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But batter it does. The Physician and Sportsmedicine journal, citing figures supplied by the National Electronic Injury Surveillance System, projected that 40,000 interscholastic football players were treated in emergency rooms two years ago for injuries involving the head and neck. The Stanford Research Institute study commissioned by the NFL showed that over a six-year span 9.4% of all injuries were caused by helmet blows. Neither of these studies takes into account the severity of the injury. A far more revealing figure was obtained after a five-year study of college players by Dr. Carl Blyth at the University of North Carolina. He found that 29% of football's most serious injuries—brain and spinal-cord damage, broken ribs, ruptured spleens, bruised kidneys—came as a direct result of external blows by hard-shell helmets.
Not all the damage makes headlines or brings eye-popping courtroom judgments. Some of it can be insidious. A two-year study made at the University of Iowa revealed that 32% of all incoming freshman football players had hitherto undetected neck injuries. Moreover, the report said that without X-ray examination the majority of the impairments would have continued undetected. One doctor says some players he treats have "cervical spines that look like those of arthritic 90-year-olds." Dr. Butch Mulhern of the University of Gerogia says that 30% of the injuries he sees are directly related to helmet blows. "You see older athletes now with chronic pinched nerves and degenerative arthritis that we never had when I played at Georgia [in the '50s] when the technique was to slide your head past and put a shoulder into it," he says. "It'll be worse for them later on. Maybe not surgery or paralysis, but a gradual incapacitation."
There is no question in Dr. Cooper's mind where the blame belongs. "The whole concept of coaching today is 'punish the opposition,' " he says. " 'Punish 'em.' That's what they all talk about. A kid becomes a good college player and the pros want to know, 'Will he run through a brick wall?' Sportscasters talk about playing with 'complete abandon.' The coach says, 'Wipe out the quarterback.' The crowd yells, 'Defense! Defense!' Everybody goes bananas. Then when they wind up with injured players they say, 'Too bad.'
One Saturday stands out in Dr. Cooper's memory for its impact on the Big Eight Conference: the star Kansas quarterback, hit by a helmet, had to have knee surgery; the star Oklahoma cornerback, hit by a helmet, had to have shoulder surgery; the star Oklahoma State fullback, hit by a helmet, had to have his left leg put in a cast. Dr. Cooper did the work on the last. He recalls that the year before, the same fullback had his right leg fractured by a helmet.
Colorado Assistant Coach Ron Corradini called the helmet "the worst advancement in football." Last fall a collision with Nebraska Running Back I. M. Hipp put Colorado Linebacker Tom Perry on an Omaha operating table for five hours. The result of the impact was not instantaneous. Perry collapsed in the locker room with a cerebral hemorrhage. To save him, doctors had to drill a hole five-eighths of an inch in diameter in his skull and evacuate blood clots.
In Dallas, Washington Redskin Back Bob Brunet, blocking on a running play, smacked headfirst into the knee of a Cowboy defender and was knocked out. The spinal cord compressed as the neck tried to "climb" into his helmet. Brunet had a postgame numbness and tingling pains. It was first feared he had suffered a cervical fracture, but the injury was later diagnosed as a bad bruise and swelling on the spinal cord.
Both Perry and Brunet survived, but with their football futures in doubt.
There is no future for Ricky Luciano of Fulton, N.Y.
Luciano "may have been struck solidly in the chest by an opponent's helmet during a kickoff' in a game last October according to accounts in the Syracuse Herald-Journal. He played until the final quarter when, short of breath, he asked to be taken from the game. A coach was driving him to a hospital, but on the way Luciano decided to go home instead. Later that night, Luciano complained of "chest pains" and was rushed to Lee Memorial Hospital in an ambulance. He died shortly after midnight in the emergency room. The county medical examiner called it "accidental trauma" due to "chest injury."