Former NFL players who face effects of concussions still love the game

Many former Cowboys and Sooners still say they want their kids to play football, despite the toll it took on their bodies.
by Michael Baldwin Published: January 25, 2014

X-rays revealed that Kenny King has black spots on his brain, the consequences of being a battering ram lead blocker for Raiders Hall of Fame running back Marcus Allen.

A former Oklahoma All-American, King at times has battled depression. He's suffered migraines. Keeping a job sometimes has been an issue.

King, 56, is an example why dozens of former Oklahoma and Oklahoma State players are among 4,500 former NFL players involved in a $765 million concussion lawsuit settlement with the league.

Knowing what they know now, some experiencing health issues from playing a violent sport, have former Cowboys or Sooners involved in the lawsuit steered their sons away from playing football?

King's 30-year-old son played football through junior college before chronic knee injuries forced him to quit. His youngest son, age 20, stopped playing after high school.

“In a sense I'm kind of happy,” King said. “Seeing where I'm at right now, how I feel, maybe they won't go through all this in their 40s and 50s. And I feel I'm one of the lucky ones. There are a lot of players suffering with ALS, Alzheimer's, dementia.”

A week before the Super Bowl, the NFL concussion lawsuit is back in the news. With lawyers involved in a tug of war, the case isn't much closer to being resolved than when the deal was first agreed upon the week before the season.

Some lawyers seek a quick resolution to assist players like Rusty Hilger, the former Oklahoma State quarterback. Hilger's shoulders, knees and hands ache. They are battle scars from an unheralded quarterback out of Southeast High School who lived the underdog story.

There are times Hilger wonders if a subpar quality of life at age 51 was worth playing eight years in the NFL in addition to putting his name in the OSU record books.

“As a father I would always support my child. If he begged me to play football I'd let him,” said Hilger, whose 15-year-old son plays baseball. “I never encouraged him to play football. In fact I kept him as far away from it as I possibly could.”

Hilger estimates he suffered 15 to 20 concussions. To get a clear picture, call up a YouTube video where New York Giants defensive tackle Leonard Marshall swallows up Hilger in a 1988 Detroit Lions game. Hilger stumbles around like a punch-drunk boxer.

Hilger, though, said his worst concussion was in college, when he was knocked unconscious late in the first half of the 1983 Bluebonnet Bowl. He didn't return but was named MVP.

“That one was the most toxic,” Hilger said. “It cut my chin open. I was laying face down in blood. I had no recollection of anything for about an hour. They somehow got me to the locker room. I finally started coming around when they were putting the final stitches in my chin.”

Brain-rattling hits have produced health issues for hundreds of former NFL players. Each year, stories like that of Hall of Fame running back Tony Dorsett surface, stories that are influencing some parents whether to allow their son to play football.

Dorsett, the former Dallas Cowboys running back, recently underwent three months of testing at UCLA. Doctors determined Dorsett, 59, has chronic traumatic encephalopathy, a degenerative brain condition similar to Alzheimer's. CTE is believed to only be caused by repeated head trauma.

Still, the majority of former OU and OSU players involved in the lawsuit interviewed by The Oklahoman are staunch football advocates. They point to benefits of playing a team sport that demands discipline. They stress football decision-makers finally are taking the controversial subject seriously.

“Our helmets had a couple of pads on top inside and a couple of ear pads. That was it,” King said. “Today's helmets are based on experiments where they run a helmet into a wall sort of like what they do testing automobile accidents. There will always be concussions, but with testing there will be fewer and fewer.”

by Michael Baldwin
Mike Baldwin has been a sports reporter for The Oklahoman since 1982. Mike graduated from Okmulgee High School in 1974 and attended Oklahoma Christian University, graduating with a journalism degree in 1978. Mike's first job was sports editor...
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