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Players learn dangerous techniques like butt-blocking and butt-tackling in the littlest of leagues, where coaches imitate things they have seen or been taught at higher levels. Collegians imitate pros, high schoolers imitate collegians. The added peril for the younger player, says Dr. Cooper, is that he has not had time to develop the powerful neck muscles post-teens have. "The heads of some of those skinny kids are no more than knobs on the end of a whip," he says. "They ram that helmet in there, and it makes you cringe."
Once having become expert in using the helmet as a weapon, even the brightest of players defend it as the "right way." Dick Anderson, the retired Miami Dolphin All-Pro safety and former president of the NFL Players Association, says you would "spoil the game" if you tried to eliminate helmet-first techniques. "You need to tackle with the helmet sometimes," he says. "Injuries are the risk you take." After being sidelined last year, Texas Tech Quarterback Rodney Allison said he "didn't think it was possible for a defensive player not to use his helmet."
But once you have given a player a loaded gun, there is no guarantee what he will do with it. Texas Coach Fred Akers cites, as one of the perversions of helmet use, a growing practice known as earholing, in which a player aims the top of his helmet at another player's ear, with predictable results. Dr. Cooper recalls an Oklahoma State coach who taught rake-blocking (see cover), in which the blocker rams the chest of his opponent and then comes up violently, raking his face mask into the opposing player's chin. The rake block is now a popular technique on the West Coast.
Meggyesy, former St. Louis Cardinal linebacker, describing a technique he says he developed while at Syracuse University under the tutelage of All-Pro Center Jim Ringo, recounts that "I'd fire off the ball and stick my opponent under the chin, straightening him up and neutralizing his initial charge. Then I'd let him start to go around me...and just as he got close to the quarterback, I'd spear him in the legs just above the knees with' my helmet.... Only problem with spear-blocking was that I got kicked in the head a lot.... I'd be pretty dingy by the end of the game, and by my senior year I was throwing up after every game."
Parrish, a onetime Brown defensive back, writes the following of a confrontation with the Steelers' Mike Sandusky: "Mike was set on revenge for my cleating him in the groin the play before.... [He] never broke stride. He drove his helmet into the right side of my unprotected rib cage and knocked me six yards in the air...the hardest lick I ever took, the first time I was laid out on a pro football field.... No official dropped a flag. I heard the Pittsburgh crowd let out a cheer as I hit the ground.... That night, around 3 a.m., I rushed to the bathroom with fierce stomach pains. I threw up a solid whitish ball of food the size of a grapefruit.... I was deathly afraid I was going to strangle."
The cancerous effect of such tactics apparently dawns slowly on the men in charge. After surveying his squad of outpatients last season, then- Washington Redskin Coach George Allen said, "Coaches are not the reason for injuries. Football is great the way it is. Too many rules changes haven't worked before." While leading Notre Dame to a 95-17-14 record in 11 seasons, Ara Parseghian was one of the few coaches to crusade against the head-on tackling and blocking techniques that had become popular in the '50s. "I'd go to clinics," Parseghian recalls, "and hear coaches say, 'You block with your helmet. You tackle with your helmet.' I'd say, 'No way! You block with your shoulder. It's a lot stronger blow, and you don't risk nearly as much. Why be stupid?'
"I had one assistant coach I finally had to threaten to fire. He wouldn't stop teaching our kids to use that damn helmet. You get different philosophies in coaching, usually depending on what position the coach himself played. You get some defensive guys who want to kill the other guy. That's the way they did it. That's the way they thought it ought to be done. It's tough to turn them around."
In 1970 the colleges outlawed spearing, which was defined as "the deliberate and malicious use of the head and helmet in an attempt to punish a runner after his momentum has been stopped." Later the prohibition was broadened to include any deliberate use of the helmet to punish an opponent, whether he had been stopped or not, and to make illegal "striking a runner with the crown or top of the helmet." The rule is only sporadically enforced. And face-to-numbers blocking and tackling (the front of the helmet or the face guard making initial contact) is still legal, and it is estimated that eight out of 10 coaches teach it. The pros have no rule specifically intended to prevent spearing. Art McNally, the NFL's supervisor of officials, says, "Spearing has never been a problem in the NFL."
The evidence does not support him. Nor does it support the contention that spearing and other forms of helmet-hitting, legal or not, have abated at any level. Parseghian says he watches the pros on television and sees "some of the most vicious helmet hits ever. This kid [Doug] Plank of the Bears? His head really does come flying in there with 'reckless abandon.' It's awful. When Terry Bradshaw got blindsided by Gerald Irons, I thought he was cut in half." Russ Francis, the All-Pro New England tight end, had three ribs broken when he was spiked in the side by Buffalo Defensive Back Steve Freeman last year. Francis admitted, "It wasn't illegal, but you don't do that to somebody's ribs."