SportsPulse: NFL reporter Lorenzo Reyes attempts to explain the helmet rule that is causing chaos this preseason and if the NFL plans on making any adjustments to rule ahead of the regular season.
RICHMOND, Va. – Three times.
That’s the number of instances Willie Lanier was told that his heart stopped, while being transported to the hospital in an ambulance in 1967 after he collapsed on a football field.
All these years later, while debate rages about the practicality of the NFL’s new helmet rule, the Hall of Fame linebacker has decided to reveal publicly for the first time – as he endorses the need for the controversial safety measure — that he nearly died from a head injury.
Weird thing, Lanier wasn’t told of his near-death experience until a decade later when flying back on the team charter from Oakland in 1977 following the final game of his brilliant, 11-year career with the Kansas City Chiefs … which says so much about standards, conflicts and trust.
“The team doctor comes up to me on the plane and told me he had something to tell me, and had he told me earlier it might have affected my great career,” Lanier told USA TODAY Sports. “So I looked at him whimsically.”
The physician, Albert Miller, is now deceased. Lanier said Miller was the doctor who originally treated him for the head injury suffered during his rookie year that was ultimately diagnosed as an undetected subdural hematoma, which forced him to contemplate retirement.
Here’s how Lanier, 73, remembers that exchange on the airplane:
“Remember when you were injured your first year?”
“On the way to the hospital, I lost your pulse three times.”
It was stunning to hear Lanier recall this, sitting in conference room at his downtown office recently.
He has held on to this for decades. Years ago, he sought verification and had his insurance carrier try to dig up the medical records, wanting the information for his family. But the records, he said, didn’t go back farther than 1970.
“It’s not like it was a hamstring,” Lanier said. “The man said, ‘pulse … three times.’
Hesitant to speak about it publicly, Lanier said Saturday as he watched the funeral for Sen. John McCain, that he has been moved by recent events. In addition to the services for McCain, stirring tributes to Aretha Franklin, the late “Queen of Soul,” hit home.
So, with what he termed as the type of “freedom” that McCain exhibited throughout his life, Lanier figures there’s no need to hold back anything as he issues his strongest message yet in championing the cause of the NFL’s helmet rule.
“Players need to know,” he said, “they can put themselves at great risk.”
Surely, players today as was the case in Lanier’s heyday, realize there’s risk whenever they step on the field. Yet the pushback expressed by a multitude of players contending that the NFL’s new rule will change the essence of the sport – “flag football,” is how San Francisco 49ers cornerback Richard Sherman puts it – and require them to alter tackling techniques with unreasonable expectations.
During the preseason, players were penalized 71 times under the new rule (1.09 a game), with the rate decreasing sharply the past weeks. Most of the infractions (61) were called on defenders.
Lanier’s bottom-line message beyond the health risk, is that skeptical players can indeed take their heads out of the game. After all, that’s exactly what he accomplished in compiling a resume that includes eight all-pro selections, a Super Bowl IV crown, recognition on the NFL’s 75th Anniversary Team and a jersey, No. 63, retired by the Chiefs.
After he collapsed on the field, suffering what was believed to be a concussion, Lanier was back for the next game. It wasn’t until two weeks later, with vertical double vision so severe that he grasped at air thinking he was tackling San Diego quarterback John Hadl in the open field, Lanier told Miller he was determined to get to the bottom of his issues. Granted, this was during an era when little was known about how to diagnose and treat head injuries. He wound up at the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minn., where his condition was diagnosed.
“Undetected subdural hematoma is … a brain bleed that can kill you,” Lanier said. “A brain bleed doesn’t necessarily show itself at the time it occurs.”
Lanier believes the injury occurred when he caught a knee in the head during a routine tackle, rather than with a huge, knockout blow. The double vision, which Lanier said was caused by damage to an optic nerve, was the symptom that made the difference.
He decided while at the Mayo Clinic that if he couldn’t play football, “Ninety-percent safe, I wasn’t playing again.”
Lanier didn’t consult with anybody – family, teammates, coaches or doctors – when contemplating retirement during his rookie year.
“It was quiet time between Willie and God,” he said. “‘Are you going to do this and how are you going to do it? Base it on physics and zero emotion.’“
Playing safe meant that the man noted as the first African American in pro football to play the “thinking man’s position” on defense resolved to change his tackling style. As a rookie, Lanier earned the nickname “Contact” from teammate Jerry Mays, because he went head-first, targeting to blow up opponents by hitting them between the numbers.
For the final 10 seasons, Lanier became known as “Honey Bear” because his tackling style aimed for body-on-body contact, rather than leading with the arm, shoulder or head.
“And the odds of me missing are damn-near zero,” he maintained.
Was it a tough adjustment to change his style?
“No,” Lanier said. “I was unconscious for two hours.”
Two years ago, Lanier asked his former teammate, Hall of Fame cornerback Emmitt Thomas, about the day in 1967 when he collapsed in the huddle.
“I said, ‘Emmitt, I want to ask you something since you were in the huddle. You saw me fall. It’s the first time I’ve ever asked you this in 50 years. What did you think when I collapsed?’
“He said, ‘I thought you were dead.'”
Lanier slammed his palm on the table.
“I’m down,” he said. “Not from a play where I couldn’t get up. Because the pressure from the undetected hematoma had built up inside the skull and it was about to shut my system down.”
Never mind that this occurred a half-century ago. You might wonder if players could adapt their styles as Lanier did, in a faster game with bigger and stronger players. He is undeterred in his warning to players about the risks.
“The simplest thing,” he said, “is to take the head out of the game.”