While scrolling through my Twitter account on Monday night, I saw a name trending. Damar Hamlin. As those I followed kept sending prayers and cryptic messages, my curiosity led me to Google, where I typed in his name and learned he was in critical condition in a Cincinnati hospital. Then, I went to YouTube and saw the tackle.
Football is an extremely violent game. It was dangerous when I played 30 years ago, and despite the extreme safety measures that are in place, it remains dangerous. When you have huge men running up to 20 mph colliding with each other, even with loads of pads and protection, it messes you up. I played football for nearly 10 years and had my share of collisions that rocked my world. I played the game with my head on a swivel and was never reckless. During the 1980s and 1990s, when I was playing, head-on collisions were not just encouraged but expected. We would cheer and celebrate an enormous hit where some hapless player was broken on the turf after getting blindsided. Hell, I was guilty of being giddy when someone was blasted and unresponsive because I was raised that way. My father would ooh and aah when a safety laid out a wide receiver. What's the most dangerous position to play in football? Punt returner. No question. You have to have balls the size of watermelons to want to field a punt and try and weave your way through 11 men who wish to disembowel you. When I played, the most vicious hits were those done to punt returners. Think about it, a punt returner is standing, focusing on a fluttering football while 11 men charge at him at full speed. How a punt returner has not been killed in the 120+ years the game has been around is truly a miracle. I happened to be a long snapper in high school. There were no rules in place to protect the long snapper, so I would have two or three guys stand about 10 yards in front of me, and the minute I snapped the football, they would blast me. I learned to snap and dive, which prevented me from getting blown backward and, at times, even allowed me to take out one of the offenders.
The tackle that Damar Hamlin made was done by literally 1000s of players at all levels. As Cincinnati Bengals wide receiver Tee Higgins pulled in a slant pass from Joe Burrow, he put his head down as Hamlin closed in. Higgins hit Hamlin in the chest and lunged forward. Hamlin fell backward but somehow flipped on top of Higgins. Cincinnati running back Joe Mixon quickly came over bodied up to Hamlin and pulled Higgins up. Hamlin stood for a moment, then fell backward, landing on his head. He was out. While the ESPN announcers, Joe Buck and Troy Aikman, assumed Hamlin took a headshot, the reality was he was hit in the chest. He was hit in his heart. It was evident that the Bills training staff, who were on Hamlin quickly, knew this was serious.
Watching this and reading about how close Hamlin was to losing his life made me think of former Southern Oregon football star Max Newsom. My guess is you can ask anyone closely associated with the program in Ashland who he was, and no one would know. Max Newsom was the first and only football player in the school's history to die on the football field. By all accounts, Newsom was the prize recruit of coach Roy McNeal's second recruiting class in 1928. He was a star athlete from Milton-Freewater who McNeal compared to Red Grange. He was fast, he could throw the football, and he was tough. He also had a medical condition that everyone knew about that suggested he not play sports, especially football. When he was interviewed prior to the season opener against the Oregon State junior varsity, Newsom knew the risks, but told the reporter he was going to play regardless. On Oregon State's opening drive, Newsom came in from his safety position and made a tackle on the running back. Witness accounts say he got up, jogged back to his position, and then collapsed on the field. He was unresponsive when McNeal got to him. An ambulance was summoned, but Newsom never regained consciousness and passed away that night. He was 19.
I wrote about this in my book. Newsom's death shook the team to the core. They canceled the rest of the game against OSU and the next week's game as well. I could imagine the guilt that McNeal felt, probably for the rest of his life. Newsom's death garnered large headlines in the area's newspapers, but that was it. You won't find any information about him in the program's history. You will find it on Wikipedia only because I wrote about it when I was a journalist, and the website cites my story.
Hamlin's circumstance has not only brought together a nation that is pulling for him but also highlights the dangers of football. When Max Newsom played, the game was extremely dangerous, though the athletes back then were not what they are today. While folks bemoan the safety measures and the diehard fans long for the big hits, broken bodies, and battered brains, I think of Damar Hamlin, and I think of Max Newsom. I think we can do better.
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