It’s currently Black History Month, the 50th anniversary of the first Super Bowl took place on Sunday and the NFL continues to be embroiled in its sad, scary, serious controversy over concussions.
Those elements collided in a recent New York Times story about former Packers great Willie Wood. The heartrending profile chronicles the physical and mental decline of Wood, a Hall of Fame safety who made a key interception in Green Bay’s victory over Kansas City in Super Bowl I but has since developed dementia and now doesn’t remember the famous play at all.
Wood, 79 and mostly bound to a wheelchair after knee, hip and neck surgeries, has been at an assisted living center in Washington, D.C., for almost a decade. Though he wears a Packers hat most days, according to the Times, he rarely speaks and doesn’t recall his illustrious, 12-year career, in which he was an eight-time Pro Bowler and five-time NFL champion.
My uncle, Tim Carlton, has fond memories of watching Wood as a kid and, years later, meeting and having a beer with him at a D.C. bar, when the ex-player was running a fairly successful mechanical systems business. He says Wood was "the first Packer that I remember really being a fan of."
The article touches on Wood’s achievements as an African American pioneer in football. He was the first black quarterback in the history of the Pacific Coast Conference (now the Pac-12) in 1957, became the first black head coach in professional football with the World Football League’s Philadelphia Bell in 1975 and later was the first black head coach in the Canadian Football League with the Toronto Argonauts in 1980. Wood was also one of the only African Americans on the Packers during the Vince Lombardi era.
The legendary coach called Wood’s interception of Chiefs quarterback Len Dawson on Jan. 15, 1967 the "steal of the game. Willie Wood at his finest."
Wood is not the only one from those old Green Bay teams enduring physical and cognitive health issues. Among others, Hall of Fame quarterback Bart Starr suffered multiple strokes and a heart attack in 2014, broke his hip during a fall and has difficulty remembering his career, as well.
But Wood’s dementia is particularly poignant. It’s a painful reminder of the ongoing struggles of many retired football players, some of whom have been diagnosed – posthumously – with the debilitating, degenerative brain disease called chronic traumatic encephalopathy, or CTE.
In 2013, the NFL agreed to pay $765 million to settle a lawsuit brought by about 5,000 former players who accused the league of hiding from them the dangers of concussions. Last year, a federal judge approved the settlement – which pays up to $5 million to retirees who have one of the prescribed neurological disorders and also provides money for education about head injuries – though many players have criticized the deal.
On Sunday, the Broncos beat the Panthers in Super Bowl 50, a game in which players on both sides suffered concussions and Carolina quarterback Cam Newton was again the subject of racial debate.
Willie Wood, according to the Times article, did not watch the big game.
Born in Milwaukee but a product of Shorewood High School (go ‘Hounds!) and Northwestern University (go ‘Cats!), Jimmy never knew the schoolboy bliss of cheering for a winning football, basketball or baseball team. So he ditched being a fan in order to cover sports professionally - occasionally objectively, always passionately. He's lived in Chicago, New York and Dallas, but now resides again in his beloved Brew City and is an ardent attacker of the notorious Milwaukee Inferiority Complex.
After interning at print publications like Birds and Blooms (official motto: "America's #1 backyard birding and gardening magazine!"), Sports Illustrated (unofficial motto: "Subscribe and save up to 90% off the cover price!") and The Dallas Morning News (a newspaper!), Jimmy worked for web outlets like CBSSports.com, where he was a Packers beat reporter, and FOX Sports Wisconsin, where he managed digital content. He's a proponent and frequent user of em dashes, parenthetical asides, descriptive appositives and, really, anything that makes his sentences longer and more needlessly complex.
Jimmy appreciates references to late '90s Brewers and Bucks players and is the curator of the unofficial John Jaha Hall of Fame. He also enjoys running, biking and soccer, but isn't too annoying about them. He writes about sports - both mainstream and unconventional - and non-sports, including history, music, food, art and even golf (just kidding!), and welcomes reader suggestions for off-the-beaten-path story ideas.