Categorized | NFL Concussions

Marvin Cobb: Change Football’s Rules and Culture

By: Shaukat Hamdani

Marv vs Lynn Swann cropped

Marvin Cobb (24) defends against Lynn Swann of Pittsburgh. (Photo courtesy of Marvin Cobb)


It was Saturday Dec. 13 in 1975, and the Cincinnati Bengals were at Three Rivers Stadium in Pittsburgh to play the Steelers. During the pre-game warm up, Bengals cornerback Lemar Parrish realized he wasn’t feeling 100 percent. Coach Paul Brown had no choice but to tell a rookie from University of Southern California that he was going to start. Until then Marvin Cobb had only played on special teams.

“The coach comes over,” said Cobb. “And I am thinking uh-oh.”

Cobb wasn’t concerned about the start; every football player dreams of that day. The concern was that he would be facing off against Lynn Swann, his former USC teammate and future hall of fame wide receiver. The night before the game the former teammates had met and both had talked trash a bit. But now that he had been handed the unexpected start, Cobb knew he would have to back up on the field what he had said the night earlier.

“He (Steeler QB Terry Bradshaw) probably threw at Swann seven, eight, nine, times on my side of the field, (Swann) caught one ball and I knocked down every other ball,” Cobb said in a phone interview. It was one of his proudest days.

But almost 38 years later Cobb, 59, has some regrets about his career. “After its all said and done, I had other options that I think would have been more healthy at the least and more permanent,” said Cobb, who played six years in the NFL, five for the Bengals and one season with Pittsburgh and Minnesota. He was a defensive back.

Playing football took a physical toll on Cobb.

Because of the injuries he sustained during his NFL career, Cobb joined a class action suit against the league, although he said he knows of only one documented concussion that he suffered in a game against the Houston Oilers. In his filing for the case now pending in federal court in Philadelphia, Cobb said that he “sustained repetitive traumatic impacts to his head” and also said that he suffers from “various neurological conditions and symptoms related to multiple head traumas.” In the lawsuit Cobb also claims that his “symptoms arise from injuries that are latent and have developed and continue to develop over time.”

In 1978 Cobb suffered a neck injury after a tackle. “ My neck just really was on fire,” Cobb said. “I could shrug my shoulders and make my left shoulder pain just shoot all the way down to my thumb. When I went to the doctor, I didn’t have any sensation in my thumb, I didn’t have any reflex in my left arm. They gave me traction and the doctor said I had a stinger. I am still not real clear on what that means, all I know is that every time I ran into body from then on, my left arm went berserk and hurt like crazy.”

Marv vs Earl Campbell

Cobb holds on against Houston’s Earl Campbell. (Photo courtesy of Marvin Cobb)

The team doctor gave him a neck roll and cleared him to hold for field goals and extra points in the next game. Two weeks later he returned to his normal position on the defense. Even though Cobb had to undergo treatment after every game, he still continued to play and had been given the all clear from the doctor.  “If I could handle the pain, I can play. They made a mistake,” Cobb said.

But the neck never fully recovered he said. “It wasn’t until 20 years later when I went for a MRI and the doctor said, ‘Mr. Cobb we have evidence of an old fracture in the C4 vertebrae,’” he said.“ I said, ‘Wait a minute, that sounds like I broke my neck,’ and he said that’s pretty accurate. I was like what? They didn’t tell me that part! I played the whole `79-80 season with a fracture in my neck and that’s why it hurt.”

The Bengals dispute the claim and say that there is no information that Cobb suffered a neck fracture while playing for them.

“X-rays were conducted and the medical personnel found no evidence of any fracture,” said Jack Brennan, public relations director for the Bengals. “He was also seen by a second independent specialist following the injury, and again there was no report of a neck fracture.”

Cobb said that he also suffers from a condition called turf toe and that he cannot walk without limping if he does not wear proper shoes. He also said that he has pain management issues and has trouble sleeping during the night.

“I see Marvin at least once a year. Beside the normal physical tolls that you have as you get older, Marvin walks much stiffer than normal because of his broken neck,” said Tony Davis, a former teammate of Cobb on the Cincinnati Bengals. “His mind appears to still be sharp and his memory pretty well intact.”

Cobb claims he joined the suit not only because of the injuries he sustained but also because he wants to support other players who are in far worse condition.

His younger brother, who is also a physician, said he believes he knows why Cobb has fared better than other retired football players, and it is not just because of a shorter NFL career. “Marvin was always one who took a fair number of supplements; not only vitamins & minerals, but things like Omega 3 fish oil and other nutrients,” Marcus Cobb explained in an e-mail exchange. “I used to tease him about taking so many supplement pills, but now I believe this helped preserve his cognitive function quite well compared to what might have occurred without the supplements.”

Marvin Cobb also said that now he has realized through increased knowledge and research that helmets only protect the skull and cannot protect the brain against concussions. Indeed there is research available that claims the main purpose of helmets is to protect the skull from fracture and this does not necessarily mean the brain will be protected from trauma. The Michigan Live website published an article on Oct. 10, 2012 titled “Concussions hit home: Helmets offer limited protection against brain trauma”. In the article author Julie Mack quoted Dr. Jeffrey Kutcher, a neurologist and director of the University of Michigan’s Michigan NeuroSport program. “What helmets do not do well is slow down the contents of the skull when the head is struck or moves suddenly,” Kutcher said in a 2011 congressional hearing. “There is no data in the published medical literature that shows any particular helmet being better than any other at preventing sports concussions.”


Cobb has tried to work with retired players. (Photo courtesy of Dave Pear)

Cobb said that this was new news to him. “All of a sudden everything started becoming clear and I was like oh my gosh, oh my gosh. My brain can’t be protected by any helmet, oh dang,” he said. “ That makes it altogether different when the coach was telling me how to tackle a man. ‘Put your face in his numbers Marvin, put your face in his numbers’. First thing that makes contact is my head. That’s how I learned to tackle, that’s how I did it all my career.”

Cobb, along with Bob Grant, a 66-year-old former NFL player living in Los Angeles, arranged a retired football player’s summit in 2010 to unite retired football players and help them fight for their pension rights and discuss issues facing football players after retirement. Two experts on brain injury from football also spoke to the retired players.

Grant recruited Cobb to the cause and he explained his choice. “I (asked) Marvin because of his reputation as an organizer and because of the respect he has among players,” Grant said in a phone interview.

And Cobb, who now lives in Cincinnati, said he believes that it is time to change the rules and the culture of the game.

“No parent in their right minds, is going to let their kid put a football helmet on if they understand how that works,” he said. “Especially if they are teaching head first contact.”

When asked if he believed the sport could survive if the culture and the rules of the game are changed, Cobb replied, “I hope so, I hope so.”

One Response to “Marvin Cobb: Change Football’s Rules and Culture”

  1. To Mr. Marvin cobb;

    I was just sending you an email to see if you still sign your sports cards by any chance
    I have just a few which are not in the best of shape since being handled a lot and shown to others.
    If you still do sign your cards could you please email me back to let me know where to send them?

    Thanks again for your time and reply
    Richard valentine


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