Categorized | Football

Safety First, but Considering the Game’s Future

By Richard Recchia

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Dave Elmendorf (42) never missed a game in his nine-year career with the Rams. (Photo: Spokeo)

The year was 1971 and Dave Elmendorf was a rookie safety for the Los Angeles Rams pulling double-duty on special teams.  He wasn’t sure he would make the team during training camp, but now, after starting each game in the 1971 season, this was his final contest: a road game for the Rams at Three Rivers Stadium against the Steelers.  Rams kicker David Ray kicked off from the 30-yard line, Elmendorf sprinted down the Astroturf field and thrust his 198-pound body into a Pittsburgh special teams player.

After the whistle blew, Elmendorf stumbled off the field to the wrong sideline.  “There’s no question in my mind that I had a concussion that day.” Elmendorf, disoriented, met with the team doctor. “The test that I passed to get back into the game was ‘how many fingers am I holding up.’” Elmendorf answered correctly, and shortly after, was soon back on the field.

The 64-year-old Elmendorf is one of more than 4,000 former players suing the National Football League, charging that the league didn’t take reasonable measures to protect players from the risks associated with head injuries.  The former players also contend that the N.F.L. was aware of these risks and deliberately concealed information.  This January, U.S. District Judge Anita Brody rejected a proposed $765 million settlement that would have provided medical benefits and compensation to more than 18,000 retired players.  Judge Brody expressed concerns over the monetary award, and whether it would be enough to cover medical expenses for all of the players.

“We are confident that the settlement will be approved after the Court conducts its due diligence on the fairness and adequacy of the proposed agreement,” plaintiffs’ co-lead counsel Christopher Seeger and Sol Weiss said in a statement.

Elmendorf says he doesn’t feel the effects of the head trauma he sustained during his career, but he says he could develop dementia and wants to be financially prepared if that becomes a reality.  “If it were to happen to me I certainly wouldn’t question whether or not that’s what caused it,” Elmendorf said in a phone interview.  “That would be silly.”

If a similar settlement were approved, Elmendorf would most likely not qualify for a monetary award at this time due to his lack of head trauma-related symptoms.  Instead, he could be eligible for the Baseline Assessment Program, which would provide counseling and pharmaceutical needs.

Under the rejected settlement agreement, if Elmendorf were diagnosed with moderate dementia within the next five years, he would receive a one-time payment of $380,000.  That figure drops to $210,000 if the diagnosis occurs between the ages of 70 and 74, $80,000 at ages 75 through 79 and $50,000 at the age of 80.  Elmendorf believes he deserves the money. “Let’s take care of the people that paved the way, unknowingly, to where we are now and move on from there,” Elmendorf said.

Elmendorf doesn’t remember how many concussions he sustained during his nine NFL seasons, but he never missed a game in his career.  “Conventional wisdom was: hey, if you don’t feel bad, you could go back in and play,” he said.  “In my era, there wasn’t the body of information about concussions, and about dementia and about depression that can cause seemingly very smart players to blow their brains out.”

Elmendorf was one of the most consistent defensive backs in the league. (Photo: Spokeo)

Elmendorf was one of the most consistent defensive backs in the league. (Photo: Spokeo)

Elmendorf played his rookie season at free safety, before spending the remaining eight at strong safety.  He started all 130 regular season games during his nine seasons and intercepted 27 passes.  Elmendorf had his last interception in Super Bowl XIV against the Steelers.  The Rams lost 31 to 19 and it was Elmendorf’s final game.  “Terry Bradshaw threw me a ball and it was all him,” he said.  “I would be ecstatic if I could tell you it was an incredible play but he just misread the coverage and threw it right to me.”

Elmendorf appeared on the Rams injury report seven times during the 1979 season, for shoulder, neck and knee injuries.  The reports also state that Elmendorf had a concussion prior to an October game against the San Diego Chargers, and yet he never missed a game.  “I’m probably better off than a number of my former teammates and other guys that played professional football for nine seasons,” Elmendorf said.

Pat Thomas, 59, was Elmendorf’s teammate for four seasons in the Rams defensive secondary, and is also a plaintiff in the lawsuit against the NFL.  Thomas says Elmendorf had great instincts on the field. “Dave would go ahead and he would give up his body,” Thomas said in a phone interview.  “Dave was not a great masculine structure for devastating people but he used every inch of what he had to be the best that he could be.”

Rod Perry, 60, played with Elmendorf for five seasons and is now the defensive backs coach at Oregon State University.   Perry said he believes the safety positions require a lot of physicality and Elmendorf was up for it. “He had a little pop when he hit you and it snapped you,” Perry said in a phone interview.

Elmendorf stayed closed to football following his retirement.  He’s been a radio analyst for Texas A&M football, his alma mater, since 1989.  Elmendorf said he believes NCAA officials aren’t ready to enforce certain rules to improve player safety, such as targeting.  The rule penalizes players who make contact with the crown of their helmet, or initiate contact to the head or neck area of a defenseless opponent.  “I’m all for protecting the players, and having them be safe, but the key is doing it in a manner that doesn’t ruin the game of football,” Elmendorf said.  “We are headed to a time where we might as well play flag football.”

As for the lawsuit against the NFL, Elmendorf said he believes a settlement will be reached and it doesn’t matter if the league admits it concealed information about the risks of head injuries.  “Not a single player in my era wanted to come out of the game because they thought they were hurt,” he said.  “I think this settlement is a natural reaction to the new information that we’ve gotten over the last 20 years of professional football and it’s a logical next step.”

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