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Harry Carson
E. M. Swift
July 26, 2006
Mr. Inside to Lawrence Taylor's Mr. Outside on the fabled New York Giants linebacking corps has found a new mission in retirement: raising awareness of postconcussion syndrome
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July 26, 2006

Harry Carson

Mr. Inside to Lawrence Taylor's Mr. Outside on the fabled New York Giants linebacking corps has found a new mission in retirement: raising awareness of postconcussion syndrome

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HARRY Carson's job was to prevent opponents from running the ball. That was the key to the stubborn New York Giants defenses of the 1980s, when the 6'2", 237-pound Carson plugged the middle of the field from his inside linebacker position and specialized in leaving opposing offenses in second-and-long. Intense and emotional, he led the Giants in tackles five times, made nine Pro Bowl teams and was named All-NFC five times.

Carson grew up in Florence, S.C., and played defensive end at South Carolina State. In 1976 the Giants made him a fourth-round draft choice and immediately converted him to linebacker. Midway through the year Carson became a starter, and he finished the season by being named to the All-NFL rookie team.

He soon gained the reputation as a ferocious run stuffer, the inside presence that enabled outside linebacker Lawrence Taylor to go after the passer with ears pinned back. A leader both on and off the field, Carson was a Giants captain 10 times in his 13-year career. His best single-game performance came in a Monday-night game in 1982 against the Green Bay Packers when he amassed 20 unassisted tackles. "Harry was a warrior who led by example," said fellow linebacker Carl Banks. "He played middle linebacker like a man among boys."

How difficult was it to run the ball against Carson? Between 1981 and '87, a seven-year period when he was in his prime, the stingy Giants gave up an average of just 3.59 yards per rush--less than the 3.7 yards per rush the heralded 1985 Chicago Bears defense allowed in their Super Bowl year. "Harry is one of the two or three best middle linebackers in history as far as I'm concerned," said former Giants defensive end George Martin. "He and maybe a Dick Butkus and Sam Huff."

Since his retirement Carson, who estimates he had more than 15 concussions in his 21 years of organized football, has devoted much of his time to trying to raise awareness of postconcussion syndrome, a condition he was diagnosed as having two years after the end of his career.

"It's all about the physics of a collision," says Carson, who is a member of the Brain Injury Association's Sports Injury Prevention Council. "When you go helmet-to-helmet against someone like John Riggins, your body stops but your brain keeps going and knocks against the inside of your cranium. Postconcussion syndrome is like a bruise on the brain, only it's permanent in nature. Physically, you feel fine, but neurologically sometimes you're not aware of what's going on around you. I've seen a lot of players falter and lose their way after they retire, and many of them suffer from this condition and don't know what's happened to them."

The symptoms that Carson experienced are headaches, blurred vision, sensitivity to bright lights and loud noises, and the temporary loss of his sense of smell. "I used to do television commentary for ABC, and I'd lose my train of thought trying to make a point," he says. "I kept it to myself for a long time. Playing in pain is ingrained in you as a football player, and any number of times I'd basically be out on my feet in the huddle but would just continue to play. Players are starting to talk about it more now than they used to. I've learned how to live with it. I don't take medication, but I'm always aware of my environment. If I'm in a place where there's a lot of unfiltered noise, like a restaurant, I ask to be seated at a quiet table. There are good days, and days that aren't so good."

The 52-year-old Carson, who now lives in Franklin Lakes, N.J., makes frequent speaking appearances to raise awareness of concussions in sports and for the past two years has been working on a book that deals with coping with the condition. During the football season he cohosts the Giants' pregame television show on Sunday mornings.

His road to the Hall of Fame wasn't without obstacles. A finalist six straight years before finally being elected, Carson grew so weary of having his hopes, and the hopes of his friends and family, dashed that he wrote a letter to the selection committee asking that his name be removed from consideration. "People started to think of me not as the player I was but as the player who couldn't get into the Hall of Fame," Carson says. "I didn't want to be known as the Susan Lucci of football."

Fortunately the seventh time proved to be the charm. "I was never angry with the Hall," he says. "It was the process I thought should be changed. There should be some former players on the Hall of Fame committee, instead of just sportswriters. I have no regrets about writing that letter. Pride can be deadly, but my pride helped me to be the player that I was. I'm honored to have been elected to the Hall, but mostly I'm happy for the people who helped me get to this point. The man I'm happiest for is [late Giants owner] Wellington Mara. He was one of my staunchest supporters."