The Awful Price of Playing Football

It was inevitable, in light of the growing evidence that there is a link between repetitive concussion and permanent brain injury, that we would hear more from former players and their families about the awful price of playing football.
Still, the story of Greg Williams was a terrible shock.

Williams was one of the greatest, toughest, and most controversial players of all time. He was also the sort of ruthless person few people could warm to.

On the Channel Seven programme Sunday Night, however, in a setting that could have proved demeaning and exploitative, he showed a type of courage that moved many to tears.

Williams was asked by Peter FitzSimons what he could remember about his honeymoon.

With his adoring wife sitting next to him and with that direct and confronting stare he gave to his taggers – except this time he’s on the verge of crying – Williams replies, “I can’t remember my honeymoon.”

Williams can’t remember because he’s almost certainly suffering brain damage, more specifically the degenerative condition known as Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy (CTE) which leads to dementia.

CTE is a result of repeated concussions and Williams – with his slow foot speed and short stature – was a major recipient of these throughout his career.

Williams’ wife also confirmed that besides the memory loss there are signs of increased aggression which is also associated with the condition.

He is a Team of the Century player, Australian Football Hall of Fame inductee and Carlton premiership player. In a palatial home financed by his lucrative football career and business interests he has a framed picture of the Team of the Century, which he said he purchased because he couldn’t remember being selected.

He was only half-joking because he admits to not remembering much of his time as a player.

This was an extraordinarily courageous and generous act by Williams, to go on television and be shown forgetting the middle names of his own children and being told by a doctor that his brain is exhibiting symptoms usually associated with Parkinson’s or dementia.

And the same goes for former NRL prop Shaun Valentine, who also appeared on the programme.

Indications that the game can have a devastating long-term impact on the cognitive function of some of its players have always been there but sometimes it’s the misfortunes of the superstars that can highlight sad reality.

In a previous article I mentioned the over importance placed on the body in contact sports. Physical strength is of no consequence when your head hits something hard.

This was solemnly highlighted last night when FitzSimons “interviewed” a 69-year-old former NFL player, John Hilton, who proudly flexed his still firm muscles. Unfortunately he has the cognitive function of a pre-school child, almost certainly a result of CTE.

The condition which has been found in a large number of deceased NFL players by the pioneering Boston University study centre can only be diagnosed post-mortem.

Undoubtedly if Hilton was examined his brain would show the condition’s calling card – the build up of tau protein.

Melbourne’s Deakin University is involved in the study of the effects of brain trauma on living patients. The University’s Alan Pearce was the doctor who tested Williams and Valentine. Pearce had previously tested five former AFL players, all of who showed signs of brain damage.

What are the implications for the future of the sport and the other football codes?

The soft helmets used by some footballers are useless as they do not prevent the brain from shifting abruptly and disrupting its chemical equilibrium or ,worse, striking the inside of the skull, the causes of concussion.

Concussion guidelines have been implemented, however Alan Pearce says after one serious concussion you shouldn’t play again and the head of the Boston unit believes children shouldn’t be exposed to sports that cause repetitive brain trauma until after puberty.

As a player the worst thing for your performance, while playing, is to think about the organ you’re doing your thinking with.

When asked by FitzSimons how proud he is of his Team of the Century selection, Williams says, “This is one of the biggest things for me.”

Clearly something bigger but awful is happening to him now.

I wonder if FitzSimons contemplated asking him if he now regrets ever playing the game?

Goalkicking: The Art and Desire Lost In the Modern Game

In the dying seconds of the 1977 Grand Final, Collingwood’s Ross ‘Twiggy’ Dunne prepared to kick, requiring a goal to level the scores. Despite being only twenty metres out, he chose the kick usually reserved for the long distance roost: the technically difficult and notoriously inaccurate torpedo punt.
Belying his team’s Colliwobbles moniker, which had again been justified with the surrender of a 27 point three quarter time lead, Dunne showed no signs of a weak stomach and casually slotted the goal.

Beautifully executed, the kick sent the ball straight over the goal umpire before launching it into the upper tiers of the Ponsford Stand. Two policemen squatting on the boundary looked up as if it was on its way to the moon.

Dunne’s choice of kick, especially for such an important goal, would today be deemed an act of laconic stupidity.

It’s easy to be amused watching players of the distant past taking shots at goal.

As a child I was given a book entitled How to Play Football. On its cover is a photo of a footballer in thick woollen jumper and high lace up boots in the act of executing what is probably a drop kick. I’ve since been informed it is a young Ted Whitten.

Both legs are in the air and with his hefty fuselage and outstretched arms Whitten resembles an Airbus A380 attempting takeoff.

In the professional era the kick demanded by coaches is the easier and supposedly more accurate drop punt.

