by Lance Dixon
Dale Hackbart was born in 1938 in Madison, WI., and he stayed close to home for the early part of his accomplished football life. He was the starting quarterback for the University of Wisconsin football team where he was an All-Big Ten offensive choice his senior year. He also lettered in basketball and baseball and nearly chose the latter after signing with the Pittsburgh Pirates and playing for a season in the minor leagues. But Hackbart was also a fifth round pick in the 1960 draft for the Green Bay Packers, and with some coaxing from coach Vince Lombardi, Hackbart picked football.
That decision led to a 13-year professional career as a safety and cornerback, with stops in Washington, St. Louis (now the Arizona Cardinals), the Canadian Football League with the Winnipeg Blue Bombers, the Minnesota Vikings and finally with the Denver Broncos. His career in Denver ended after only three games after he was struck in the neck by Bengals fullback Boobie Clark in 1973. Hackbart said in a phone interview that he understood the severity of the injury immediately, but that it was treated very routinely.
“When I got up and ran off the field at halftime I walked into the training room and told them I had numbness in my left side and that I felt numb,” said Hackbart. “They took some ice packs and put it on the back of my neck. I went ahead and practiced.”
Hackbart said that after the injury he depended on Darvon, a pain reliever that’s now banned in the United States; taking up to 16 pills a day. He also fashioned a “neck harness” out of foam padding and tape. Broncos defensive backs coach, Joe Collier, and Hackbart conferred, and they decided he would not start at safety, but he still played on special teams in the Broncos’ next two games. His final NFL game would come against the Chicago Bears, in the third game of that season.
“I’m running down and I’m not sure who’s going to block me. Some guy hit me from the Bears and blind-sided me,” said Hackbart. “I got up and said, ‘I got to get out of this game, I’m going to get hurt.’ On Monday [after the game] I couldn’t get out of bed, I couldn’t lift my head.”
Hackbart’s first wife, Beverly — who died in 2000 — drove him to the hospital in Longmont, Colorado. They eventually went to see radiologists in Denver, and Hackbart said that he got a wake-up call from the diagnosis.
One doctor asked him, “What do you do for a living? I said, ‘I play professional football.’ He said, ‘you’re done.’
“I had about 20 percent [of the] reflexes in my left arm,” said Hackbart. “I spent about a week in the hospital. I was very lucky I didn’t end up a paraplegic or quadriplegic.”
While Hackbart had luck, he said many other former players, including teammates such as Packers safety Willie Wood, are now in a debilitated state. Hackbart said that the mental and physical state of his former teammates, and the lack of care they’re receiving in their retirement, was his primary motivation for joining some 4000 players in the class action suit against the NFL that is pending in federal court in Philadelphia. The players charge that the league withheld information about the danger of multiple concussive blows to the head. The league denies it.
Hackbart gives some credit to the past NFL owners for making some necessary changes over the years, but he said he doesn’t think safety was given enough consideration.
“There wasn’t a lot of particular attention paid to players when they did get a concussion,” Hackbart said. “You played in pain, you went back in. You did whatever you could do. That was part of the environment, players would be judged by if they could play in pain.”
Hackbart has a somewhat reserved approach to the lawsuit. He said the main question attorneys asked was if he wanted his second wife, Eileen, included in the suit in case he dies. She also is a plaintiff. His main focus is making sure that players like him, or those who are in worse shape, receive proper help.
“There are a lot of people who think it’s about money, that’s not my real motivation,” Hackbart said. “My motivation is to care for the individuals that played in the ‘70s and ‘80s who are really in bad shape. My motive is not to end up with a big check or a bank account.”
In 1976, three years after the hit that changed his career, the former defensive back underwent surgery after doctors said that he could lose the use of his left arm. He went through years of rehab, but eventually began to exercise and lift weights again. He then began a tire business with his former University of Wisconsin football teammate Jim Holmes in Boulder, Colorado. But Holmes said things went sour after a few years. “We weren’t getting along that good,” said Holmes in a phone interview. “It was just an accumulation of things.”
Hackbart sued Holmes in relation to their partnership over the tire company—Hackbart and Holmes Tire of Denver, Inc. Holmes said he believed that once Hackbart decided to end the relationship he was only entitled to the $5,000 he initially invested. But in 1982 the 10th Circuit of the U.S. Court of Appeals awarded Hackbart that amount and additional damages.
After the case, Hackbart went on to work for the Bridgestone/Firestone Company, where for over 30 years he has served as a manager of mining accounts in Boulder, Colorado. He plans to retire on October 1 and “sit back and relax for a few months” and then perhaps coach high school football in Denver. He says that when working he jogs a lot and still feels some physical discomfort, despite the successful surgery.
“Even when I exercise now, I still have a lot of pain in the neck area and it goes down into the shoulder blade,” said Hackbart. “And the three fingers on my left hand go numb from time to time.”
Hackbart also sued both Clark and the Bengals for $1 million dollars in 1977 in U.S. District Court in Colorado claiming that Clark’s hit caused his neck injury and was an act of “reckless misconduct.” The judge in the initial case sided with the Bengals, but the decision would be reversed two years later in the 10th Circuit. The case was eventually settled out of court.
Though Hackbart was able to find a resolution to his case, he recalls how dangerous the game was and laments over what past oversights have done to his fellow retirees.
“The NFL owners are out there trying to make the game as safe as they possibly can, but it’s like running into a train sometimes,” said Hackbart. “People are going to get hurt. It’s just a matter of identifying the injury and addressing it immediately and that just didn’t happen in the ‘50s, ‘60s and ‘70s.”