NFL Hall-of-Famers fret about drives, knees and brains at Super Bowl golf event

February 8, 2013

Time out, time out!”

Jan Stenerud’s buddies were icing him. Stenerud, who kicked 373 field goals during his 19-year Pro Football Hall of Fame career, took a breath. He took his stance again, waggled and smacked a drive that didn’t draw enough.

“Wide right!” his playing partners yelled, signaling no good as Stenerud mumbled something in Norwegian.

Stenerud and two dozen other former NFL standouts teed it up last Thursday at the fourth annual Hall of Fame Players Classic in Metairie, La., 15 minutes from the Superdome. While the league celebrated its multibillion-dollar self in the run-up to Super Bowl XLVII, the Hall of Famers — Jim Brown, Anthony Muñoz, Jim Taylor, Paul Warfield and Jack Youngblood, among others — spent the day gripping, ripping, lipping off and popping Advils, fretting about their knees and brains, griping about the NFLPA, almost unanimously picking the 49ers and having a super time in the Louisiana sunshine.

There were several single-digits and plenty of choppers in a field that paired the stars with friends and area businessmen. Former Vikings sack-master Chris Doleman, 61, sported a five handicap. Stenerud’s a six. Former Saints linebacker Rickey Jackson, solid as a 6' 2" mailbox, claims a 13, while towering Ted Hendricks swoops at the ball like the Mad Stork that Raiders fans remember. Muñoz, 54, has a single digit — a gnarled pinky finger — that juts sideways off his left hand until he uses his other hand to curl the wayward appendage around the grip.

Golf and football overlapped all day. “We’re not great golfers, but we had to be pretty good athletes or we wouldn’t be here,” said 1970s All-Decade cornerback Roger Wehrli. His creaky swing produced crisp contact and a gentle draw. On one hole Wehrli, 65, sank a 60-foot putt and did a touchdown two-step. Doleman complained of a bad wheel — a stiff right knee — but still packed a wallop. At the par-five 14th, where a limber long-driving champ smashed tee balls for each group, Doleman rolled his eyes. “What is this b.s.? I’ll hit my own ball,” he said, and he proceeded to smash a shot 305 yards with almost no shoulder turn.

Taylor, a Packers stalwart, showed off his moves nearby. “Here’s how I’d come atcha.” At 77, Vince Lombardi’s pile-driving fullback hasn’t stopped running to daylight. “There’s the sideline,” said Taylor, using a cart path to illustrate his point. “Now let’s say I need another yard. You’re coming at me. Do I wait to get hit? No, I initiate contact.” Thrusting a forearm at a phantom tackler, he gained two yards. Then Taylor, the 1962 NFL MVP, turned and made an O with his thumb and forefinger. “That’s how many concussions I had. Zero. ’Cause I’d hit you first, break your thrust.”

Others have bigger issues. They’ve had spells of confusion or depression. Even the younger Hall of Famers felt the head-trauma issue looming over their futures. Rolling practice putts or trading war stories around the beer cart, they couldn’t help but discuss head-trauma concerns — how they couldn’t lose their car keys or forget a phone number without thinking, Is this how it starts?

“These men were heroes,” said tournament director Megan Holland. “They never expected their last accomplishment would be leaving their brains to science.”

According to Joe DeLamiel-leure, the trouble is “Drain bamage!” A six-time Pro Bowler who blocked for O.J. Simpson as an anchor of the Bills’ Electric Company O-line, he was among the first to urge retired players to donate their brains to Boston University. He suspects concussions played a role in O.J.’s later behavior, and blames his fast-burning fuse on an estimated 250,000 head impacts over 12 NFL seasons. “I’m not the same guy I was. I get frustrated and angry too easily,” said DeLamiel-leure, 61. “Look, we signed up for a rough sport, but there’s a difference between risking bodily harm and risking your brain. Because that’s your identity. Your self.” Nobody signed up for that.

A golf cart pulled up. Jim Brown, fighting gravity, climbed out. Muñoz grinned. “That’s special. That’s why I’m here,” he said, “to see that man go by in a golf cart. I mean, we’re all Hall of Famers, but that’s Jim Brown.”

Brown, 76, speaks more slowly these days but with no less authority. “Our situation is terrible. And unnecessary,” he said. “There were warriors who built this league, and they have been forgotten.” Brown has strong views on most issues: Bounties are criminal; rules banning helmet-to-helmet hits are misguided and arbitrarily enforced. But he reserved special ire for the NFLPA. “How can the National Football League have one of the worst pension plans in sports?” he asked. “We need a dignified pension.”

Some struggle simply to pay for insurance. Randall McDaniel, the Vikings’ 1990s All-Decade guard, was shocked when his union-funded coverage ran out three years after he retired and his insurer cut him off, citing a pre-existing condition. “My pre-existing condition was that I played in the NFL,” McDaniel said.

“Not that we’re bitter!” said Fellow former Viking Paul Krause, 60, said with a hint of irony. Krause, who holds the league record with 81 career inter-ceptions and played one season with a cracked vertebra, chose to look at the bright side. “We’re alive, it’s a beautiful day,” he said. “Let’s make some birdies.”

The format was a scramble, perhaps more suitable to his former teammate Fran Tarkenton. Krause backpedaled from contention, while Stenerud stiffed a 168-yard seven-iron at the 14th for a kick-in eagle. McDaniel flinched when somebody “audibled” during his backswing, honking a police bullhorn. Taylor, slurping a raw oyster at the turn, reminded younger players that oysters put lead in the ol’ pencil, “so make sure you got somebody to write to!” White-bearded Chiefs legend Bobby Bell, 72, performed quick-fingered coin tricks. Rams guard Tom Mack, 69, who never missed a game in his 13-year career, joked that he had a foolproof senility detector: “Whenever I say something stupid, my wife says, ‘Tom, do you know what day it is?’ ”

The Jakson fivesome won with a net 51 even though Jackson himself, a motivational speaker (and spicy-sausage impresario) much in demand in New Orleans, skipped the last few holes to make another engagement. His scorecard was roundly, razzingly considered as legit as a valentine from Lennay Kekua.

“Rickey gave ’em a motivational speech,” someone said.

“Yeah, he said, ‘No, that was a three.’ ”

After speeches, trophies and a few drinks, the Hall of Famers shook hands and hugged, taking care not to hurt each other’s sore spots. Then they headed for the parking lot. Like the rest of us, almost all of them watched the Super Bowl on TV.
Kevin Cook’s latest book is The Last Headbangers: The NFL in the Rowdy, Reckless ’70s