By Jessica Iavazzi
Steve Bartkowski, once an elite quarterback in the NFL, said he did not remember the word “concussion” ever coming up during his 12-year NFL career.
“We never called them concussions, they weren’t technically anything other than ‘getting your brain rattled’ and something that was a part of the game,” said Bartkowski, who played 11 seasons with the Atlanta Falcons (and briefly with the Washington Redskins) before one final season in 1986 with the Los Angeles Rams. “It happened to me on several occasions. I can’t remember any specific times, but I remember kind of coming to the sidelines and sort of having that foggy head. Usually it wasn’t helmet to helmet contact, more the whiplash of getting hit and the back of your head hitting the turf, getting sacked, that sort of thing. I can’t frankly tell you that it was five, six, eight times, we don’t know the number. But I do remember the feeling that I got on several occasions where I guess it would probably today be diagnosed as being concussed.”
Bartkowski was the first pick in the 1975 NFL Draft and upon signing with the Atlanta Falcons received the richest rookie deal to date – a contract of $650,000 over four years. Bartkowski chose Leigh Steinberg, his college friend from The University of California-Berkeley, to be his agent. Steinberg later became a high-profile sports agent representing a series of star quarterbacks including Steve Young, Troy Aikman, Warren Moon and Ben Roethlisberger.
After the draft, Steinberg and his first client Bartkowski, who became the rookie of the year, landed in Atlanta to what Steinberg describes as a scene like a movie premiere. Photographers surrounded them and the local news cut in to the Johnny Carson show to cover the rookie quarterback’s arrival.
“Steve was charismatic, first of all, physically 6-foot-4, husky, blue eyes, blond hair, dimples,” said Steinberg of the then 23-year-old quarterback, who went on to become the league’s MVP in 1978. “He often was the center of attention, he had a terrific sense of humor, he had curiosity about all sorts of topics.”
Bartkowski, 61, is now one of more than 4,000 former football players suing the NFL, claiming the league did not sufficiently warn players about concussions and head trauma. He joined the suit in 2012 – 25 years after his retirement.
“The thing I was concerned about and the only reason I really joined the suit was really for the latter day protection for my wife,” said Bartkowski in a phone interview from Atlanta. “I just didn’t want her to be in a situation where she ran out of resources to take care of me if the concussions had the same effect on me as it has on really hundreds of other guys… Plus I knew that the majority would rule in this and the guys who need the help could get the help in a much quicker and more rapid way if they had more guys involved in the suit, that’s what I was concerned with.”
Steinberg remembers witnessing hits that Bartkowski took on the football field. “When I saw him get hit and knocked to the ground a couple times and not be moving for a little while, it terrified me and really was my first exposure to that.” said Steinberg.
Bartkowski remembers the feelings he often experienced after a violent hit as “just almost a black-out you know but not totally. You get to the sidelines and kind of forget where you are, who you are, what you’re doing, you know that sort of thing, and then they pop that little smelling salts thing and that kind of gives you a jolt and you’re sort of back into it.”
Steinberg, who also represented other former players who are a part of the suit, agrees. “Sports medicine was rudimentary then. There was a heavy push to get players back on the field,” he said. Steinberg was one of the first sports agents to question the effects of head trauma on football players, organizing conferences on concussions to inform players in the 1990s. He said that he started the conferences because back then doctors couldn’t tell athletes the “magic number” of how many concussions was too many.
“I wasn’t fulfilling my fiduciary responsibility and care for these players by simply making them multi-millionaires when they might suffer dementia as a result of playing,” said Steinberg.
Throughout Bartkowski’s playing career he accumulated numerous honors and led his franchise to its first playoff appearance in 1978 and again in 1980. He is still a part of team, and has been a member on the Atlanta Falcons Board of Advisors since Arthur Blank purchased the team in 2002. As a member, Bartkowski serves as a community ambassador for the team as well as an occasional mentor for current players and their families.
Former Atlanta Falcons wide receiver Wallace Francis played with Bartkowski from 1975 to 1981. Francis, who often refers to his former QB as “Bart” and says that he is still in contact with him since they both still live in the Atlanta area. Bartkowski, who, according to his doctors, was successfully treated for colon cancer in 2005, has worked in a business development role with DPR Construction since 2000. Francis has worked with Ambassadors for Christ International in Marietta, Ga. since 1990 and is now the National Director and chairman of the U.S.A. Ministry Council. He speaks highly of Bartkowski saying there is “no greater player that had a greater influence upon me both on the field and off the field.”
Francis said what impressed him about Bartkowski was that he never publicly yelled at other players who made mistakes on the field. “Steve Bartkowski would never ever show that kind of disgust or put the blame on the receiver by pointing fingers at him on the field,” said Francis. “He often got blamed for things that he didn’t do and that stood out to me as a wide receiver in my younger years as a Falcon.”
Another Falcons player of that era was former safety Ray Easterling, whose estate also is a party in the NFL concussion suit. Easterling committed suicide on April 19, 2012 and an autopsy later revealed that his brain showed signs of chronic traumatic encephalopathy, a progressive degenerative brain disease linked to repetitive head trauma. Symptoms often include dementia, depression, mood changes and memory loss.
“Ray was an incredible teammate, he was a guy that – you got everything that Ray had every time he stepped on the field. He was a devastating hitter, a really really smart guy and just a great teammate,” said Bartkowski. “I knew Ray real well and had seen him a couple years prior to his suicide, and I knew he was having trouble, spoke with his wife about it, and I think everybody that was a teammate of Ray’s knew that his train had come off the tracks and it was a sad, sad thing to watch.”
Bartkowski says he does not keep up with proceedings in the concussion case, but he said that he would “hate to see the thing get wrapped up in court and all the different testimonies… there’s a bunch of guys out there crying out for help.”