by Isobel Markham
Eric Crabtree has not changed much from the young man pictured on the Topps football card in 1968, two years after he signed with the Denver Broncos. He still has the same lustrous mocha skin. He still has a powerful frame, built by seven years as a pro football player and maintained by a career in the construction industry. At 68 years old, his eyes are now tucked behind glasses and his dark hair is flecked with grey, but there are still the same playful beginnings of a smile at the corner of his lips.
“He looks healthy,” said long-time family friend Carl Crawley, who grew up in the same neighborhood as Crabtree in Monessen, PA.
Crabtree says he is physically fine; his scars from fifteen years of taking hits on the football field are on the inside. Since 2004 Crabtree has battled with severe depression, which resulted in the end of his marriage and, he said, several suicide attempts.
Crabtree is one of more than 4,000 former National Football League players who have joined a class-action lawsuit in federal court in Philadelphia against the NFL, which they claim concealed information on the dangers of concussions and repetitive head traumas. The plaintiffs maintain that pro-football’s leaders were fully aware of the potential long-term damages of repeated head injuries and failed to communicate that information to players.
“They knew,” said Crabtree who, as all sources in this story, was interviewed by phone. “People, you say they were punch drunk. It was concussion.”
Repetitive concussive and sub-concussive brain injuries can cause a range of different health problems. The more outwardly noticeable are dementia, Alzheimer’s disease and Parkinson’s disease. A more silent but equally distressing and sometimes even fatal side-effect is depression. In 2007 Kevin Guskiewicz, the director of the Matthew Gfeller Sport-Related Traumatic Brain Injury Research Center at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill, and Robert Cantu, Co-Director of the Center for the Study of Traumatic Encephalopathy at Boston University, led a study into the mental health of 2552 retired football players. They discovered that those who had received one or two concussions during their careers were one and a half times more likely to be diagnosed with depression than those who had no history of concussion. Those who had received three or more were three times as likely.
It was never Crabtree’s intention to become a football player. It just sort of happened to him. Growing up near Pittsburgh, sports were a huge part of everyday life. “You either worked in the steel mill, and if you were a kid you played football, basketball, and you went to school,” said Crabtree.
Crabtree’s school, Monessen High, produced 13 NFL players between 1912 and 1992, three of whom played at the same time as Crabtree: offensive tackle Doug Crusan for the Miami Dolphins; wide receiver Bill Malinchak; and running back Sam Havrilak for the Baltimore Colts and the New Orleans Saints.
“The environment was conducive for kids to do well in sports because the people took a very vocal interest in it and the kids were good enough,” said Joe Gladys, Crabtree’s high-school football coach who still lives in Monessen.
“It was a very, very blue collar, steel town,” said Havrilak, now a dentist living in Baltimore and a fellow plaintiff in the lawsuit. “The entire town from the east to the west was a steel mill along the banks of the Monongahela River. And growing up there, I never thought it was as tough a place until I got out of there and found out there were other places that were much easier to grow up in.”
For Crabtree, Monessen was a particularly tough environment in which to grow up. The son of a white father and a black mother, Crabtree found it hard to find his place in a town where “there wasn’t any real ethnic or racial mixing.”
“I wouldn’t get invited to black parties, I wouldn’t get invited to white parties,” Crabtree recalled.
Crabtree excelled at sport in high school, playing football, basketball and baseball. He received Monessen High’s all-around athlete trophy at the school’s annual all-sports banquet on May 8, 1962, according to the TribLIVE, the website of the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review.
The sport he was best at, Crabtree said, was baseball, but his mother wouldn’t let him pursue that path after school. “My mother wouldn’t let me go down and play baseball in the south because it was segregated,” he said. Instead, he accepted a full scholarship to play football at the University of Pittsburgh.
“It wasn’t a good experience,” Crabtree said of his time at Pittsburgh, where he played halfback for the majority of his career. “Pitt was not a good school for minorities at that time,” he explained. “We had a lot of stress there, and it was big time football so there was more stress.”
After graduation in 1966 Crabtree was drafted by both the Baltimore Colts of the NFL and the Denver Broncos of the old American Football League. He chose the Broncos. “They offered me the most upfront money,” he said. When he made the switch from college to the professional league he also made the switch to playing wide receiver.
