Tony Dorsett Has CTE

Whereas some players accentuated the violence of football, Dorsett masked it. It did not save him.
Tony Dorsett. (Getty Images)

When I was eight years old there simply no one I wanted to be like more than Tony Dorsett. Not Malcolm X. Not my Dad. No one. Tony Dorsett was pretty, as we used to say. He did not so much run as danced. He was the first player I watched as a kid and had that feeling—every time he touched the ball—that something other-wordly might be about to happen. (Randall Cunningham used to give me that same feeling. Derrick Rose, these days.)

To perform in that way, to be a magician, to bring people to the edge of themselves, up out of their skin, simply by running with a ball seemed incredible to me. Watching Dorsett was like a watching a doe play tag with a pack of hyenas. The doe always won.

Football is violence. Some running backs embrace this and broadcast this. I think of how Earl Campbell played offense like he was playing defense. He looked for contact and exacted a price on all who went looking for him. "He fell," Campbell once said after bulling over a linebacker. "I kept running."

Whereas Campbell accentuated the violence of football, Dorsett masked it. Dorsett danced. It did not save him:

Dorsett’s 15-minute phone interview with The News was punctuated by long silences as he stopped in mid-sentence, searching for his train of thought.

Dorsett won the 1976 Heisman Trophy at the University of Pittsburgh and rushed for 12,739 yards during 12 NFL seasons, but nowadays he often can’t remember routes to places he’d driven for years.

“I knew something was going on. It takes me back to the fact that we [as players] were treated [after head injuries] and still put back out there in harm’s way, when from my understanding management knew what they were doing to us.

“They were still subjecting us to that kind of physical abuse without the proper treatment. It really hurts. My quality of life [long pause] deteriorates a little bit just about every day.

I left the NFL two seasons ago. I still check in weekly on NFL scores and news. If I'm in a bar and a game is on, I watch. I went to Howard's homecoming game last week. For the first 35 years of my life, football was my favorite sport. It's going to be a long time before I'm totally done. 

It isn't the violence to which I object. Players often say "I know the risk." I think it's worth taking them at their word on that. Longevity is not the only value in the world. There are experiences so intense that you might trade them for the years. Were I white I could pad my life expectancy a bit. Still I somehow believe I got the better end of the deal.

What rankles me is the inability to look squarely at what this game is, to obscure, to pretend that penalizing head-shots, that decreasing "big hits," that playing the game "the right way" will make it all go away.

Presented by

Ta-Nehisi Coates is a national correspondent at The Atlantic, where he writes about culture, politics, and social issues. He is the author of the memoir The Beautiful Struggle.

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