Last week I drove up to Sacramento for dinner with my friend and ebook author George Visger. I was supposed to meet him at 7 p.m. at the Hyperbaric Oxygen Clinic near the UC Davis Medical Center. George is basically sleeping on the floor of the clinic these days while he tries, again, to get back on his feet financially. His last contract as a wildlife biology consultant on a construction project ended in February, which was also the last time I saw him in person.
Perhaps some of you are not yet familiar with the story of the remarkable Mr. V — owner of a football-induced shunt that drains excess fluid from his brain, survivor of the 1981-82 San Francisco 49ers Super Bowl champions and of nine brain surgeries, which have left him with impaired short-term memory, like the guy in the cult-classic movie Memento. You should know that his OUT OF MY HEAD: My Life in and Out of Football makes a great electronic stocking stuffer at $2.99. On the Kindle version (http://amzn.to/znZuiL), every penny goes to George after Amazon’s 30 percent cut. On the plain PDF version (available by sending $2.99 via PayPal to email@example.com), every penny goes to George after the small PayPal transaction fee.
Another friend of mine, Patrick Hruby, has a big text-and-video package on Visger coming out next month at ESPN.com. Hruby understands how emblematic George’s dire straits are of a generation of brain-wounded National Football League veterans. Patrick is a brilliant writer with a wonderful human touch, and I can’t wait to read and view what he produced.
But I’m also here to tell you that Visger is not in despair. Even in a hyperbaric chamber, his relentless sense of humor leaves no oxygen for self-pity.
When I made plans to drive to Sacto, I asked George whether I should bring in some Popeye’s chicken, or if he had a key to the clinic and in-and-out capability.
He emailed back: “They actually let me out of the clinic on occasion, as long I’m with a responsible adult so I won’t wander off. Can you bring one?”
But when I arrived, guess what? There was no George, nor any response to my texts and voicemails. Fortunately, the clinic’s co-owner and manager, Mike Greenhalgh — who lives right next door — was still inside with another patient, and we hung out and traded notes on the latest concussion developments. Eventually George called. He had been visiting with his indestructible 5-foot-1-inch, 89-year-old Lebanese mother, “Big Rita,” and his phone had frozen. Despite a mess of yellow Post-It notes and memory notebook entries, our dinner engagement had slipped his agile mind. No harm, no foul.
Over dinner, Visger told me about the progress he’s making with his brain-injury awareness message. He’s an engaging and charismatic public speaker — all defensive lineman’s shrunken hulk, combined with those kinetic Mediterranean gesticulations and eyebrows — and he is in demand for conferences and school groups. Some even pay honoraria, which in his rent-free condition will help build a bridge back to a normal family life until he lands a new consulting gig. Right now, his wife Kristi and their two kids at home, Jack and Amanda, are making a ridiculous 90-minute commute every day from the in-laws’ in Sacramento to their school and sports in Grass Valley.
Our dinner wasn’t all business. I described for George my eight-year-old daughter’s Chinese dance performance at the Richmond Senior Center. In turn, he related the story of how, shortly after meeting Kristi, he got instantly “harpooned” by Stefani, her then two-year-old, blue-eyed, blonde-haired daughter.
At that point I could have busted George’s chops by reminding him that he’d told me that anecdote a dozen times already. Check your goddamn Post-It notes, Visger! But why bother? It’s still a great story in every retelling.
Driving back home late that night, I started thinking about all the George Visgers out there: ex-NFLers, some stars, many more journeymen, who are disabled far too young, in ways small or large, and whose resourcefulness and support networks vary widely. And an idea formed for something I’d first pondered more than a year earlier. After a story on this blog about a retired player in distress (not Visger), a reader began underwriting monthly shipments of high-end Omega 3 supplements to the player. Many believe fish oils hold hope for reversing brain decay and sharpening mental acuity. The reader-donor insisted on anonymity; all he requested was that the recipient report back to him periodically on his progress.
The larger idea goes like this. We all know the ultimate political and legal solutions for the plight of NFL veterans lie in the future. As a nation, we haven’t gotten our arms around this football problem; hell, we can’t even get our arms around the assault-rifle problem. It appears that future benefits for damaged professionals will be resolved in some combination of collective bargaining and litigation. Meanwhile, reducing the national mental-health toll on what are now the millions of American male youths whose parents foolishly launch them into Pop Warner and high school football lies even further on the horizon.
But that doesn’t mean the United States of Football — to borrow the title of Sean Pamphilon’s new documentary — can’t take some interim humanitarian steps.
By the US of F, I mean Fan Nation: the millions of NFL spectators who every week blithely shell out $20 for parking and $12 for stadium beer, or whatever the traffic will bear these days, not to mention the price of tickets and premium cable packages. The entertainment they … we … derive from watching men destroy each other’s brains is a guilty pleasure, and it’s an increasingly conscious guilty pleasure.
So I think it’s time for fans, whether on an organized or an ad hoc basis, to take action on behalf of taking care of their fallen former heroes. They can start by imposing a simple self-tax — the price of one lousy six-pack a month at a tailgate party, for example. Pooled and well distributed, these funds would offer substantial collective relief for the scattered and isolated men and their families throughout the land who, like the ex-player cited above, could use an over-the-counter mental aid, or just some food or rent money. Perhaps the new so-called fan lobbies, League of Fans (http://leagueoffans.org) and Sports Fans Coalition (http://sportsfans.org) — which so far are concentrating on issues like public stadium subsidies and TV blackout rules — could step up to coordinate these efforts.
Just a little something to reflect on at the cusp of Week 16, the college bowl season, the NFL playoffs, and Beyonce’s halftime show on February 3, 2013.
A happy holiday season to all.