Categorized | Football

Hoping to Help a New Generation

By Julie Schwarz

Richard “Dick” Schafrath is not your average guy.  He once ran 66 miles just to prove to naysayers that he could.  He wrestled with a bear – and survived.  He canoed 78 miles across Lake Erie despite a fear of water.  Schafrath’s simple explanation: “I like doing things that no one else has done or tried.”

Schafrath, now 76, has a storied history beyond these outlandish accomplishments.  He was also a professional football player in the National Football League for 13 seasons, and is one of more than 4,000 former players pursuing the concussion lawsuit against the NFL.  The proposed settlement, currently under review by Judge Anita B. Brody, is for $765 million.  Schafrath, who believes he was one of the first players to join the lawsuit, played his entire career for the Cleveland Browns as an offensive lineman.  He was a member of the 1964 NFL Championship team, played in the Pro Bowl seven times, and blocked for renowned running back Jim Brown.  According to Schafrath, he and Brown remain friends today.

Schafrath played professional football from 1959 to 1971, when the sport and its safety precautions were quite different than those of today.  In his era, players implemented the “head slap” – a move where a pass rusher would literally slap the head of a lineman to cause a slight delay or distraction.  “Every play in practice or the game, the defender was allowed to hit you in the head and that’s what they did when they came off the ball,” Schafrath said in a phone interview.   “When I played, they taught us to lead with your helmet.  I was hit in the head every play.  And thank God I’m not immobile from it, but I have problems.”

According to one of Schafrath’s daughters, Heidi Hoffmann, a writer based in Connecticut, her father does have health problems.  “He’s riddled with arthritis from his neck all the way down his back,” Hoffman said in a phone interview.  “He used to be 6’3” and I’d be surprised if he was 6 feet now. “  She added, “He can’t eat a bowl of soup without spilling it everywhere.”  Schafrath is also a cancer survivor, and has a serious heart condition requiring both a pacemaker and an implantable cardioverter-defibrillator (ICD).  His wife of the last six years, Judith Rush, said in a phone conversation that her husband “is having some problems”  with his memory. She continued, “He definitely had a lot of depression problems that we’ve had to deal with.”

Schafrath admitted to having health issues but acknowledged he was unsure if they were results of his years playing football or simply related to growing older.  “I don’t have Alzheimer’s or dementia at this point, I have indications though,” he said.  “I do have problems with anger and depression, but I can’t separate whether that’s normal or not normal at my age.”

Schafrath said he became part of the lawsuit not for monetary reasons, but to help create a safer environment for younger generations of football players.  His daughter Heidi took a stronger stance.  “I would like to see my dad taken care of,” she said.  “I think the NFL owes the [players] and owes the future of the sport.”

Schafrath grew up on a farm in Wooster, Ohio.  A talented young athlete, he was drafted by the Cincinnati Reds.  He was persuaded by his parents to pursue an education; Schafrath attended Ohio State University where he played football under famed coach Woody Hayes.  Schafrath’s self-appointed nickname was “The Mule” – an homage to his upbringing and his admitted stubbornness.  He was a member of the 1957 national championship team, but left Ohio State, 40 credits short of his college degree, after being drafted by the Browns.

Life after football has been anything but dull for Dick Schafrath.  He married four times, has seven children and 21 grandchildren.  He served in the Ohio State Senate for 17 years until he reached his term limit.  After encouragement from then-Buckeyes Head Football Coach Jim Tressel, Schafrath returned to Ohio State to finish the degree he started roughly 50 years earlier.  Tressel felt Schafrath’s return was an important example for his current team.  “He was in class in his 60s with our kids who were 19,” Tressel said in a phone interview.  “Schafrath was all-pro, national champion at Ohio State, all things [the kids] wanted to be.”  Schafrath graduated in 2006 with a college diploma at the age of 69.  “I remember him saying it was the proudest day of his life,” Tressel said.  Schafrath’s degree from OSU was in sports and leisure, but when asked about his choice of degree, he joked, “basket weaving.”  That same year, he wrote an autobiography aptly named, “Heart of a Mule: The Dick Schafrath Stories.”

Last summer Schafrath decided to return to his high school to act as a voluntary assistant coach for the varsity football team.  Wooster High School head football coach Doug Haas was delighted to have Schafrath return.  “I really wanted to embrace the tradition that we had at Wooster,” Haas said in a phone conversation, “and there’s no better ambassador for that than Dick Schafrath.  I was thrilled to have him on board in whatever capacity he felt comfortable.”

Generations later, one apparent difference in Wooster’s football program has been the way concussions are handled.  The concussion test during Schafrath’s era was to hold up fingers to see if the player could count them correctly.   According to Director of Athletics Andy Kellar, the school now gives the ImPACT test to athletes before the season.  The exam serves as a base line for comparison should a student-athlete suffer a head injury during the season, at which time the test is re-administered to determine the severity of the trauma.  “Those head traumas don’t just happen in the NFL,” Kellar said, acknowledging the danger at the high school level as well.

Despite a 4-6 losing season in 2013, the Wooster High School Generals benefitted from the wisdom and experience Schafrath brought to weekly team dinners and to the sidelines. Haas recalled Schafrath’s simple mantra: “You gotta wanna.”  Schafrath constantly told the players, “You gotta wanna be smarter, you gotta wanna be stronger, you gotta wanna be better.”

While the long-term effects of his football injuries remain unclear, Schafrath has continued to make on impact on the game he loves, and said he will always support younger players in the sport.  “I wouldn’t be over there with the high school kids today if I didn’t support it,” Schafrath said.  As for the lawsuit: “I’m just trying to be a part of a group – just trying to make things right.”

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