Categorized | NFL Concussions

Bearing up Now, but Considering the Fate of Others

by MaryAlice Parks

Redskins Cowboys Football

Ron McDole, second from left, goes after Roger Staubach of Dallas. (Photo: AP)

Ron McDole does not have dementia, and both he and his family say he’s healthy.

He lives next to Jackson Chase Gold Club in Middletown, Va., an hour west of Washington, with his second wife, Antoinette. He goes to alumni events involving the Washington Redskins, and fixes cabinets for his neighbors. On his front doorstep there is a bear statue made of stone with a leg in the air and a big smile, a reminder to those who enter of his nickname, “The Dancing Bear.”

“I was very fortunate. I played all those years and never got severely hurt, never broke any bones or anything,” said McDole who was a defensive end in the NFL for 18 seasons, eight with the Redskins.

But, like each of the plaintiffs in the class action lawsuit against the National Football League over concussions and player safety, McDole said in court documents that he did sustain some injuries when he played. McDole’s complaint claims that he “suffers from symptoms of brain injury caused by repetitive, traumatic sub-concussive and/or concussive head impacts.” McDole checked on the line claiming damages for “injury to himself,” “injury to the person represented,” and “economic loss.”

The way the lawsuit is written, the relationship between injuries and symptoms is left intentionally open.  Plaintiffs only have to state they experienced blows to the head and some symptoms, including those that may “continue to develop over time.” Interviewed over the phone, McDole said he suffered from migraines and seizures in the early part of his career, but those severe symptoms stopped.

Former NFL players have made headlines with stories of memory loss, early onset Alzheimer’s, depression, and other maladies. There are more than 4,000 plaintiffs in the class action suit, and other players like McDole say they are fine for now.

Sources with knowledge of the case said that even if McDole is not showing signs of trauma, he is legally justified to join the suit. While some plaintiffs are suing for money to cover medical expenses today, others are asking for help in the future. In their suit, plaintiffs such as McDole ask for assistance with “medical monitoring” in the list of requested damages and awards.

McDole was a defensive lineman known for his reliability. He started 204 games, and he said he never missed a game because of injury. In his eight seasons in Washington, he played in every game until he retired at age 38.

“He had such a high threshold for pain,” said Sonny Jurgensen, 78, a former quarterback with the Redskins and Hall of Famer who played with McDole. “Some guys would break a finger and they’d scream and holler. With Ron, you never knew when he was hurt.”

Even if he and his teammates had known about the long-term effects of head injuries, McDole said he was not sure they would have played any differently. “I was there to play,” he said. “You feel like you’re letting people down. That’s probably what makes you good or makes you want to play,” he continued. “I know I wouldn’t want to come out of the game.”

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McDole (72) also had good seasons for the Buffalo Bills. (Photo: AP)

In a phone interview, Jurgensen agreed. He said, “You got dinged in that era. Everyone got dinged and was expected to play. You went to the sidelines and got smelling salts and then the doctor would hold up fingers. And every doctor I ever knew held up three fingers. You didn’t even have to look, you said, ‘3,’ and they said, ‘go back in.’”

McDole debated going to college according to his daughter, Tammy. After playing both football and baseball in high school in Toledo, Ohio, he thought about trying to play professional baseball after graduation. But his first wife and high school sweetheart was headed to college on a diving scholarship and told Ron he needed to go too. Ron said he chose the University of Nebraska because it had an industrial arts major. He liked working with his hands, and the school gave him a scholarship to play football. He was the first in his family to graduate from college.

Though he never played on a winning squad at Nebraska, McDole was a leader on the team. He lettered in football during three of his four years, was selected for the Coaches’ All-American Game in 1960, and played more minutes during his junior and senior years than any of his teammates (1,074 out of 1,200 possible minutes in the two years combined).

But the early part of McDole’s professional career was lackluster. He played for the St. Louis Cardinals for one year in 1961 and then the Houston Oilers of the American Football League. That’s when the migraines started.

“We were young, but I remember my mom saying, ‘Ssshhh,’ your dad’s got a headache,” Tammy McDole, 52, recalled. The Oilers cut McDole in 1962, and the young couple moved home to Toledo with their two children.

But the migraines passed, and the Buffalo Bills called the next season. McDole moved his family to Eden, NY., near Buffalo, and bought a brick house on a large piece of forested land. He used a barn in the back as his woodworking shop in the off-season.

McDole played in Buffalo for seven years, had two more children, and started a furniture company called Ron McDole, Inc. All four children were expected to help in the shop and around the home. Tammy remembers having to work in the shop the day after returning from college.

Ron McDole Redskins

McDole remains close to his Washington teammates. (Photo: AP)

In 1971, at the age of 32, McDole got a call from George Allen, then the new head coach of the Redskins. Allen would become known for focusing on defense and using veteran players whom he could get cheaply. The team was the nicknamed the “Over the Hill Gang” for the number of seasoned players, including McDole. The old-timers played in Superbowl VII and lost to Miami in 1972.

The gang in Washington was also close-knit. They drank together in bars in Carlisle, Pa., where the team trained, and they went out in Georgetown and danced together when the team was back home. It was at a Georgetown bar that Jurgensen nicknamed McDole, “The Dancing Bear.” The big man was light on his feet on the field and the dance floor.

Tammy McDole remembers growing up with the other families from the team. The Kilmers, the Talberts, the Fischers, the Jurgensens. She rattles them off like anyone would talking about friends from the neighborhood.  Most of the players’ families lived nearby in Reston, Va.. The couples went out to eat on Wednesday nights after the men weighed-in with the team Wednesday mornings.

“I think my dad retiring was harder on my mom,” said Taz McDole, 50, Ron McDole’s oldest son. “As much as it was a fraternity of men, it was a sorority of women.”

Then there was the trip on the Queen Elizabeth 2, in 1974. Jurgensen arranged for free passage for a few players in exchange for them mingling with guests. But 250 miles shy of its destination in Bermuda, the lights went off. The famed ship broke down.

Management opened the liquor cabinets and tried to keep passengers pleased. But without electricity, many of the performers could not take the stage. So it was up to the footballers to entertain. “Since the ship was busted down, we had to do our stuff,” said McDole. “But all we were doing was talking about football.”

“You want to see a grown man cry, you can see Ron McDole when they started throwing food overboard,” Jurgensen said, teasing his old friend nearly forty years later.

It is precisely this friendship that makes Taz McDole understand his dad’s participation in the class action suit. He knows his dad would want to help any former teammates, who he sees as brothers.

“I think the main thing is that the players have families and wives,” said McDole. “I know some players that are like vegetables, and so they become a large expenses and drains on their families.”

Then he continued to discuss the suit and why he was a party to it: “To make sure that the people who do get affected, at least they’re taken care of.”

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