Categorized | Football

Hoping His Mind “Will Hold”

By Shannon Crawford

Kwalick (82) had a good run as a tight end for the 49ers. (Photo: AP)

Kwalick (82) had a good run as a tight end for the 49ers. (Photo: AP)

The mid-October sunlight cast a glow over the worn façade of Candlestick Park. The San Francisco 49ers had invited their former tight end Ted Kwalick, 66, to the stadium last fall to watch his old team play the Arizona Cardinals as part of the alumni weekend celebration. The team now belongs to Colin Kaepernick and Vernon Davis, but years before it had been his. Kwalick had scored the stadium’s first touchdown in 1971, when the ‘Stick had AstroTurf and the NFL was beginning to dominate American sports. These would be the last downs Kwalick watched at the old stadium. The 49ers will move to a new facility next season, and the ‘Stick will be demolished in late 2014 or early 2015.

Kwalick hopes he can retain his Candlestick memories, but he knows that in the NFL, stadiums aren’t the only things breaking down. In the wake of the NFL’s concussion crisis, players like Kwalick, who took multiple hits to the head without thinking twice during their playing careers, are wondering what is happening inside  their brains. He has joined more than 4,000 other former players in a class action suit against the NFL, claiming the league withheld information about the sport’s inherent risks. Kwalick said he became a party to the suit because he wants reparations for the former athletes who need money for treatment, and because he doesn’t know if his own mind will hold.

Professional football was never a part of Kwalick’s plan. Actually, he never planned to play football at all.  A native of McKees Rocks, Pa., Kwalick joined the basketball and track teams when he started at Montour High School. He was playing a pick-up game of basketball with a few friends when the football coach asked if any of them would like to play football. Kwalick and another boy raised their hands. “Well, I can only take one,” the coach said. He decided a race between the two students would determine who got the spot on the roster. “I won,” Kwalick said in a phone interview. The coach had him play offensive and defensive end.

Kwalick took to his new sport quickly. “I loved everything about it—practice, the games. It taught me work ethic,” he said. Kwalick’s father told him that if he wanted to keep playing football, he had to be in bed by 9 every night. Although he hated his schedule at the time, Kwalick said it taught him discipline and sacrifice. The sacrifices he made for athletics quickly began to pay off. During his junior year, college recruiters began to make him offers. His parents could not afford to send him to college, so Kwalick figured football would be his path to higher education and a career as a physical education teacher. In 1965, he chose to play for Joe Paterno at Penn State.

Kwalick (82) didn't spare his body at Penn State or in the pros. (Photo: AP)

Kwalick (82) didn’t spare his body at
Penn State or in the pros. (Photo: AP)

During his sophomore year in college, he began playing at tight end, a position that seemed to suit him. “When the ball was in his vicinity, you knew he was going to catch it,” said running back Charlie Pittman, Kwalick’s former college teammate. Kwalick became Penn State’s first two-time All-American, and helped lead the team to a perfect season in his senior year. Even before then, the pro-scouts had begun to follow him. Kwalick saw an opportunity. “It was a chance to keep playing a sport I loved,” he said. In 1969, he was drafted in the first round by the San Francisco 49ers.

Adjusting to the NFL was hard, and the hits were harder. At 6-foot-4 inches and 225 pounds, Kwalick could bear it, but former 49ers teammate Gene Moore said Kwalick’s strength and drive subjected him to extra force on the field. “It would usually take two or three guys to bring him town,” Moore says.

Kwalick said he suffered a broken nose, a compressed disc in his neck, and six or seven concussions during his nine year career with the 49ers and later with the Oakland Raiders. During a game in Atlanta with the 49ers, he took a Falcon’s helmet to the chin. He lost a tooth, split another, and was knocked unconscious. After he came to, a trainer told him he would need to have the broken tooth removed. “I said shoot some Novocain and pull out that tooth,” Kwalick remembered.

Concussed and missing teeth, Kwalick played the second half.  “[The team doctors] wanted to get you back on the field as quickly as possible,” he said. They would hold up three fingers, and if a player could count them, he was fit to play, according to Kwalick. “Even if you said four and they held up three, they’d put you back in,” he says.

Kwalick was known to cause concussions as well. Phil Villapiano, a former linebacker who spent most of his career with the Raiders, remembers fighting with Kwalick so often that John Madden, the head coach of the Raiders, asked him to “cut it out.” During a preseason game between the two teams, the 49ers offense ran a sweep play. Villapiano turned to pursue the running back, but his head met Kwalick’s elbow instead. Even though the blood running down his face made it hard to see, Villapiano said he still stumbled after Kwalick, looking to land a punch of his own.

In 1975, Kwalick joined the Raiders, and became friends with Villapiano. In 1977, a knee injury forced the tight end to retire. Since then, he has had both of his knees replaced, and he now suffers from traumatic arthritis. Villapiano said that when he asks his old teammate how he is feeling, he isn’t just talking about backs or joints.  “Now the question is, ‘How are you doing with your head?’” Villapiano said. Kwalick said he was concerned about chronic traumatic encephalopathy and other ailments of the brain recent research suggests is likely to affect former football players. But he doesn’t have any symptoms.

Kwalick started his own clean electrical energy business, ProTech Voltage Systems in Santa Clara, Calif. in 1996, and still serves as its president. Business was good, he said, but it has been slow since the 2008 recession. He hopes to retire soon, but said he is concerned that if he develops a medical condition in the future, he could become a financial burden to his family.

Kwalick became Penn State's first two-time All-American. (Photo: AP)

Kwalick became Penn State’s first two-time All-American. (Photo: AP)

Kwalick said he joined the lawsuit because it is “justified,” and he has mixed feelings over the proposed settlement of $765 million announced last summer. “It’s a double edged sword,” he said. He wants the retired players who are suffering the most to get their money as soon as possible, something he thinks will happen if Judge Anita Brody ultimately signs off on the agreement. He worries, however, that the $765 million won’t be enough to go around. The settlement, he said, does a better job appealing to the NFL’s audience than it does helping the retired players. “It sounds good to the public,” he said. “ Anyone who sees it thinks, ‘Wow, that’s a lot of money.’” Kwalick said he believed players who develop neurological conditions in the future or do not have severe symptoms will not “see a dime.”

Playing during his era, when concussions were treated like a scratch or bruise, Kwalick said, “you paid.” “The NFL wasn’t notifying us of the severity of [the concussions],” he said, “They knew how bad these injuries were.” In spite of this, he said he wouldn’t trade anything for his professional career.

Next season, the 49ers will play on a new field in Levi’s Stadium in Santa Clara, Calif. Millions of Americans will watch every tackle. The NFL is expected to make approximately $10 billion. And Ted Kwalick will hope that the game won’t eventually take more from him than it gave him.

Leave a Reply