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Joe Lapointe Headshot

Football Helmets As Weapons...Time to Ban the Kickoff?

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In a pithy comment by one President about another, Lyndon Johnson once said of Gerald Ford "He's a nice fellow but he spent too much time playing football without a helmet.''

Johnson implied that Ford's head and mind were damaged by collisions inherent in the violent sport. Such jokes lose their humor in the aftermath of last weekend's rash of frightening injuries.

On the same field, in the New Meadowlands Stadium in New Jersey, a college player -- Eric LeGrand of Rutgers -- was paralyzed Saturday after a collision on a kickoff damaged his spine.

A day later, in almost the same spot, Zack Follett of the Detroit Lions was carted off to a hospital after a similar collision on a kickoff. Fortunately, he was released a day later.

These injuries both involved helmet contact and both occurred on kickoffs. Perhaps football needs to reevaluate helmet use and design and re-think the kickoff play entirely.

Helmets were originally made of leather to protect the head of the wearer. Over the years, as hard plastics were developed, the evolving helmets gave the wearers a sense of invincibility and some players began to use them as weapons.

After Jack Tatum of the Oakland Raiders paralyzed Darryl Stingley of the New England Patriots in 1978, he wrote a book entitled "They Call Me Assassin'' and he did not apologize for his style or Stingley's injury.

On his book tour, Tatum told me it was hypocritical for people to decry the use of the helmet to inflict pain.

He said coaches from his youth leagues upward told defenders "Everybody get a hat on'' when tackling. Tatum said this meant players should lead with their helmeted heads as the point of contact.

If you watch old black-and-white films of football from the leather-helmet days, you will see how well ball carriers seem to slip tackles and break away for swivel-hipped runs.

Part of the reason is that tacklers did not lead with their heads then because it was too dangerous for the tackler. So they tried to make contact with their shoulders. This reduced the impact of initial collisions.

As for kickoffs, any viewer knows that a disproportionate amount of serious head and spinal injuries occur on these plays when large, aggressive and armored athletes charge toward each other from great distances.

For this, it might be best to suggest a radical change: Eliminate kickoffs. Instead, let the team last scored upon take the ball at the 20 yard line (or the 25, or the 30) and start its drive from there.

This would eliminate a few spectacular touchdown runs from the highlight reels. It also would cut down on many penalties for holding and blocking from behind. Moreover, it would lessen some of the horrible collisions that can put players in hospitals or worse.


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