Although casualty lists are available in football, no one source ever seems to know exactly how injuries occur or how many there are in a given period for all levels of the game. But indications are that 1977 was a particularly doleful year for the sport James A. Michener calls "the American form of violence" in his exhaustive book, Sports in America
. Navy Coach George Welsh complained of "more injuries than any time since I've been here," but did not know why. Dr. Donald Cooper, the team physician at Oklahoma State, went onto the field 13 times in one game, "and that never happened before." Texas, No. 1-ranked at the time, was down to its fourth quarterback by midseason. The
Detroit Free Press
characterized the Tampa Bay Buccaneers- Detroit Lions game as an excuse for a "Go Blue" cheer—a fight song dedicated to Blue Cross and Blue Shield. With five games left in the season the Buccaneers had lost three quarterbacks. The Lions had had 21 knee operations in three seasons. Asked who on his 80-man Maryland team had not missed a game or a practice because of injury, Coach Jerry Claiborne named only one player.
However, no team could match the devastation that was wrought on the football team of LaPorte ( Ind.) High School. By mid-October, the Slicers, as they are unfortunately nicknamed, had suffered four broken backs, four broken legs and numerous torn ligaments and cartilages. Fifteen lettermen had major injuries. Coach Lou Famiano told the
Michigan City News-Dispatch he had thought of moving practice to the hospital lawn. At the end of one session, Famiano called for a final play. "I shouldn't have," he says. "Our No. 2 punter broke his leg and our No. 1 center suffered a broken hand." In a junior varsity game, as one Sheer lay on the sidelines, awaiting an ambulance, with a broken leg, another was hit in the chest. His heart stopped. It took electroshock treatment at the hospital to revive him. Famiano says, "My only explanation is the kids have learned bad habits in the early stages of their career, and that's pure speculation."
The upcoming fall renewal of what is often called "hostilities" on sports pages promises no less grim a harvest. Projecting from recent surveys, it is anticipated that the "part of the game" no one likes to talk about will:
?Injure a million high school players at approximately 20,000 schools.
?Injure 70,000 college players at more than 900 schools.
?Inflict a 100% casualty rate (at least one injury for every player) on the National Football League.
In the lexicon of coaches, many of these injuries will be "minor," meaning no game time lost. Others will curtail seasons. A few will end careers. Some will have long-term effects that will grow more painful and restricting with age. Others will be immediately crippling.
Relatively speaking, football is no longer a killer sport and should not be condemned or condoned on that basis. (In 1905, the year Teddy Roosevelt told the game to square itself away, there had been 18 deaths in the college ranks alone.) The issue is not only dead bodies, but also wounded ones—the systematic wasting of men and boys within the boundaries of "legal play." Injuries are endemic to a physical sport, and certain risks are implied. The issue is not the risk of injury, but how much injury is necessary and therefore acceptable.
Apparently a lot.
In a survey for
The New York Times Special Features, Dr. James Garrick, then of the University of Washington Sports Medicine Department, said, "If the United States ignored an annual epidemic striking a million and a half youngsters each autumn, Americans would revolt. Yet they cheered while that many college, high school. Pop Warner and sandlot players were injured." Dr. Garrick put the more celebrated Sunday carnage of the pros in perspective. "More high school kids get injured every Friday night than pros do in a year."