Categorized | Football

The Man Who Knew Too Little

By Nick Nehamas

Pruitt shredded "The Steel Curtain" and a lot of other defenses. (Photo: AP)

Pruitt shredded “The Steel Curtain” and a lot of other defenses. (Photo: AP)

Try to tackle Greg Pruitt and you might end up with nothing but a fistful of fabric.

Pruitt infuriated NFL defenses with the flimsy, tear-away jerseys he wore for much of his career, evading would-be tacklers as he raced his way, half-shirtless, to another first-down. “Sometimes I’d need ten or twelve jerseys a game,” said Pruitt, an elusive running-back and kick-returner who played nine seasons with the Cleveland Browns and three with the Oakland/Los Angeles Raiders, with whom he won a Super Bowl, before retiring in 1984.

Some opponents realized they needed more direct methods to bring Pruitt down. In 1974, in a game against New England, Pruitt came up against the Patriots’ massive defensive lineman Julius Adams. “He was as big as a van,” Pruitt remembered. “I was running a sweep to the right, but Adams was trailing the play and when they turned me back inside, he hit me on the head with his hand like he was holding a sledgehammer.”

Pruitt ran back to the huddle, but his teammates could tell something was wrong and sent him to the sideline. “I had this sound in my head like a bell going diiiiiiiiiing,” Pruit said. As was standard practice in those days, a member of the Browns’ training staff asked Pruitt what day of the week it was and how many fingers he was holding up. “I must have gotten it right because I went back into the game after a couple series,” Pruitt said. “But I literally got my bell rung.”

Pruitt says he suffered a number of concussions – he’s not sure exactly how many – during his college and pro career. That’s why he has joined more than 4,000 former NFL players in filing a lawsuit against the league. The players say league officials knew how dangerous head injuries could be and didn’t warn them. They want financial compensation to cover medical treatment for football-related illnesses many players already have or expect to develop.

Pruitt came close to winning the Heisman Trophy twice when he was at Oklahoma. (Photo: AP)

Pruitt came close to winning the Heisman Trophy twice when he was at Oklahoma. (Photo: AP)

The two sides reached a settlement for $765 million, but a federal judge recently rejected that deal, saying the amount might not be enough to cover all the players’ needs. The judge has asked for more financial documentation.

Memory loss. Headaches. “You blame it on getting older,” said Pruitt, who is 62 and still lives in the Cleveland area. “I run into guys that I know and I know that I know them, but I can’t remember their names. It stresses me out.”

Pruitt’s son, Greg Pruitt Jr., 30, also lives near Cleveland. He agrees that his father is growing more forgetful. “It doesn’t seem that big of a deal until you notice it again and again,” Pruitt Jr. explained. “He tells the same story over and over. And I’ll say, you just told me that. He’ll say, ‘I did?’”

Greg Sr.’s brother, Herman, 65, said he’s noticed a change too, even though he lives in Houston and doesn’t see his brother that often. Three times a year, the Pruitt brothers (Garland, 61, is the youngest and lives in Oklahoma) organize a conference call to celebrate their birthdays and catch up. This year, on Garland’s birthday, Greg said he had to hang up the phone for a minute, but would call right back. The brothers waited and waited, but never heard from him.

“I talked to him the next day,” said Herman, “and I told him ‘Come on, man, we do this every year.’ And he said, “I know it, I know it. I just got to doing something else and I forgot all about it.”

Pruitt’s ailments are far less severe than other former NFL players whose cases drew wide public attention to the concussion issue: high-profile players like Junior Seau and Andre Waters who committed suicide and were later diagnosed with chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE). CTE is found only in people who have experienced repeated traumatic brain trauma, like football players, boxers, hockey players and military veterans, according to research by the Center for Traumatic Encephalopathy at the Boston University School of Medicine.

The symptoms of the disease, which can only be diagnosed by studying the brain after death, include depression, lack of impulse control, and dementia. In 2012, researchers at the center released a study that examined the brains of 35 former professional football players. 34 of them had CTE.

Pruitt describes himself as “paranoid” about the prospect of further memory loss. “I want to be able to enjoy the rest of my life mentally and physically,” he said. “It’s not just the concussions. You watch me play golf, it’s like I’m getting ready for football: two knee braces, a back brace, painkillers. It’s ridiculous.”

His former teammates say Pruitt isn’t the only one who’s changed.

“He’s forgetful, yeah, he hurts, but I noticed it in all of us,” said Cleo Miller, a fullback for the Browns who lived with Pruitt for almost eight years during their playing days. “Anybody who’s played that game, you’re gonna lose something.”

The under-sized Pruitt, Miller added, was especially vulnerable as a ball-carrier and kick-returner.  “Being a featured running back, you’re a flashing neon sign for everyone to come up and hit,” Miller said. “And returning kicks, that is kamikaze stuff. Guys running down the field at full speed and their mission is to hit you head on.” (This year, the NFL decided to eliminate kick-offs in the Pro Bowl for safety reasons.)

Getting “dinged up,” as players from that era refer to head injuries, was just a part of the game. And if you complained about feeling dizzy, then you weren’t going to be a part of the game for much longer.

“You’d be on the cut block real quick,” said Pete Johnson, a pro running-back from 1977 to 1984 and Pruitt’s longtime friend.

When word came down that the settlement for the concussion lawsuit had been delayed, many players were angry, but not surprised. Some refer to the NFL’s strategy as “Delay, deny, and hope we die.”

Pruitt is now in the construction business. (Photo:

Pruitt is now in the construction business. (Photo:

Greg Pruitt is more stoic. “I think for a lot guys that need help immediately, [the delay] is a bad thing,” he said. “But if it’s going to get us more money, then it’s better than not having enough.”

Pruitt’s lawyer, Jason Luckasevic, agrees. “The judge saw the elephant in the room and I agree with her interpretation and her decision,” said Luckasevic, an attorney with the Pittsburgh-based firm Golberg, Perksy & White, who says he is representing around 550 players in the suit. “The settlement needs vetting to determine whether there is sufficient funding to pay all of the claims of the injured.”

Despite the accolades Pruitt received during his football career (runner-up for the Heisman Trophy his senior year at Oklahoma, five-time Pro Bowler, NFL champion with the Raiders in 1984), if he could go back in time he said he would have played baseball instead.

“No amount of money, no amount of fame, is worth it,”  said Pruitt, who now runs a construction business.

Pruitt’s son isn’t sure if he believes his dad. “All I’d want to do is play one pro season,” Greg Jr. said, “and I’ll make more money than the average person does in their life.”

Greg Jr. set the career rushing yards record at North Carolina Central University between 2004 and 2006, and had a shot at the NFL himself. He knows the toll football can take. “Hell, I got knocked out in the first quarter one time. I went through all the questions on the sideline and they were easy questions,” he said. “I went back in the game and I did pretty good, and we won. But I didn’t remember the second half of the game until I watched it two weeks later at a friend’s house.”

A robbery attempt in 2005 left Greg Jr. with a bullet in his temple and permanent hearing loss in his right ear, diminishing his pro prospects. Now he works for his dad’s construction business and studies sports management online.

As strange as it may sound, Greg Sr. is grateful for the way things worked out. “My son may not want to hear this, but that tragedy saved him from the abuse he would have suffered if he played the game as long as me.”

Leave a Reply