Categorized | NFL Concussions

Smelling Salts and Little Else

by Niki Blasina

Walter Payton

Bob Avellini (7) watches Walter Payton (34) pick up yards for Chicago. (Photo: AP)

The Chicago Bears were on offense in a game against the Minnesota Vikings in the early 1980s. Chicago quarterback Bob Avellini ran a simple quarterback sneak, but Minnesota’s middle linebacker, Scott Studwell, caught the quarterback “just right,” Avellini said, hitting him in the back of his head so hard he felt it in his feet. “I couldn’t call the most basic of plays,” Avellini said. He looked to Bears running back Walter Payton for help calling the I Right 42 — the first play they practiced at training camp that year.

“I said, ‘Walter, you call the play and just tell me which way to turn,’” Avellini recalled in a recent phone interview. The Bears were on the goal line. Avellini took the snap, turned and handed the ball to Payton, who scored a touchdown. When Avellini went off the field he said he told the team trainer that he did not know where he was. As was common practice, the trainer cracked open an ammonia capsule for Avellini to sniff, “and I never missed a play,” he said. “That was the rule back then.”

This rule, and whether or not the National Football League was negligent regarding the treatment of concussions, is the question in a class action lawsuit against the NFL, filed by former professional football players in federal court in Philadelphia. The players contend that the league was aware of the neurological risks associated with concussions, such as dementia, chronic traumatic encephalopathy (a degenerative brain disease caused by head trauma), and an increased risk of Alzheimer’s disease, among other symptoms like depression and headaches.

More than 4,000 former players joined the suit. Fifty-nine year old Bob Avellini is one of them.

“I didn’t know anything about this ten years ago,” he said. “Then when I started thinking about it, I thought shoot, how many times did I come off the field and I didn’t know where I was and all they did was give me smelling salts? I’m pretty pissed that they knew that a concussion is actually a pretty serious thing, and all they did was say ‘go put your helmet back on and get in there.’”

Avellini grew up in New Hyde Park, NY, where he lettered in football, basketball, and baseball at New Hyde Park Memorial High School. In 1970, he received a football scholarship to the University of Maryland. “Football chose me,” he said. As quarterback for the Terrapins football team, Avellini set a single-season passing record at 1,648 yards in 1974. The Bears drafted him in 1975, and he played in Chicago until 1984. His professional football career ended with the New York Jets in 1984.

In the 1970s and ‘80s, Avellini said players were “not at all” educated about head injuries or concussions. “In fact, I think back to the way we were taught, and we were taught to lead with our heads whether we were blocking or tackling,” he said. In practice, Avellini participated in tackling drills and as a quarterback, he was susceptible to taking hits. He recalled a college game against Penn State in which he was hit and went back to the opposing team’s huddle instead of his own, but did not miss a play. “The way coaches would say, ‘You got your bell rung’ or ‘You got dinged’ would diminish whatever injury you actually had,” he said. “It was just, ‘Here, take some smelling salts.’ That’s the way it was, that’s the way we were brought up.”

Jerry Doerger, who played center for the Bears and with Avellini in 1982, said, “I think the attitude was everybody hit their head, and it’s something that you play through. I think there was some pressure from the coaches to get back in there and play, but that was just part of the game as they understood it back then.” Former Bears Coach Mike Ditka, who has been outspoken about supporting the players in the lawsuit, was known for being an aggressive coach.

Cowboys vs Bears Football

Avellini (7) brings down Charlie Waters (41) of the Cowboys after an interception. Photo: AP.

“The two camps I had with Mike were very, very physical,” said Doerger, who, along with others quoted in this story, spoke by telephone. “We hit quite a bit. His way of finding out who the players were going to be was to find out who the toughest guys were and that’s who he was going to keep.”

Surviving training camp did not mean a player’s job on the team was secure, which added to the pressure they felt to stay on the field even if they were not well. “Once you leave, you can lose your job,” said Emery Moorehead, the Bears’ tight end from 1981 until 1988. Moorehead recalled a game against the Detroit Lions in 1982 in which he thought Avellini needed to leave the game after taking a hit. “His lip was hanging, his nose was bleeding. I said, ‘You gotta get out of the game, you’re not looking good.’ But he’s a tough guy and he hung in there,” said Moorehead. “It was ugly. It was really ugly.”

Avellini does not know if those hits and his history with concussions have had repercussions on his mental wellbeing. He said he has a hard time sleeping, is short tempered, and experiences headaches. Whether his symptoms are related to his football career, or are simply signs of aging, is unknown, and he hasn’t gone to the doctor to check.

“If I knew what was normal, I could base it on that,” he said. “As soon as somebody can explain that to me I can say that it’s not normal for me to be waking up in the night, to be having these headaches, to walk into a room and say ‘What did I walk into this room for.”

In recent years, Avellini has had some trouble with law enforcement. In 2002, he was convicted of driving under the influence and ordered to perform 50 hours of community service and pay a $750 fine. Between 2005 and 2009, he was acquitted of the same offense three times. Avellini said his first DUI has made him susceptible to being pulled over after having his license plate run by police who see a prior offense.

In 2002, he was also charged with criminal damage to property after breaking the glass door of a tavern with a golf club. “I just won a sand wedge at a golf outing, and I tapped it on the window to get somebody’s attention,” he said. “All of a sudden the window shattered. I was as surprised as anybody.”

Four of his ex-teammates who were interviewed did not recall Avellini having a temper off the field. “Maybe in games because of the heat of the game, but it was not rude or a big ego or anything like that,” said Hans Nielsen, the kicker for the Bears in 1983. “He was a good guy, a good teammate. People gravitated to him.”

Lee Kunz, who was a linebacker for the Bears from 1979 until 1981, wrote in an e-mail, “He never took life too seriously — at least on the outside. Great sense of humor, and always had a smile on his face. Very positive.” Doerger described him as “bubbly.”

Avellini has not sought medical treatment for his troubled sleep or headaches, nor has he spoken to any of his ex-teammates about them. Professional football players, he said, are taught to value “machoism” and toughness. “So you don’t talk with your ex-teammates and say, ‘you know, I really feel lonely. Or I feel depressed,’” he said. “You just don’t talk like that.”

The players in the lawsuit who have become outspoken about their physical problems are hoping to change that attitude. Avellini said he wishes he could “talk to every player that played and say, ‘you should be a part of this.’”

According to his court filing, Avellini is claiming injury to himself and economic loss (he filed for Chapter 7 bankruptcy in Chicago federal court in February 2012; the filing listed assets of more than $1.3 million and total liabilities of more than $2.2 million). Avellini, who has been working in real estate, said his motivation for suing the NFL is to hold the league accountable for a lack of transparency about the risks involved with concussions. “Why shouldn’t I be involved in the lawsuit after playing ten years during probably the most egregious time when it comes to concussions and how they dealt with it?” he asked. “I believe in the ‘70s and ‘80s, they knew it and they were hiding information on us.”

Avellini also contends that the NFL would not be investing millions of dollars into research and neurological care programs if it weren’t for the lawsuit, which has highlighted neurological damage and football’s post-career consequences.  And though Avellini would like to see a payout, he said his primary motivation is, “to see [the NFL] admit they knew more about this stuff long before it came to a head.”

“They knew about it and they were deceiving the players and the public,” said Avellini, shouting into the phone. “And I think they figured they’d never get caught.”



One Response to “Smelling Salts and Little Else”

  1. James says:

    So I was reading about this smelling salts stuff a couple of places like and was wondering if they still use them in the NFL


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