Categorized | NFL Concussions

“If We Could Go At All, We Went.”

by Jack Williams

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Paul Rochester still has the New York Jets helmet he wore during Super Bowl III. It sits atop a shelf in his office with a dent, the size of a child’s fist, just above where his right frontal lobe would once have been protected. The battered helmet signifies physicality. Inside it, Rochester stores emotional keepsakes: more than 50 pieces of paper explain the lives of individuals, now passed, that scarred Rochester during his lifetime. This damage may have been mental or physical; from friend or foe. Around 30 of these clippings, snipped from local newspapers, are connected with football, ranging from ex-teammates who accidentally knocked out teeth, to opposing coaches who taught their teams not to play by the book. All hurt Rochester in some way.

The former defensive tackle is happy to explain the pain he suffered during and since his playing days. The list is long. On the field, Rochester broke his nose, fingers and foot. Off it, he has since had both knees replaced, continues to suffer memory loss and has had a cochlear implant inserted to repair his hearing. That operation means Rochester now has a specially designed phone to transcribe onto a screen what the person on the other end of the line is saying. The words from a reporter in New York flash on the screen in crisp font. They pose a question that Rochester will continue to be asked regarding an issue that is yet to be put to rest: “SO WHAT IS IT LIKE GETTING YOUR BELL RUNG?”

Rochester, 74, is one of more than 4,000 former professional football players currently locked in a lawsuit with the National Football League. The former players are suing the NFL over concussion-linked injuries, claiming that the league glorified violence and profited from the damaging hits players took to the head. Rochester decided to join the case because of the memory loss and hearing problems he continues to suffer.

“I got hit in the head a lot because I was a defensive tackle” he said. “There were 70 defensive plays — so thousands of times.”

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Paul Rochester was a member of the Jets’ team that won Super Bowl III. (Photo: courtesy of Nancy Rochester.)

Rochester’s professional playing days spanned from 1960 to 1969, during which time the 6-foot-2, 255-pound defensive tackle was admired by teammates for his strength and intelligence on the field. Rochester played for three teams: the Dallas Texans (1960-62); the Kansas City Chiefs (1963); and the Jets (1964-69), where he had his most successful spell, winning Super Bowl III.

Including college, Rochester remembers suffering about five or six concussions. He says that from the start he was never warned about the damage head collisions would cause — only what they would do to other players. As a freshman at Michigan State, Rochester met assistant coach, Louis Agase, who pointed to the young defensive tackle’s head and asked: “What’s this?”

“That’s my head,” a baffled Rochester replied.

“Not as long as you are here,” said Agase, who died in 2006 at 81. “That’s your weapon. Use it as a weapon.”

It was this approach that Rochester took into the professional game. His “weapon” was guarded by a Riddell suspension helmet, which suspended the player’s head inside a plastic casing. “Like the hard hats construction worker wear today,” Rochester’s former Jets teammate Bill Baird, 74, recalled in a phone interview. Baird lived with Rochester and eleven other Jets families at the Azores Resort, Long Beach, during the summer of 1963, but said that the discussion amongst teammates was never about “getting dinged.” Baird said that he never suffered a concussion during his playing career, but recalls that those who did just wanted to continue playing, because of the small size of the rosters.

“The easiest way to lose your job is to have somebody come off the bench and play in your place,” Larry Grantham, a five-time AFL All-Star, who played with Rochester during his entire time with the Jets, said in a phone interview. “We had a camaraderie on defense, too – everybody wanted to play as much as possible. If we could go at all, we went.”

Grantham, 74, recalls being knocked unconscious five times in one season with the Jets. “Usually the trainers would leave it up to the player, even though we had team doctors and orthopedic men on the sidelines,” he said. “Most times the trainers took our word.”

Rochester said that the medically-trained members of the Jets’ staff were in favor of players continuing after receiving head injuries. During the 1966 AFL season, he lay on the turf “seeing stars,” having collided with Boston Patriots fullback Jim Nance. On came the Jets’ Dr. James Nicholas, considered by many sports doctors as a pioneer in the treatment of athletic injuries, who died in 2006 at 85, having performed four career-saving knee operations on Jets quarterback Joe Namath. “He said, ‘Hey, Rocky, count backwards from 100 by sevens,’” Rochester recalls.  “I said ‘93… Doc. you gotta be shitting me, I can’t do that.’ And he said, ‘You’re alright, get back in there.’” Carl McAdams, 69, who joined the Jets in 1967, said in a phone interview that, most of time, team doctors just used the “How many fingers am I holding up” routine. If a players guessed right: they were good to go back out on the field, McAdams said.

McAdams and Rochester’s Super Bowl success means that the former Jets teammates meet at signing events to celebrate their achievements as the first AFL team to win the championship. In between these meetings, Rochester went on to work as a sales agent, with Paul Rochester and Associates, in Jacksonville, FL. In the years following his playing career, Rochester also had another challenge to overcome: alcoholism. He has not had a drink since 1970 – a “tribute to his character,” said Gerry Philbin, 71, whose ferocious pass rushing helped the Jets secure Super Bowl III, in a phone interview.

In the early 1990s, two decades after his retirement, Rochester and his wife Nancy, 70, noticed the first signs of his hearing problems. After that, he wore hearing aids, said Nancy. “First in one ear, then in both, and then he had the most powerful hearing aids he could have — Three years ago he went to the cochlear implant.”

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Playing on the defensive line took a lot of effort. (Photo: courtesy of Nancy Rochester.)

Having been made aware of the pending case against the NFL by Jeff Nixon, formerly a free safety with the Buffalo Bills, as well as reading articles on the Internet and exchanging emails with former players, the Rochesters decided to join the suit. The family filled out a standardized forms explaining Rochester’s condition. Once these forms were submitted, in February 2012 Rochester undertook a series of psychological tests at the Mayo Clinic, which has a branch in Jacksonville, Fla., where he currently undergoes yearly health checks. These tests, which looked for signs of dementia and Alzheimer’s disease and were not a requirement of the pending lawsuit, were carried out under the guidance of Rochester’s financial advisor, who recommended he test his eligibility for the “88 Plan,” which provides up to $88,000 a year to former NFL players with dementia and Alzheimer’s. Rochester was not deemed eligible for the plan, but there were some signs of memory loss and an MRI showed some decrease in brain size, said Nancy.

Nancy Rochester says that her husband’s short-term memory loss over the past five years has been the most striking. “I always have to give him directions when we are going someplace; but when we go over to our son’s and grandson – something he does twice a week – he goes and does that just fine,” she said. “He remembers all the old stories and stuff like that, but some of the more recent things – I’ll tell him a date to put down – if he doesn’t write it down, he doesn’t remember it.” The Rochesters, however, were told by Paul’s doctor that this memory loss could be due to old age. Rochester will undergo further testing next year.

In the case against the NFL, the Rochesters are claiming damages for the likes of injuries suffered by Rochester, monetary loss on healthcare, negligence (both during and after Rochester’s playing career) and fraudulent concealment. Both admit that future monitoring of Paul Rochester’s condition will help determine whether his current symptoms were a result of his playing days.

The case is expected to run until 2018, by which time Rochester will be 79. Even if her husband does not receive money for damages, Nancy Rochester hopes that other former players will receive financial support from the NFL for their medical needs. “I don’t think we’ll live long enough to get anything out of it,” said Paul Rochester, before referring back to others whose obituaries he wishes to add to his helmet. “I’m trying to outlive them all, too, but I don’t know if I’ll make it. I might.”

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