Categorized | NFL Concussions

“You Get This Mentality… That You Don’t Get Injuries”

by Qi Chen

NFL Historical Imagery

Greg Meisner (69) had a lot to ponder as a player and now as a retiree. (Photo: Courtesy of the St. Louis Rams)

In the Spring of 1977 Greg Meisner received a football scholarship to attend the University of Pittsburgh where he played defensive tackle on a national championship team that would place 11 players in the first five rounds of the 1981 NFL draft, including three in the first round. Meisner went in the third round, and called his class “the best to come out of one college program.”

Now, he is involved with football in another way. Meisner, 54, is one of more than 4,000 former players who are suing the league in a class action case in federal court in Philadelphia. Meisner claimed that he sustained brain damage from concussions that resulted from NFL games due to the tackles and hits to his head, and that both the NFL and its affiliated companies failed to provide adequate awareness and prevention of concussions.

Short-term memory loss, chronic headaches, and hearing loss are some of the symptoms that have affected Meisner’s life since he retired from the NFL in 1991, he said in a phone interview. “I have every right to sue if I sacrifice my own body and head, and I’m having the repercussions of that years later,” he said.

Meisner joined the lawsuit in July of 2012. He thought the “time was running out” before he could legitimately make a case for his head injuries. After hearing that a few of his former teammates had signed onto the case, he decided to do the same. This all comes after a career in pro football, training his sons the techniques of his position, and coaching at a local high school near his birthplace, New Kensington, Pa. A life of football has taught him that he was not the all-around strong man he thought he was.

Meisner, at 6-3 and 257 pounds, was a defensive lineman for the Los Angeles Rams for eight seasons, from 1981 to 1988. He then played with the Kansas City Chiefs for two seasons, and finished his professional career in 1991 after one season with the New York Giants. He said he had more than 16 concussions during his pro career, and that although he could have continued for a couple more seasons with the Giants, he chose to retire and go to chiropractic school in Los Angeles, where he could also help his wife Mary Jean raise their two children.

During his time with the Rams, Meisner was used often as a nose tackle. “I was one of those guys who can play any position on the defensive line,” Meisner, 54, said. But nose tackle was by far the most difficult, according to him. “You’re in the middle of the action all the time,” Meisner said. “You got guys coming at you from every angle.”

Meisner had 12 sacks in his pro career, and started 42 out of the 135 games that he played. He was never the star player on any team, and often he had to fight for his job. As a result, he sustained multiple injuries. In his second season, in 1982, in a game against the Denver Broncos, when runningback Gerald Wilhite cut across the field behind him, a Rams teammate ran into Meisner from the side, and broke his left kneecap. He underwent reconstructive surgery and missed the rest of the season. He considered this his most memorable injury.

“It was like the worst pain imaginable, but it only lasted five minutes, because your nerves are damaged and then you can’t feel anything,” Meisner said.

The doctors told him that it would take a year to heal, but he reported to training camp the next summer, after only six months of rest. “Other than the first day of camp, you are never 100% healthy,” he said. “So you just wanna deal with it.”

Meisner said head injuries started haunting him about six years after his retirement when he started having headaches once every few weeks. He began taking Advil when the pain came, and said that the painkillers “usually help.”

Later, he began having trouble remembering names, which he attributed to short-term memory loss. If someone called him twice in the span of three days, Meisner said he might remember the content of the call, but not the name of the person. He said, however that he is well enough to stay on his job as director of athletics at Hempfield Area High School in Greensburg near Pittsburgh.

Greg Jr., 24, Meisner’s oldest son, said he was not told about his father’s involvement with the NFL lawsuit, and that in the days that he comes home from college, his father showed no symptoms of headaches. But he said he noticed when he and his father went to the movies that his father would not remember even comedic scenes, and that sometimes his father would ask him to repeat what he had just said. “I don’t know if that’s his personality,” he said.

Greg Sr. also said he suffered from ringing in his ears, which began a couple of years ago. He said it affected his hearing, but he does not use a hearing aid, though he needs one. For all of his calls, he turns on the speakerphone and sets the volume on high. This way, he said he doesn’t have to deal with a device in his ear. “At 54,” he said, “who wants to walk around with a hearing aid?”