According to the official AFL book on Skills of Australian Football, “kicking skills have improved immensely over the years as players have more time to practise and perfect hitting targets”.

And more recently Mick Malthouse remarked: “Has our goal-kicking improved over 20, 30, 40 years? Of course it has. Go and have a look at some footage”.

I did; of Peter ‘Percy’ Jones. ‘Resting’ in the forward line the gangly Carlton ruckman would, with an uncertain approach, execute shots at goal that started as drop punts but morphed into ugly flat punts. He kicked 284 goals with an unbelievable accuracy of 72% – the 5th highest of all time

The problem is, goal-kicking hasn’t improved. The modern full-time footballer uses the drop punt exclusively, plays on carpet-smooth surfaces, and has a fifty metre line to gauge distance from goal but these advantages haven’t helped his rate of conversion.

For a number of years now, champion Essendon full forward Matthew Lloyd – who had to rectify is own goalkicking problems during his career – has verbalised his frustration at the high number of easy goals that are missed, and the apparent lack of concern shown by players and coaches.

Both Lloyd and Adelaide great Mark Ricciuto have highlighted the fact that development of goalkicking skills is not a focus of clubs, many of which are coached by ex defenders. Some have admitted their reluctance to indulge in lengthy goal practice sessions out of fear of causing leg injuries and others unbelievably mentioned the inconvenience of having to retrieve balls.

The set-shot is a conundrum for the modern player – a runner who does weights. He covers distances unprecedented in the history of the game and can kick with aplomb to a leading teammate forty metres upfield but put him in front of the goal posts and he goes to water.

Today you can tell a player is going to miss a set-shot. The nervousness, the reticence, and downright disbelief in his own ability to complete the task are written all over his face. He may be thirty metres out on a slight angle but still hopes to give it off. The furtive eyes are still working as he walks towards the large stationary target; 6.4 metres wide and as high as gravity will allow.

Often he’s lucky to get it inside the point post.

And it’s not just the poor unfocused preparation; it’s also the kick itself. He’s used to kicking the ball ‘up’, over zones or walls of opposing players, to unmarked teammates. He is not required to pass to teammates with the flatter more powerful trajectory – a skill, by the way, that is integral to Hawthorn’s recent dominance – that is the superior method for goal-kicking.

Goalkicking in all its manifestations is a more difficult task than general kicking, even for those with the greater skills.

This is because of the mental aspect: the pressure. Especially for defenders and midfielders, who in the modern running game, find themselves in front of goal.

Forced to take the shot, their timidity forces them into fundamental errors. They either lean back and kick the ball upwards which makes he ball lose momentum and accuracy, or they try to steer the ball with a soft foot which usually results in the ball slewing off the side of the boot.

Technically there is not a lot of difference between accurate kicking in general play and shooting for goal: running straight at the target, head over the ball and kicking through the ball.

It’s strange that while most aspects of human endeavour have become more specialised, football has become less so. Players are constantly on the move, fulfilling a variety of roles. During a match a team can have up to ten different players taking shots at goal.

Out of breath from their marathon stints and with minds preoccupied with their coaches’ strategies and systems they’re not in the best place to execute the delicate art of kicking for goal. Most don’t see themselves as goal-kickers and, to the real annoyance of fans, often appear unfazed after missing shots.

The new game has seen the death of the greatest specialist: the power full forward. The goal-kicking gurus who were born – or trained themselves – to belong in the Shangri-La of the inside fifty.

Having the ball delivered to them exquisitely by champion centremen and on-ballers, they would begin their eccentric procedures, in their own good time – almost impossible now with the imposition of time limits. Whether it was throwing grass in the air, descending into a meditative state, or simply aiming above the goal umpire’s head, it would bring a quietness and a calmness to proceedings – a welcome state in today’s skittery style.

Whether they used the torpedo, the flat punt, or the drop punt, the result was always the same. They would drill goals.

I don’t know, perhaps goal-kicking can’t be taught; you either have the hunger or you don’t.

In the case of the great full forwards and freakish goal sneaks there may be an element of truth to this, however you’ll probably find that many of these sharpshooters with an “uncanny goal sense” are largely a product of a childhood dominated by endless and solitary goal kicking practice.

For me, that space between the goal posts was a sacred place. Not in the traditional religious sense of course because your aim – psychotic to those non-forwards not in the know – was to violate it with the football.

If I ever found myself in possession of the ball within goalkicking distance – and I did not consider 50 metres out of range – handballing or kicking to a player “in a better position” (but who lacked the requisite desire) was not an option. Whatever the angle, whatever the pressure and with either foot my sole desire was to puncture that space – lacquered as it was with an invisible veneer to keep out the unskilled and non believers.

I’m dying for the day, when a player lining up for a goal to win the grand final spurns the orders of his coach and sends a torp to the moon.`