular and post seasons. It's almost a miracle to find an ex-pro football player who doesn't live with chronic pain. It's amazing to me that the wizardry of our current camera technology still doesn't come close to capturing just how big these guys are, just how fast they're moving, and just how devastating their collisions are. Television coverage almost makes football seem a silent, graceful, artful dance. There is grace to a receiver's outstretched body, to be sure. There's art to a running back's high-stepping zig-zags. But what's really going on out there is full-tilt violence.
Walter Payton, Sweetness himself, helped me out with some quickness drills one time. To be on the field with the premiere running back of his time and have him sprint all out directly at me, making that last-second instantaneous slash left or right within inches of hitting me, was to perhaps know the sensation of a cheetah hunting you down. To be on the sidelines of an NFL game is to see veritable giants, 300-pounders with extraordinary strength, crashing into each other at breakneck speed, sometimes literally breakneck speed.
Like millions of people, I love football. But I will admit I'm glad my 8-year old little buddy Ben couldn't find a team in his neighborhood to join this fall. And when I see Marc Buoniconti in his wheel chair on The Citadel field this Saturday, I'll remind myself of the high risk these giants take each time they pull on their shoulder pads.
This is Diana Nyad for KCRW, and that's The Score.