Born to a blue-collar family in New Kensington, located 18 miles northeast of Pittsburgh, Gregory Paul Meisner was the first of five children, and the only son in his family. His father was a contract landscape worker. Meisner’s love of competition drove him to play a wide variety of sports. He always had a buff build, and excelled in baseball and javelin. “Whatever I tried, I wanted to win,” Meisner said.

Randy Cross, Greg Meisner

Meisner (69) tried to ram through the 49ers’ offense. (Photo: AP)

But in order to go to college, Meisner needed a scholarship. At Pitt, he excelled in the classroom, too, and was an academic All-American in 1979 and 1980. On the field, he played alongside teammate and future College Football Hall of Famer Hugh Green, who was a defensive end. Green was the runner-up for the Heisman Trophy in their senior year, and Green would become a first round NFL draft pick of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. “He played the game like you’re supposed to; he played it hard and he had no regard for his body,” Meisner said of Green.

And then he added, “Same with me. That’s how you play.”

Meisner was Green’s competition upon entering college. They both played defensive end, and both tried out for the position with three other prospects; Green was chosen. That forced Meisner to move to defensive tackle.

Green, 53, played for the Buccaneers and the Miami Dolphins for ten seasons, and returned to his family’s farm in Natchez, Miss., after retirement. Because he rarely goes outside, he became 25 pounds heavier, and now spends his days staying at home, cooking for his school-age children. He also became a plaintiff against the league last July, signing the complaint with his wife Guy, who works as city clerk. In a phone interview, he blamed the NFL for the concussions that made him short-tempered. That in turn, he said, alienated some friends and family. He said he sometimes sees a white flash during sleep, which wakes him up; He also has a swollen knee, high blood pressure and carpal tunnel syndrome in both hands.

“My life is over,” Green said in regards to his football career, “so I want to help my kids accomplish their goals.”

Meisner, on the other hand, did not wish to leave football. After retiring, he lived in Anaheim, CA. with his family. He worked sporadically as an assistant coach at his son’s schools, but looked for a chance to move back to Pennsylvania. He found that chance in 2005, when Hempfield High School needed a new athletic director and coach. He applied, and despite not having experience as a head coach, he was voted in by the school board. He took up both positions, and acted as weight room coordinator. He resigned from coaching in late 2011, after six losing seasons. His record was 14 and 43. He would not discuss his record.

As a father, Meisner taught his two sons, Greg Jr. and Shane, how to play on the defensive line. Both of his sons played on the football team at Indiana University of Pennsylvania, where Greg Jr., the older son, graduated this year. Greg Jr. said that his father taught him and his brother to pay attention to footwork, and practice techniques that can help them get off a block and put pressure on the opposing quarterback. “My father wouldn’t let me play football until the eighth grade, and I was angry,” said Greg Jr., “He thought it wasn’t smart for younger kids to play tackle football.” Meisner is known to be to be animated and loud as a spectator of his son’s games. “Sometimes, I’m sure I’m too proud,” he said.

As athletic director, Meisner said he often finds himself giving advice to high school students who are unsure whether to go into sports. He encourages the students to try the sport that interests them. At the same time, he preaches safety, saying that it’s his duty as athletic director to raise concussion awareness with the students, and that “safety at all levels is important to my job.” According to Carol Boord, the athletic office secretary, Meisner now spends most of his time attending meetings and answering conference calls.

When he was told that Hugh Green had also became a plaintiff in the NFL lawsuit, Meisner thought about what it meant. “The bottom line is you get this mentality that you’re tough and you don’t get injuries, so you’re able as long as you’re standing, to keep going,” Meisner said, “That’s a problem.”

Like many players, he wants the NFL to raise awareness regarding concussions and their consequences.

“You get smarter and realize that what I did wasn’t very smart — playing hurt,” he said. And then he added, “But see, if you play in the National Football League, you’re only as good as your last game.”

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