Sunday, October 06, 2013

"You're the only one left"

Last Sunday, there was a great, albeit heartbreaking, moment during the FOX Sports NFL post-game show when Terry Bradshaw talked about the passing of L.C. Greenwood.  Speaking of his phone call with Joe Greene earlier in the day, Bradshaw teared and choked up when he told of saying to Greene, "Joe, you're the only one left."  The only member left of the great Steel Curtain, the seemingly invincible Pittsburgh Steelers front four of Greene, Greenwood, Ernie Holmes and Dwight White. 

Back in the mid-1970s, I hated that Steelers team, mostly because of a series of memorable duels they held with the great Oakland Raiders teams of the day.  Every year from 1972 through 1976, either the Steelers or the Raiders ended the season of the other in the playoffs, with the Steelers capturing two Super Bowl titles and the Raiders one during that period.  You could hardly call those matchups "games" - they were vicious affairs, with the two teams clearly doing everything in their power to pound the other into submission.  Rarely did one of their games end without someone having to be helped off the field.

With due respect to the 1985 Bears, I'll stick to my guns with my belief that those Steel Curtain teams featured the greatest defense in the history of the NFL.  Not only did you have that fearsome front four, you also had the maniacal Jack Lambert at middle linebacker, and the amazing Mel Blount (at the time, I thought he was the best of them all, and I may have been right) prowling in the secondary, ready at any moment to punish Fred Biletikoff, Cliff Branch or Dave Casper coming across the middle for one of Ken Stabler's pinpoint passes.  That the Raiders were able to win any of those games (they took 2 of 5) is a testament to the fact that they were a pretty special team themselves.

The sadness of Greenwood's death also made me think about something Ray Lewis had said earlier in the day on ESPN, during a soliloquy on how the game "ain't what it used to be," with the now familiar refrain of "if they only let us hit today the way we used to hit..." as his theme.

Well, let's think about that for a minute - let's look at the Steel Curtain, and the warriors they faced across the line, the Hall of Fame - caliber offensive line of the Raiders:

- Greenwood, dead at 67
- Dwight White, dead at 59
- Ernie Holmes, dead at 60

- Gene Upshaw, dead at 63
- Jim Otto, alive at 75, but the veteran of 70 surgeries, hip and knee replacements, and ultimately the amputation of one leg.

Only Greene and Art Shell still among the living.

And that, Ray Lewis, is why the NFL doesn't want today's players - bigger, faster and stronger - to hit the way players used to hit.  That is why the NFL recently agreed to place almost three-quarters of a billion dollars in trust for former players, and that's just for the impact that multiple concussions have had on so many players.

Today, we are seeing the impact of the game on its former players - and keep in mind, all of those listed above were among they very best at their positions.  There's no other way to put it - they are dying before their time.  And for every Hall of Famer like Upshaw, there are dozens of lesser known players suffering from the very same things.  The NFL is doing the right thing when it cracks down on vicious, and mostly unnecessary, hits. 

In the meantime, we still have the memories.  R.I.P., L.C.

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