Approaching the eighth decade of his life, former pro football player, Will Smith, fits seamlessly into the serene rustic atmosphere of a Mendocino lifestyle.
Tall and fit, humble and soft spoken, Smith was one of the panelists that graced the stage of Trinity Lutheran's community room in Ft. Bragg to honor and celebrate Martin Luther King's Jr.'s birthday on January 18th. Smith subsequently agreed to an interview.
In a relaxed yet resonant voice, he recounted his early days in his hometown of Little Rock, Arkansas, where he was an honor student at Dunbar H.S., an all black school. Smith played football through high school as an offensive guard and middle and corner linebacker. Graduating in 1955, a time when "separate but equal" was the unchallenged philosophy of the Southern educational system, Smith described contact sports as a way to get into the bigger world.
With an interest and skill in both boxing and football, although having won all six of his boxing bouts, Smith opted for an academic scholarship to the University of Michigan and played football from his second year on.
Despite the culture of the 50s when segregation was prevalent and interracial dating presented negative consequences, Smith met and married his wife, Marj, an interracial marriage that withstood the social pressures of that time. Unabashedly crossing unwritten racial codes, Smith was prevented from being in the starting lineup by his Wolverine coaches who instead substituted him after the first completed play. The marriage also stood the test of time, fruitfully bearing the couple three children.
In 1959 Will Smith was drafted by the Chicago Bears but due to racial undertones, left the team before the season started. He was picked up by the Denver Broncos where, hefting an imposing 235 lbs, he played two years as a defensive guard.
Problems arose, however, when his coach reneged on an agreement to allow Smith time off in August to be present at the birth of his second child. His opinions of fairness didn't coincide with his coach, Frank Filchuck's and he was traded to the Oakland Raiders. While there, he played the position of offensive guard. He also developed a reputation with management for standing his ground, refusing a contract from his coach, Al Davis. Smith felt that the offer did not equal the pay scale of Smith's white counterparts on the team whose performance and skill level he felt he matched and even surpassed. In hindsight, Smith acknowledged that at 24, he was inexperienced and naive in contract negotiation. He was not picked up in the draft by another team--a disappointment that kept him away from the game as a spectator for eight years.
He returned to the University of Michigan to get a degree in in psychology, continuing with graduate level courses to become proficient in the emerging practice of conflict resolution.
Smith worked at the U.C. San Diego campus as Dean of Students but returned to Michigan in '63 where he created the first tutorial program in the state for the University of Eastern Michigan. In '67 he was employed by his alma mater as liaison/advisor between students and administration keeping the campus peaceful in a time of increased student activism in protests against the Vietnam war. He worked as a consultant for several government departments in the 70's including the Departments of Labor, Health and Education. His skills as a negotiator were also employed by the military for the Pendleton Air Base Command to help navigate the growing impact of jailed draft dodgers.
Looking back on his four years in professional football, Smith commented that his untimely exit from the game "was a blessing in disguise." As a special teams player, hard physical contact was part of the turf. He witnessed three or four players knocked unconscious every season. The medical protocol at that time was to administer ammonia smelling salts and have a player return to the field. Smith observed that disruptive behavior was considered normal in the male culture of the 60's.
In watching this year's Superbowl in which both Carolina Panthers' player, Corey Brown and Denver Broncos' Shaquille Barrett were knocked unconscious and did not return to the field, an increased level of player safety protocol was evident.
According to Jeff Miller, NFL's Health and Safety Senior Vice President, teams not only rely on the medical opinion of the team's physician but have independent experts on hand as well.
In assessing the future of the game, Smith could not see how it could continue in its current form when increasing knowledge points to long term damaging effects on players after they have retired from the game.
Lisa McHale, wife of Miami Dolphins player, Tom McHale, who passed away at the age of 45, spoke to a Congressional forum on concussions in early March. She said at the time of her husband's death, he was a different person from the man she had married. Personality changes such as the inability to control impulses and rage led to depression and thoughts of suicide. Especially poignant was the fact that until recently, players did not know their multiplying problems were caused by a physical deterioration of the brain and often blamed themselves for their disabilities. She now serves as the Concussion Legacy Foundation's Family Relations Director.
How is football meeting the challenge of growing evidence of harm to its players?
According to NFL spokesperson, Jeff Miller, the league is distancing themselves from their own six year commissioned study (2003-2009) on traumatic brain injury which minimized the effects of repeated concussions on its players. The past efforts of the NFL to discredit the work of Bennett Omalu, the medical examiner who first diagnosed a condition known as CTE (Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy) is the subject of the recent movie, Concussion. The leading role in the movie features the accomplished actor who, coincidentally, shares the same name as our own local luminary, Will Smith.
With additional evidence from the work of Dr. Ann McKee of Boston who found lesions of the brain characteristic of CTE in 90 out of 94 brains studied for repeated concussive trauma, the NFL has worked for four years to have laws passed that require coaches to have concussion training.
In a collective bargaining agreement, the NFL has also allocated a million dollars to player retirement plans. Currently, three hundred players receive disability benefits for neurological disorders such as Parkinson's and Alzheimer's disease.
On the college level, there is more insistence on a higher level of training of coaches in what remains an unregulated profession. Brian Hainline, the chief medical officer of the NCAA (Nat'l Collegiate Athletic Association) noted that only 37% of colleges employ athletic trainers--a profession that also lacks licensing requirements.
Will Smith discovered the Mendocino coast in 1976 on a camping trip with a psychologist friend from their days at the UC San Diego campus.
His blessing was to be able to experience the power and glory inherent in a career as a professional athlete yet leave the game with a body and mind intact to explore other interests. Freely admitting that football shaped who he is, Smith was not limited by that experience. He continued his work in mediating conflicts and in the late 70's volunteered to write accounts of the local H.S football games for the Mendocino Beacon. A decade later his melodious voice could be heard on several local radio stations, delighting children with tales of adventure and wonder--an interest he hopes to pursue further.
The ethics a young idealistic Smith fought for in vain in the 60's--parental leave, equal pay for equal work-are only now being realized as rights of the workforce.
Another equally powerful ethical question presents itself today in the minds of parents, athletes, coaches, team owners and the NFL leadership:
Can the game that thrills millions of fans with feats of prowess and daring transition from the manly culture that applauds strength, endurance, bravery and competition into a game that is tempered by placing an equal value on a more feminine attribute of compassionate caring?
When the spotlight is gone and fickle media attention shifts to elevate another to superstar status, will these mere mortal men be able to return to their private lives, retaining an ability to live healthy and productive alternate realities?
Sheila Dawn Tracy holds a degree in physical education from Hunter College (CUNY). She lives in Mendocino. Bob Lane played as fullback in H.S and competed in the H.S. Chicago Championship in 1960. He was a conscientious objector in the Vietnam war and served there as an operating room scrub nurse.