Categorized | Football

The Funny Man’s Serious Side

By Marika Washchyshyn

Lurtsema was a force for the Vikings, Giants and Seahawks. (Photo: Google Images)

Lurtsema was a force for the Vikings, Giants and Seahawks. (Photo: Google Images)

Bob Lurtsema admitted to being “scared to death” before every game he played. As part of an elite defensive line during the 1970s Minnesota Vikings’ feared Purple People Eaters era, the big hits came fast and often.

“I thought, Oh, I’m gonna get killed,” he said. “But after the first or second hit, three hours later you can’t explain how wonderful it is. Greatest feeling in the world.”

Even in a telephone interview, Lurtsema’s big personality came through. The 71-year-old defensive end, fondly known as “Benchwarmer Bob,” because he often did not start, recalled his 12 seasons in the National Football League as some of the most blessed of his life, though his path to get there was unorthodox.

A basketball scholarship recipient at Michigan Technological University, Lurtsema fell into football after watching the game on television. He said he got an incredible impulse to get into the game and hit, to control his competitive streak. He walked up to the coach soon after and asked for a tryout.

Football became his new passion, and in 1963 after just one season at MTU, he transferred to Western Michigan University where he found another muse. While at WMU, Lurtsema met his future wife Aloise Samson at a fast food drive-thru.

“He was on crutches and said, ‘I play football,’” she said. “I said to him, ‘Obviously not very well.’”

They were married in 1966, shortly before Lurtsema proved he was in fact good at football when he was drafted by the New York Giants in 1967. He spent four years there before he was traded to the Vikings. But like many in his generation of NFL players, Lurtsema experienced the big hits that fuel the concussion controversy rocking the league.

One particular hit in a game with Kansas City Chiefs wouldn’t have been a memory, he said, had he not watched game film of it.

“I got knocked out in the first quarter and got back in the game,” Lurtsema said. “I watched the film on Monday and was rooting for myself because I don’t remember what I did in the second quarter…but I was there.”

Lurtsema, who said he had at least three concussions, is one of more than 4,000 former players who joined a class-action lawsuit contending the NFL knew about the risks of head injuries without informing the players. Since the suit was filed in April 2011, at least 33 dead players were identified as having chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE), as a result of multiple traumatic brain injuries.

Recently, presiding judge Anita Brody rejected a proposed $765 million settlement offer by the NFL, citing a lack of documentation regarding “fairness of the final monetary figure,” as well as concerns about whether the players involved would be properly diagnosed and reimbursed.

Lurtsema said the way he sees the settlement controversy, “Right now, there’s no logic. They [the lawyers] don’t know if there’s 1,000 people who have this and should receive a million dollars, and they throw it around like it’s nothing,” he said. “It’s not as difficult as they make it out to be, but the more difficult they make it, the more money they make – and ching, ching ching.”

Lurtsema’s son, Robert, 39, said in a phone interview that joining the suit was never about the money to his father, but about doing what was fair.

An advocate of the NFL’s concussion-research, Lurtsema stood by the league’s efforts to educate players and attempts to make the sport safer. He said he participates in regular brain imaging screenings and tests offered by the NFL through the Amen Clinic in New York City. Lurtsema said it is initiatives like these that saved his life; his last screening came with a physical indicating he needed quadruple bypass surgery, and he had a pacemaker installed.

“If it wasn’t for the NFL, I’d be dead,” said Lurtsema.

Lurtsema played for one of the most storied defenses in NFL history. (Photo: Google Images)

Lurtsema played for one of the most storied defenses in NFL history. (Photo: Google Images)

“Benchwarmer Bob” said he spends his retirement speaking, making charity appearances, gaining notoriety as a comedic character in TCF Bank commercials and commentating for the Viking Update, a team newsletter. Aloise said he’s still a force in the community.

“Wherever he goes, people stop him because they feel like he’s part of the family,” she said.

Former teammate, retired Vikings running back Dave Osborn, said Lurtsema’s personality was nothing short of perfect for what he does now. Described as a “kind of a prankster who liked to have a good time,” Osborn said his love of being around people, paired with his passion for knowing more now about concussions, made him an ideal spokesperson. As a former players’ union representative, Lurtsema was often on-call for teammates’ questions.

“Back in our day, you’d see stars or get your bell rung, but that was sort of routine,” Osborn said. “When we played, everybody who played probably had concussions.”

In a phone interview, Aloise said Lurtsema never complained. Even after the closing of their very successful “Benchwarmer Bob’s” restaurants, a project Lurtsema nurtured for 15 years, he was always upbeat. But she said she notices little differences in her husband, and slightly more anxiety. Much like the old days though, she said they never really discuss it.

“The game has been very good to us for the type of life we’ve had,” Aloise said. “It’s hard to really slam it, and he did choose it. Yet at this point in your life, you want to make it safer for your children and your grandchildren.”

Looking at his dad now, Robert is optimistic yet cautious about letting his four and a half year old son play football. Speaking about his father, he said: “He doesn’t remember things now, and obviously there have been some health issues. But to see that he’s lived this long, I’m very blessed to have my father still around.”

Lurtsema (70), aiming for Franco Harris of the Steelers, closed his career with Seattle. (Photo: AP)

Lurtsema (70), aiming for Franco Harris of the Steelers, closed his career with Seattle. (Photo: AP)

His father insisted his memory loss, while bothersome, was not debilitating. He excluded himself from the “suffering” category when he compared himself to other people his age both in football and outside it.

“Sure, I forget things, but all of my buddies that hadn’t played the game are going through the same thing at that age too,” Lurtsema said. “There’s that fine line. How do you decide who gets that money?”

He said he would rather see former players with severe ALS or dementia symptoms receive the money that would be allotted to milder cases like his, and that he doesn’t dwell too much on his future condition.

“I don’t look down the road,” he said, “because I don’t know if I’m going to live two more years or 10 more years. What it is, it is.”

Leave a Reply