By Tony Maglio
The story of Larry Cole is the story of Lee Roy Jordan. It is also the story of Tony Dorsett and of Don Meredith. Right now, the story of Cole is the story of more than 4,000 other former National Football League players who are suing the NFL over the risk of brain injury that they claim to have unknowingly faced throughout their careers. The lawsuit, which accuses the NFL of negligence with regards to concussions and sub-concussive brain injuries, is pending in federal court in Philadelphia.
Larry Cole lives in Colleyville, Texas with his wife, Linda. They have been married 44 years. He runs Larry Cole Communities, a real estate development business, and he has been a real estate developer in Northeast Tarrant County for over 25 years. Like so many 64-year-olds, his life really revolves around his grandchildren. So naturally, Cole hopes to be alive and well to see them grow up.
The affable Cole was not always a real estate man. He had an earlier, more storied career. Cole played 13 seasons in the NFL, all with “America’s Team,” the Dallas Cowboys. He appeared in five Super Bowls, winning two. When Cole retired in 1980, he held the NFL record for appearing in the most playoff games with 26.
Cole began his playing days in Minnesota for Granite Falls High School, which merged to become Yellow Medicine East High School. In college, Cole played one year at the United States Air Force Academy before transferring to the University of Hawaii. He later graduated from the University of Houston.
Cole was drafted in the 16th round of the 1968 NFL Draft by Dallas. He was brought in as an offensive tackle, but was switched to defensive line during training camp. There, Cole quickly developed a reputation for being one of the smartest and most versatile players in the game.
When Cole reminisced in a phone interview about his playing days, he spoke fondly about the old defensive attitude to “destroy…to hit and maim,” as he put it. But Cole was not necessarily speaking of his own play. Cole prided himself on outsmarting his opponents as opposed to punishing them.
Cole’s story is not one of a player who suffered too many concussions and is feeling the ramifications later in life. At least not yet. Cole’s story is about why a man who claims he never even suffered one concussion is among the plaintiffs in the class action lawsuit against the NFL. The only thing along those lines that Cole recalls is being jolted with smelling salts on the sideline, which was common practice after players were stunned by a tackle or a hit. But even in those instances, Cole believes his heritage saved him. “I come from the Vikings and the Germanic tribes,” said Cole. “I’ve got a thick skull.”
As Cole’s former teammate, Lee Roy Jordan said in a phone interview, there was little-to-no concern over head injuries when he and Cole were playing. “[Concussions were] looked at as a minor injury — not like a knee or an ankle or elbow or something that was looked at and doctored and investigated,” Jordan said. “Once you could be alert and remember the plays and everything, whether it was a concussion or minor brain injury — however you wanna qualify it — you were back in the game.” Jordan estimates that he received several concussions, but could not quantify it further.
The mentality surrounding these head injuries was very different in the 1960s and 1970s than it is today. Cole said that it was actually considered kind of funny when a guy got “tooned up,” referring to how cartoons depict a character seeing stars and whistling birds after getting hit by an anvil, or some other equally devastating object. Getting back in right away was perceived as a demonstration of masculinity.
“I did boxing in college,” Cole said, “and I got hit and kinda knocked out, stunned, shall we say. And you come back, you finish the deal and then you’re a man. So it was kind of a test of manliness. Like ‘OK, I got tooned up but I’m gonna get back in the game here and step up my game and hit him.’ You still wanted to show that you can take a punch.”
Save the usual post-playing career aches and pains, Cole said he does not have any significant medical issues today. He has not even had an MRI in an estimated 20 years, nor has he gone for free baseline testing — computerized assessments that measure reaction time, memory capacity, speed of mental processing and executive functioning of the brain. So why is he a part of this lawsuit, where he, like many others, checked off “Injury to himself” and “Economic loss” in his court documents? Cole’s concern is partially for his cognitive future. Should symptoms develop later in life, Cole does not want to be a financial burden on his family. He said he believes that the NFL ignored the issue, and so he chose to be a part of a case that holds the league responsible.
There is a separate issue with regards to future medical monitoring for former players involved in the case. It includes future testing to determine if latent symptoms developed over time, and if those symptoms could be tied back to the player’s career. Cole and any other plaintiff, regardless of current health, would qualify if the case were successful, said a legal source with knowledge of the case.
The larger motivation for Cole joining the class action suit lies within the concept of “strength in numbers.” He said he feels a responsibility to his former teammates who have not been so lucky. One of those is Jordan, who now runs a lumberyard in Dallas.
“My memory has some question marks about it,” said Jordan on his 72nd birthday in April. “I’ve been on medication for two years now. Hopefully it will defer further dementia, Alzheimer’s and so forth. Whether it’s brought on strictly by concussions or whether it’s a combination of the concussions and my age [is unclear].”
Jordan, a linebacker and major figure in Cowboys franchise history, as well as a college football Hall-of-Famer, is also important to this case. In 2011, Jordan organized a meeting for former players at Southern Methodist University. He felt it was important to be represented by “a Texas person.” So Jordan asked his friend, an attorney in Beaumont, TX to make a presentation with his staff at the SMU meeting. Jordan estimates that there were 70 to 80 “Texas guys with ties to the NFL” at the first meeting, as well as SMU head football coach June Jones. The group quickly grew to roughly 200 people.
Larry Cole recalls the meeting well. “We sat in the room with [former players] telling their stories…I mean you were right back in the game [after] a concussion. So many of them don’t even remember playing the second half. There wasn’t any concern.”
Cole solemnly speaks about Hall of Famer Tony Dorsett’s recent admission about concentration issues and former assistant coach Ernie Stautner’s death after a battle with dementia. Stautner was also a Hall of Fame defensive tackle on the Pittsburgh Steelers, playing from 1950 to 1963. Cole remembers Stautner as being sharp at his 75th birthday party. But by 80, Stautner was dead. And the five years in between were rough.
“I remember Ernie, I mean it’s kinda, well sad and amusing. But at a golf tournament he came up to [former player] Bob Lilly two or three times and said, ‘Hey Bob, how ya doin?’ because he forgot he talked to him.”
When speaking to former Cowboys of Cole’s and Jordan’s era, the conversation inevitably steers to Don Meredith. Meredith was a three-time Pro-Bowl quarterback for the Dallas Cowboys who later became an NFL color analyst and actor. “Dandy Don” Meredith died on December 5, 2010 after suffering a brain hemorrhage at age 72.
“I only played one year with Don [Meredith], and he was just a great guy,” said Cole. “But he had a really weak offensive line most of his career. He just used to get pounded. And they used to talk about how tough he was, and he was. He’d come back after just getting mangled. It took its toll over time,” Cole continued, “He also drank a little bit too much, but drinking doesn’t do all of [this damage] to your head. You’ve got to have something else going on too.”
While a number of publications reference that Meredith had at least two reported concussions, there has been no official link to his injuries on the playing field and his death. Jordan was a close friend of Meredith’s. They were even roommates for five or six years. He corroborated Cole’s recounting of how often Meredith was beaten up due to a poor supporting cast.
“Don Meredith certainly had some issues with memory problems and Alzheimer’s before passing,” Jordan said. “A number of times I recall him being carted off the field. I feel confident that many of his issues were caused from concussions.”
Knowing what he knows now, Larry Cole would still have played the game. And he believes that most of his contemporaries would make the same decision. But Cole does not see that choice as grounds for eliminating the NFL’s responsibility to its players, current and former. The story of Larry Cole is still evolving. And he, like other players, wonders how much of his future story will be tied to the decision in Philadelphia.