The hits continue to reverberate throughout Emanuel King's hulking body. Twenty-two years after making his final tackle, the former Bengals linebacker relives his five NFL seasons with each tortured step and turn of the neck. "By the grace of God," he says, "I'm dealing with it."
At 48, King says he suffers from arthritis in his ankles and knees, nerve damage in his extremities, daily headaches and short-term memory loss. Three bulging disks in his lower back and three more in his neck make restful sleep impossible without trazodone, one of six prescription medications—all nonopiates, King says, because "I don't want to get addicted"—that he takes every day along with ibuprofen.
"I am unable to bend over and tie my shoe," says King, who had surgery on his spine in 2000 but hopes the steroid injections he receives every few months will prevent the need for another operation. "I'm getting around like I'm 75."
Of the 39 former Bengals who responded to SI's survey measuring the impact of pro football on their health, few are worse off than King. Yet he is one of 29 players from Cincinnati's 1986 team who say they'd be comfortable with a son or close relative playing in the NFL. "If I could do it again, I would," he says. "It's worth the ride."
His 19-year-old son, Cole, might have a chance at that ride. A 6'1", 185-pound wideout from Syracuse, N.Y., Cole was a redshirt freshman at Albany this fall. The school has produced just one NFL player (cornerback Rashad Barksdale), but Cole emerged as a star in the FCS's Northeast Conference in 2011, catching 31 passes for 582 yards and six touchdowns to help the Great Danes make their first NCAA tournament appearance since 1977. "It's not where you play, it's how you play," says Cole, adding that the NFL "is a dream I've had for a while. People here are telling me I should have the aspiration and that I may have a chance."
At the homecoming game against Robert Morris on Oct. 15, Cole made a leaping, over-the-shoulder grab for a 44-yard, first-quarter touchdown while being wrestled to the ground by a defender. In a flash Cole sprang up and celebrated by chest-bumping a teammate and high-stepping off the field. Late in the second quarter Emanuel, watching the game from a second-row seat, went up for an attempt of his own, staggering as he tried to snag a souvenir T-shirt lobbed by a cheerleader into the crowd. "That," he said, gingerly setting his 6'4", 300-pound frame back onto the wooden bleachers, "sent shooting pains down both of my legs."
Football has changed since King played for Bear Bryant at Alabama in the early 1980s and for the Bengals and the Raiders from '85 to '89. Back then, he says, concussions were brushed off as "dingers," and coaches demanded that their charges "get up, get going, keep playing while you're hurt." Despite the greater emphasis on safety in recent years—which many former Bengals cite as the main reason they'd support someone close to them following in their footsteps—football remains a violent game. Emanuel tries to strike the right balance with Cole, encouraging him to get treatment for injuries but to "push through" soreness, aches and pains.
"Sometimes I don't know if that's the right mentality with all the suffering I'm going through," Emanuel says. "But I told Cole that if he does play in the NFL, it will be a blessing. Not many people get the chance."
Cole, who had four screws and a metal plate inserted in his right wrist after a high school injury, understands the game's risks perhaps better than most players his age. "My dad complains about injuries all the time," he says. "It's the price you've got to pay."
What would he sacrifice for a shot at the NFL? Would he be willing to endure constant, throbbing pain just to play in one game? "I have constant, throbbing pain now," Cole says. "But I'd rather go through it and see what happens than not see what happens at all."