'Their Life's Work': The game’s impact on the 1970s Steelers' bodies and brains



This is the last of three excerpts from Gary M. Pomerantz’s “Their Life’s Work: The Brotherhood of the 1970s Pittsburgh Steelers, Then and Now,” released today by Simon & Schuster.

Today’s excerpt is from one of the book’s concluding chapters, “A Legacy Haunted,” in which players reckon with the game’s impact on their bodies and brains.

 

In the quiet of night, the game called out for payment. The players felt it in their muscles and bones. They all lived with some pain, differing by degrees.

As Franco Harris takes blueberries and fish oil each morning to slow brain damage he believes that he, and every other NFL player, has suffered, fellow running back Kamal Ali Salaam-El (formerly Reggie Harrison) takes OxyContin and other medications for head, back, and leg pain, and whisks through his northern Virginia home on a motorized scooter.

As John "Frenchy" Fuqua needs latches on doors at home because his surgically repaired wrists can't turn a knob, linebacker Andy Russell gets occasional massages, whereupon deep pains in his legs trigger deep memories. Ouch! That one's from the Cincinnati Bengals in 1968. Ouch! That one's from getting leg-whipped in Super Bowl IX.

Defensive end L.C. Greenwood couldn't recall exactly how many back surgeries he'd had. Fourteen? Fifteen? "I feel like I've been rode hard and put away wet," he said. (Greenwood died last month at the age of 67.) Safety Donnie Shell, one of the Steelers' hardest hitters, says his memory isn't what it once was. The reason? "I'm quite sure it's football," he says.

Gary Dunn, a defensive lineman, underwent 10 knee surgeries. He also suffers pain from bulging lumbar discs, which doctors treated with cortisone shots and by burning nerves in his lower back, with mixed success. Some days Dunn can't walk, some nights he can't sleep.

For some Steelers, pro football had provided a way up from difficult circumstances early in life. Today, as they measure what their Steelers years gave and took, to a man they all say they would do it again, even those who suffer daily for it.

"No, I don't regret it," Dunn said. "But the older I get, and the more messed up I get, I might be a little more hesitant to say that. In other words, I think about it more now that I feel so bad. ... I played for a great organization. It was a great time. Do I wish I wasn't so screwed up because of it? Yes. But not everybody is as messed up as I am, and some people are worse."

Downstairs at his northern Virginia home, Kamal Ali Salaam-El sits at the front edge of a recliner -- the opposite of reclining. He holds the chair's left arm for balance as his body lists far to the right, like the Titanic just before it disappeared beneath the water's surface. His gray hair has receded enough to fully expose the V branded in the center of his forehead from savage hits against his helmet, hits that caused cognitive deficits and prompted him in 2006 to enroll in the University of North Carolina's memory recovery program.

He hardly resembles the running back formerly known as Reggie Harrison. As Kamal Ali Salaam-El, his names translate to "Greatness" and "Exalted" and "Peace." A Christian still, he legally changed his name in 2000, he says, to embrace Moorish-American citizenship at a time when he was angry with his ex-wife, the judge in their divorce proceedings, the court system and the United States of America.

His life has been filled with surprises, even that moment in Super Bowl X that belonged to him when, as a Steelers special teams kamikaze, he broke through the Dallas line to block Mitch Hoopes' fourth-quarter punt, the ball bouncing out of the end zone for a safety. He got so close to Hoopes on the play that the punter's foot busted him in the mouth on his follow-through, splitting open Harrison's tongue, blood gushing from it. But Ernie "Fats" Holmes, so cheerful on the sideline, reminded him that with the money they would get from winning the game, "You can buy yourself a new tongue."

It was the head-on collisions that Reggie Harrison loved best. He was a 218-pound battering ram, his self-described running style "beastly." He liked collisions on kickoff and punt returns best. "You go 35 or 40 yards and it's a blast! Let me tell you something: IT IS A BLAST! No matter what, God dang it, you are going to get ... tore up, man! That's the way it is."

Even so, he says, he carries no regrets: "If you played that game you are going to hurt. Still, I can slip on one or two Super Bowl rings, and there is something there for me."

Defensive lineman John Banaszak, too, relished the big hits. He saw one recently on television and replayed it for his wife. "See that?" he said. "That's what I miss right there! That one shot where you know that you've -- it's hard to describe -- but that feeling that you've just annihilated someone."

Banaszak, who coaches football at Robert Morris University, said, "When you see it happen on television, you know you'd like to be in that position again. But it's not going to happen. I'd be crippled now if I hit people as hard as I did back in the day, and I wasn't a vicious hitter." Even so, Banaszak said, wistfully, "I wish I could buckle that chinstrap one more time."

"I mean, you can't not get your head banged when playing this game," receiver John Stallworth said. "I think the options are, for a player, it's either you play and realize the potential [for injury], or you don't play at all. I think the integrity of the game is that it is 'hit and be hit.' My philosophy -- and the philosophy in Pittsburgh on the football teams I played for -- was you win football games when you hit the other guy harder than he hits you. And you do that on a consistent basis."

There was another compelling reason they played, tight end Randy Grossman said. They all had unique physical gifts. "It's what separates you from the faceless crowd," Grossman said. "It's the one thing that [we] are amazingly special at. The recognition and self-worth that comes with being special is special."

 

Author Gary M. Pomerantz will appear at 6 p.m. Wednesday at the Heinz History Center, 1212 Smallman St. in the Strip District, in conversation with Steelers chairman Dan Rooney and former players Rocky Bleier, Andy Russell and Franco Harris in the national book launch for "Their Life's Work." For event information, call 412-454-6000.

Gary M. Pomerantz, a former sportswriter at The Washington Post, is the author of four books and a visiting lecturer at Stanford University. Copyright 2013 by Gary M. Pomerantz. Reprinted by permission of Simon & Schuster Inc.


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