A 2011 study carried out by a group of medical researchers from Dartmouth University, Brown University and Virginia Tech-Wake Forest Center for Injury Biomechanics measured head-impact exposure among college football players over three seasons. The study found that offensive running backs like Crabtree received, on average, 326 hits to the head per season, and of all the positions, the running back received hits of the highest magnitude. Under today’s playing rules, Crabtree would have been much better off as a wide receiver, the position he played in the NFL. This position receives, on average, 157 hits to the head per season, and is roughly in the middle of the pack regarding impact magnitude.
As Havrilak pointed out, however, Crabtree was playing before the 1974 rules changes that were designed to protect wide receivers. “Quarterbacks were totally unprotected,” he said. “As were wide receivers.”
Crabtree remembers taking some forceful hits during his NFL career, which included three seasons with the Broncos, three seasons with the Cincinnati Bengals and a season with the New England Patriots. “I got knocked out quite a few times,” he said. “They used to call it a ‘ding.’”
One particular concussion, sustained during his third season with the Broncos, stands out for Crabtree. “I thought I was dead,” he said. He can’t be sure exactly what happened, but the blow was enough to knock him unconscious.
“I was out cold for I don’t know how long,” he said. “I could hear people talking but I couldn’t respond.” When he did finally come round on the sidelines, Crabtree said, the biggest concern for his coaches and trainers was whether he would be ready to play the following week.
Players who were capable of answering a few rudimentary questions were sent back into the game, something that Havrilak said was done as a general rule throughout the NFL. “I saw too many times with teammates that they were sent back,” he said. “Players sometimes also weren’t totally truthful with physicians because they were afraid of losing their jobs if they didn’t play.”
Lionel Taylor, a Broncos starting wide receiver when Crabtree joined the team in 1966, said that hits were just routine for football players, and he never gave any serious thought to injuries while he was playing. “At that time, you were young and it was easy,” he said. “Just a day’s work, you never thought about injuries.”
Unfortunately for Crabtree, those days of work for the NFL had some serious consequences. Thirty years after his career ended, Crabtree said that he cannot pinpoint when exactly his symptoms of depression began because they crept up on him so gradually. “I went through a long period of what you might call mental problems,” he said.
By 2004, though, Crabtree was really struggling. “Things got really bad to where some people said ‘you need some help,’” he said.
Doctors didn’t immediately draw a link between Crabtree’s football career and his depression. “They were trying to find out what was wrong and they kept bouncing me up to more and more specialists,” he said. “One day somebody asked me, did I ever have a concussion.”
Although Crabtree and his wife, Sheri, had finally learned from his doctors that his depression was most likely caused by his former head traumas, the damage to their relationship was already done. “To this day it is probably one of the biggest challenges that I have ever had to deal with,” Sheri said. “The swings in personality, the ups and downs, the sadness, the emotion or lack of emotion. It’s very compelling, it’s very troubling and it’s very stressful to myself, to the relationship.”
In 2008 the strain on the pair finally became too much and they decided to separate. “It got to the point where it was debilitating and we needed time away from each other,” Sheri said.
“I couldn’t get control of what I was doing,” Crabtree said. “What her and I call it ‘getting control of the demons.’”
Through several years of therapy, Crabtree has gradually improved. “I’m able to better control things,” he said. “I know when things are coming on.” When Crabtree gets into what he calls a “black hole,” through the help of his doctor, whom he still sees regularly, he knows how to deal with it. He and Sheri are attempting reconciliation.
Crabtree stays in contact with some of his former Broncos teammates in Denver, where he has lived since his retirement from pro football. The group talks about the different problems that each member faces as a result of injuries sustained on the field. “We try to boost each other up and keep each other positive,” he said.
Although the consequences of his chosen profession have been severely detrimental in Crabtree’s life, he still counts himself lucky that he is not suffering from dementia or Alzheimer’s disease like some Broncos alumni. “Compared to them I’m fortunate,” he said.
It is imperative to Sheri that the lawsuit has a positive outcome so that she can be assured that “as my husband gets older and more and more debilitated, his needs will be very well taken care of.” Fortunately her medical insurance has slightly alleviated costs up to this point, but Crabtree’s medical bills have had a detrimental affect. “It’s been a struggle because there has been the need for so much medical care,” she said.
Sheri said that part of the emotional harm that the league has caused former players is to turn against them at their time of need. “They were the pioneers of the sport,” she said. “To be cast aside and turned away and rejected has been a catalyst to continuing this depression.”
Crabtree said he thinks the lawsuit will be a long, drawn-out process, and at this point he is not optimistic about its outcome. “The American legal system is the best that money can buy,” he said. “The NFL has a lot more money than the players.”