Categorized | NFL Concussions

“You Got to be a Thug Out on That Field”

by Stephon Dingle

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Reggie Rucker says he is still dealing with the effects of head trauma. (Photo: AP)

“Do you know what city you’re in? Do you know what time of day it is?”

Many former NFL players were used to hearing those questions from trainers after sustaining hard hits to the head during their careers. Depending on the answer, the questions determined whether a player remained in the game.

Former wide receiver Reggie Rucker is all too familiar with this culture of survival in the NFL. He played 13 seasons, most notably as a member of the Cleveland Browns from 1975 to 1981. During his years in the league, he said, concussions and head trauma were an accepted part of the game.

“What you don’t understand,” Rucker said in a telephone interview in May 2013, “is the moment that hit takes place, it’s the most eerie, scariest feeling that comes over you. “You actually don’t know if you are dead or not, and there is a period of time where just like in TV, you just fade to black. The next thing you know, someone is saying something to you, and they are putting some kind of smelling salts under your nose.”

Players made a living on how hard they hit or how many hits they could take, which, according to Rucker, was all part of the NFL culture of his era. “While I was getting jammed in the head or having helmet to helmet collisions, I wasn’t thinking about what this was doing to me physically,” Rucker said. “I didn’t have a regard for my own personal safety because the National Football League espoused this very macho, bravado kind of image, which means you had to be a tough guy, particularly as a wide receiver. He retired in 1982, but it wasn’t until the early 1990s, he said, that he first started to experience dizziness, headaches and near blackouts. He said he didn’t realize that this was the beginning of his long battle with symptoms of brain trauma related to concussions.

Now Rucker, who is 65, and some 4,000 former NFL players are part of a class action suit against the league. The players claim the league spent decades “engaging in a campaign of deceit and deception, actively concealing the risks players faced” from repetitive head impact. The league has denied the charges.

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(Photo: via Google)

Sam Rutigliano, his former coach with the Browns, knows Rucker’s story all too well. They are working together again, this time with WEWS 5 in Cleveland. “Guys like Reggie Rucker and people before him…made the game what it is today,” Rutigliano said in a phone interview. “Now take care of them, give them a decent pay, give them a decent pension, get them the kind of care they need if they need it as this stage of their life.”

Rucker’s playing days are a constant reminder of a completely different life that he led. “I gave in to nothing,” he said. “You got to be a thug out on that field. “When you come from that surrounding, it’s in you to go against these guys…as they try to inflict their culture of the game on you. It was the way you had to carry yourself to gain an advantage to intimidate and overpower your opponent.”

He said he was on the receiving end, literally, of a lot of hard hits including one in 1979 from the late Jack Tatum, a defensive back who played for the Oakland Raiders and whose nickname was “The Assassin.”  When he got up from the hit, he said, he was so dazed that he went running to the sideline only to be greeted by more Raiders asking him if he was okay. “I said, ‘Yes,’ as I was trying to jog to get some water, and they said, “Good, well your sideline is on the other side of the field.”

In his playing days, Rucker said, hard hits were not taken too seriously. The day after a game, players would go over film and see the ferocious hits they took. Often, he said, they didn’t remember some of the blows. Former pro-bowl cornerback Hanford Dixon remembers joking with Rucker during film sessions and boasting about the big hits. “It was definitely a sight to see in the film room,” Dixon said in a phone interview. “You either hit or got hit, that was just the way it was and Reggie held his own out there.”

Rucker said he is trying to cope with effects of head trauma. He said when he first started going to the doctor to get neurological tests done more than 20 years ago, he was mortified and thought he had a brain tumor. He didn’t, but once tests were done, doctors told him he was a candidate for clinical depression.

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Rucker (33) warms up before a Cleveland Browns game. (Photo: via Google)

Rucker blames football-related injuries for a major effect on his family life, especially his divorce from his first wife.  He said the injuries had a lot to do with the change in the person he was. “Your whole temperament, your whole approach, your patience is thin. You have this anxiety, you have all of these injuries,” he said. “I hurt every day. I take lots of pain medication and ones for depression. I’m looking for a quality of life as I get older that doesn’t frighten not only me, but my present wife and family.” His present wife, Darlene, is also a plaintiff in the suit against the league. She is charging “loss of consortium.”

Rucker insisted he isn’t looking for a payday from the suit, but he thinks the NFL should do its part in caring for the players who built the game. He said he believes that things are getting better for today’s players, but they need to improve more. “The NFL is an enormous money-making machine,” Rucker said. “We are a battered bunch. Physically we are a mess and somebody has to take care of these men.”

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