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Posted at 8:25 AM ET, 02/25/2011

Pick of the Day: The People V. Football

By Annys Shin

Today's pick is a flawless story by GQ's Jeanne Marie Laskas (hat tip to Gangrey and Nieman Storyboard) about the slow demise of former Minnesota Vikings player Fred McNeill, caused by repeated head injuries incurred while playing football.

What makes the piece amazing is not only the authority with which Laskas writes -- she has been writing about the impact of repeated concussions on NFL players since 2009 -- but also the deftness with which, in a few scenes, she captures the effects of McNeill's increasingly challenging neurological deficits on his estranged wife, Tia, and their two adult sons.

The story confronts a basic question facing football, both pro and peewee: How can we keep watching the game — and how can we keep asking our kids to play it? But it never comes close to having the maudlin, didactic edge of an after-school special. It's an intimate portrait of a family struggling with a terrible tragedy, that captures not only the family's frustration, but also the sense of absurdity that often goes along with the experience of caring for someone whose mental faculties are slipping away.

It was hard to choose a single excerpt because it is all so good. This one, for those unfamiliar with McNeill, sums up his rise and fall.

There was a time when Fred was brilliant. He started law school during his last year with the Vikings, studying on the plane to and from games while the other guys slept. He graduated from William Mitchell College of Law in St. Paul, top of his class. After he retired from the Vikings in 1985, he got recruited by a huge firm and then another one, where he was made partner. Then one day in 1996 a certified letter came while Fred and Tia were on vacation with the kids. We voted you out, it said. Fred was 44. It was devastating. How Tia hated those people. Fred was calm, though. He went into private practice, started doing workers'-comp cases for athletes, including some injured Vikings — work that would later prove to be tragically ironic. But after two years, no money was coming in. "What is going on?" Tia asked. It's not like he wasn't trying. He worked all the time, gave it his all; you couldn't find a more honest, diligent man. But the family was going broke. Weird things started happening. Fred jumping out of bed in the middle of the night, panicked and ready to fight. "They're here!" he would shout, face hot with terror. "Fred, it's just me!" Tia would say. She would shake him until he snapped out of it. At the time you think he's just having a nightmare. You get used to things. You don't put it all together...
Here now is Fred. Thank God. He knocks on the passenger window, flashes a wide, beautiful smile, does a little ta-dah! dance move. He's 58 years old, and he has a long, gentle face, a blocky brow, and sprouts of gray hair shooting this way and that. He's wearing a windbreaker, baggy jeans, sneakers. She thinks he looks terrible. He's carrying a white notepad, stained and smudged, and covered top to bottom with phone numbers. He forgot the suitcase.
"You need a haircut, Fred," Tia says. "You look like Bozo the Clown!"
"I don't want a haircut."
"All right, let's just go." She pulls out, and still, even now, listens as if there is going to be substance.
"I have to make some calls," Fred says, looking at the notepad. "One of the things you have to do is, people call you, you have to respond to them." He speaks softly, almost a purr. "You would do the same thing, Tia. Somebody called you, what would you do? Call them back. I take this, I put the number on a big sheet of paper, and I'm cool. I have to start now calling back, not just writing it down. That's next. And then when I call the person back, I have to respond to whatever it is they say. That's how it goes. You would do the same thing."

The NFL has been slow to respond to the devastating impact of head injuries on its players. And stories such as this don't provide any solutions. But when they are done as well as this one, they make the issue that much harder for anyone to ignore.

By Annys Shin  | February 25, 2011; 8:25 AM ET
Categories:  Story Picks  
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The NFL has long seen a day of reckoning coming on concussions and neurological damage. They will do the right thing, I believe, after some foot dragging, because not doing so will result in a never-ending drip of heartbreaking stories such as this. But, of course, no palliative care will ever truly make up for the horror of these big, strong men being reduced to shells of their original selves.

Posted by: krickey7 | March 2, 2011 4:45 PM | Report abuse

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