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Column: A ‘real lucky’ former NFL player irked by progress on concussions and injuries

Steve Wright is an interesting unofficial spokesman for the current state of professional football, also known as weekend mayhem.

Wright is 56. He lives in Manhattan Beach. He played 13 years on various pro teams, including the last seven with the Raiders. He played at 6 feet 7 and 270 pounds, about 20 pounds heavier than he is today.

Recent medical studies of football concussions indicate that linemen suffer the majority of them. By the necessity of the game, they are banging heads on every play.

Wright was an offensive tackle.

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In recent years in this column, we have told stories of former players who dawdled off into later life, barely remembering their children’s names, and seldom having enough financial means — certainly not enough via NFL pensions — to treat their medical conditions.

We have written about a visit to a tavern in Baltimore’s Mount Washington area, where John Mackey’s daughter used to bring him so he could sit around and smile and nod and pretend to understand while old Colts fans patted him on the back and told him how much they cherished the days when Johnny Unitas was throwing passes to him.

Mackey played nine years in the NFL, missed only one game in those nine years, and died of dementia at 69.

We’ve written about the Chicago Bears’ Dave Duerson, who committed suicide by shooting himself in the chest so his brain could be studied. He had been suffering from a debilitating condition called chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE). Same with the Chargers’ Junior Seau, who did the same thing and had the same condition.

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So it is meaningful to see things through the eyes of Wright, who is about the age he might expect to start seeing and feeling the damaging effects of his pro football career.

But instead he surfs every day, looks like a white-haired Adonis and is as lucid as a 16-year-old.

That does not mean, however, that he wishes to be a poster boy for NFL wonderfulness.

“I’m real lucky,” he says, adding that he just went through a battery of tests at UCLA that looked for signs of CTE and found none.

That doesn’t mean he isn’t concerned. Far from it.

He tells of joining a group of former Raiders for a reunion a few weeks ago at the team’s training camp.

“It’s always good to see people, and mostly it was great,” he says. “But it also got to be concerning, when you are sitting around with a bunch of guys who are all saying the same thing: ‘I can’t remember anything anymore.’ ”

He says he tried to strike up a conversation with a famous former Raider, tight end Raymond Chester.

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“All he’d say was, ’87'… ’87,’” Wright says, concluding later that what had been Chester’s jersey number most of his career was now his way of identifying himself.

Wright isn’t a paid advocate, but he carries around a stack of papers that show numbers of football injuries, by team, by game and by body part. He overflows with ideas about equipment changes and attitude changes needed to make the game better, and safer.

“I love the game,” he says. “I’m also concerned.”

He bristles at what he characterizes as the cop-out stance taken all too often by people in positions to do something.

“They say all this stuff — concussions, knee injuries — are just part of the game,” Wright says. “They don’t have to be.”

He says he is all for tough hits and rugged physical contact. He just thinks most of the injuries could be eliminated.

“Look at the Ben Roethlisberger injury the other day,” Wright says. “Here is an $8-million quarterback who gets taken down on a fairly routine play and, because he isn’t wearing a proper knee brace, gets hurt.

“Wouldn’t you think these owners, with all they have invested, would demand changes to protect their investments? But they don’t. They say it is part of the game.”

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Wright says that technology could create that protection — better helmets and knee braces, higher shoes for ankle bracing — if only the NFL would get serious and mandate their creation and use. Currently, you see half the players wearing little or no leg padding, and often nothing at all on their knees.

The NFL eliminated rules for mandatory equipment years ago. Wright says that players foolishly discard pads, trying to gain a split second of speed.

“They need to stop and think how much that is not worth it,” he says.

Wright says the sport he loves is at a crossroads. He says he read in a recent report that football participation rates in Orange County high schools were down 20%.

“Think of that as the NFL draft class of 2025,” he says.

Mostly, Wright wants action and innovation from a league that seems, at least on the issue of player safety, to be a huge Titanic, unable to turn with any speed in a crisis.

“In 1990,” Wright says, “I wore a shield on my helmet to protect my eyes. Everybody laughed at me.

“A few years later, a teammate, Don Mosebar, got hit through his facemask and lost his eye.”

Also his career.

Wright wants fixing the injury problem to be the league’s top priority. If it doesn’t happen, he says all those millions of fans who love the violent hits and play in fantasy leagues could suddenly have nothing to see or wager on.

“We need to wake up people now,” he says. “Otherwise, it’s gonna happen. The game will die.”

All this, remember, comes from a healthy survivor.

bill.dwyre@LATimes.com

Twitter: @DwyreLATimes


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