Burwell: Faulk doesn't want NFL to become less violent

BY BRYAN BURWELL, Post-Dispatch Sports Columnist
Friday, June 8, 2012

Marshall Faulk is the epitome of the paradoxical mix that makes pro football America's most popular athletic obsession. The first time I laid eyes on him, he was some unknown freshman tailback at San Diego State. But within minutes of flashing across my television screen, I could see he was special. Here was this blur of rare athletic genius, jump-cutting and zig-zagging past all these hopeless defenders who lunged at him like drunks trying to catch a greased pig.

They were hopeless, but he was some kind of artist, darting around the field like an untouchable. He was stopping on a dime. He always was here when they always were there. He was football as a breathlessly beautiful art form, that uncanny stylist who brought you to your feet ooohing and ahhhhing.

Yet this marvelous thing of football beauty was a nasty madman who could deliver a blow to your gut and love it. Years later when he had grown up into an elegant future NFL Hall of Fame running back, I would see him deliver a brutal blow to the exposed ribcage of an onrushing defender in pass protection, see the man crumble to the ground in pain, then strut cockily back to the huddle.

Now 39 years old, retired and almost one year into his life as a recently-inducted Hall of Famer, Faulk also perfectly represents the contradictory dilemma facing his sport as his NFL community wrestles with the complex repercussions of its violent nature.

"It's pretty simple for me," Faulk said. "Player safety is 'Go play golf. Go play basketball where they call fouls for slapping you on the hand.' ... But it's football. I hope guys get to play longer and there aren't as many injuries as there were in the past. But I'm sorry, it is a contact sport. And I will feel cheated to a certain extent (if too many changes are made) because I want to watch the contact sport that I grew up loving and watching, but I know that's no longer possible."

It was Thursday afternoon in St. Louis, and Faulk was reacting to the news coming out of a Philadelphia federal court where a few hours earlier scores of lawsuits involving thousands of former NFL players who say they have suffered the long-term impact of game-related head trauma were consolidated into one master complaint against the National Football League. The suit accuses the NFL of hiding information that linked football-related head trauma to permanent brain problems such as dementia and Alzheimer's disease and seeks to hold the league responsible for the care of players suffering from those health ails.

The football community really is in a strange place, because even as the former players filed a lawsuit that could result in astronomical costs to the NFL, attorneys for players say no one is trying to destroy pro football. They're just trying to find a way to make it safer and improve the quality of life of the retired players who have suffered disabilities as a result of the game they love.

Faulk —in town to promote his annual celebrity golf event, the Lumiere Place Golf Classic — says he never suffered a concussion during his 13-year NFL career. He's one of the many former players I've talked to who has no intellectual confusion about improving player safety. But football by its very nature is steeped in violence. The NFL didn't need NFL Films to romanticize its product. Anyone who's ever loved or played football already did that from the first moment they slapped on a helmet.

"Football was an outlet for guys like me," Faulk said. "I was a fighter when I was a little kid. It was a way I could hit people or take advantage of people and didn't get in trouble for it. I enjoyed it and loved contact as a kid. ... Look, nobody made me play football. The problem is the NFL supposedly didn't tell (former players) what could possibly happen if you keep playing. It's just like smoking cigarettes. They tell you what can happen if you smoke cigarettes. It's on the back of the pack. And now there are (public) smoking areas, but it's not illegal to smoke. They don't let you only buy one pack a day. There are no rules on it."

And to Faulk, football has the same issue. It's not the inherent danger that's wrong with the NFL. It's the belief by thousands of former players that the league might have acted like so many cigarette executives, hiding the risks associated with that danger.

"They're saying that if you had just told me that in Year 5 if I get two more concussions this was going to be the outcome, I don't think I would have played five more years," he said. "That's what you're up against. It's not about the actual injury, it's about the information."

When I asked him if it was possible to make the game safer, he shrugged his shoulders. "And have it remain the game we love?" he said. "I don't think so."

But whatever superficial changes are done on the field, the bigger ones will have to come off the field. There has to be a way to provide more than adequate health care for the retired men who sacrificed their bodies, took the risks and are now paying for those risk or just waiting for the long-term dangers to manifest.

Faulk takes pride in the fact that he is one of the rare football miracles whose body seems to have weathered the storm.

But even as he talked about how lucky he is, Faulk admitted that he can't predict the future and really won't know for years if all those blows he took and delivered might have produced some bell-ringing damage that went undetected and now is a ticking time bomb waiting to explode.

"I'm lucky," he said. "But I hope we're having a conversation 10 years from now and I can still say I am lucky."