Categorized | Football

The Limits of Being “Mr. Durability”

By Adam Epstein

Hauss (56) was always in the center of things for the Redskins. (Photo: AP)

Washington’s Hauss (56) helped clear the way for his friend Charlie Harraway (31). (Photo: AP)

Former Redskins center Len Hauss recalls some flights back to Washington after a game when he was so woozy that even several hours later he didn’t know where he was. Once, as the Redskins team plane was landing after an especially brutal game in San Francisco in which he was knocked unconscious, a teammate turned to him and said, “Hey Len, you didn’t even know you were on the plane that whole trip home.”

Hauss is one of more than 4,000 former N.F.L. players who are plaintiffs in a lawsuit against the league, claiming it did not sufficiently inform the players of the dangers of concussions and brain trauma. Lawyers for the league and for the players agreed to a $765 million settlement, but the federal judge presiding over the case, Anita B. Brody of the United States District Court for the Eastern District of Pennsylvania, was unconvinced that the sum agreed to by the two parties was enough to cover the costs of the thousands of retirees over the agreement’s 65-year life span.

Len Hauss isn’t concerned with the exact dollars and cents of the agreement, he just wants some compensation for injuries he sustained – some of which he still feels to this day.

“If you were forced to play, or played when you shouldn’t have played, and if you have some lingering injuries or problems, then it’s only fair that you get paid for them,” he said in a phone interview. “I think I fall into that category.”

Hauss is retired from a second career in banking and lives a quiet life with his wife Janis in Jesup, Georgia, where he grew up. When the river’s right, he goes fishing. It is much deserved relaxation for Hauss, who played 14 seasons at center for the Washington Redskins, from 1964-1977. He started in 192 consecutive games in that span which earned him the nickname “Mr. Durability.”  Now, at age 71, he has trouble walking. He’s had surgery on nearly every limb, on his back and his elbows and his hands. He gets headaches and has occasional memory lapses. Hauss played while badly hurt, and like many other players in his era – he also played, he said, after suffering concussions.

“I got knocked out I don’t know how many times,” Hauss said. “It would be borderline impossible to say exactly how many.” In his playing days, concussions were often undiagnosed by team physicians, he said.

“There were many, many times when I went back into a game after not knowing who I was,” he said. “When it came time to play, I played.”

Hauss said he played through concussions because he knew that if he took himself out of a game, he would be replaced and possibly never regain his starting job. “If you couldn’t play, they would find someone who could,” he said. Hauss was certainly not the only one at the time risking his health in order to play the game that he loved. He remembers times when he would line up for a play after getting knocked out and see that his fellow linemen were wobbly as well.

“I’m the center, and I turn to the guard and say, ‘Geez, what’s going on?’ and the guard is over there having the same problems,” he said. For 10 seasons Hauss snapped the ball to Hall of Fame quarterback Sonny Jurgensen, who sustained plenty of concussions himself. “You went out of the game, got to the sidelines, and they’d ask if you were okay,” Jurgensen said in a phone interview. “They gave you smelling salts, and the doctor asked how many fingers he was holding up. He always held up three. So I said okay and went back into the game.”

Hauss, during the 1970 season with the Redskins. (Photo: AP)

Hauss, during the 1970 season with the Redskins. (Photo: AP)

But Jurgensen, 79, acknowledges that the nature of Hauss’ position likely made him more susceptible to head injuries than others. Hauss would bang heads, over and over, with some of the biggest and strongest defensive linemen in the league every single game. “He could cut people inside and out,” Jurgensen said. “He would have [Hall of Fame Dallas Cowboys defensive tackle] Bob Lilly’s legs straight up in the air. He could do that.”

Charley Harraway, a fullback who played five full seasons with Hauss respects Hauss as a person as much as he respects him as a football player. “It goes without speaking that Len was an excellent center,” Harraway said in a phone interview. “But he’s also a really genuine, dynamic, wonderful person.”

Harraway, 69, also a plaintiff in the lawsuit, was recently diagnosed with early onset Alzheimer’s disease, he said. Like Hauss he’s mindful of what may have caused his health problems. “You didn’t want to come out of the game so you just went on,” Harraway said. “We were competitive. That’s just what we did.”

Hauss’ work ethic and bruising style of play earned him six Pro Bowl appearances and a 1981 induction into the Redskins Hall of Fame. Hauss started out as a fullback in high school, but when he got to the University of Georgia he was given a choice: be a third or fourth string fullback or fight for a starting job as a center. He chose the latter – he just wanted to play.

“I tried to, as they say, answer the bell every time it rang,” he said.

Jurgensen, whose only center as a Redskins quarterback was Hauss, admires his former teammate’s drive. “When he first came into the league he said, ‘Gosh, I could play this game for 14 or 15 years straight.’ And he was right.”

Almost 40 years after retirement, Len Hauss knows what a long and successful career in the National Football League has done to him. In his playing days no one had much foresight.

“I can show you the scars on my knees and on my back and on my elbows,” he said. “But I can’t show you the scars that are on my brain.”

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