PHILADELPHIA — In 1985, for a Philadelphia Daily News story about the quarter-century anniversary of the Eagles' 1960 championship team, Ray Didinger sat poolside at Tommy McDonald's home in King of Prussia, the two of them talking for three hours. Other players, during Didinger's interviews with them, had remembered general aspects of that season, but none of them retained the crystal clarity that McDonald, the team's star wide receiver, did. He knew every date, every detail, every citation and score.
Over the subsequent 33 years, from that encounter until McDonald's death in September 2018 at age 84, Didinger noticed a gradual but unmistakable decline in McDonald's memory, a slow diminishment of the man who was his hero and became his muse. By the time Didinger, a longtime voter for the Pro Football Hall of Fame, championed McDonald's candidacy and helped him earn induction in 1998, McDonald was telling him, I just don't remember stuff now, and it's stuff I know I know.
Come 2016, when Didinger's play about his relationship with McDonald, "Tommy and Me," began running at Theater Exile in South Philadelphia, McDonald attended one night, tapping his son Chris on the knee throughout the show. That's right. That's right. I remember that. But it was the only performance of the play that McDonald ever saw, and he stopped traveling to Canton each year for the Hall of Fame ceremony, fearful that he would forget the names of friends and familiar faces.
"This thing had gotten progressively worse and serious," Didinger said over the phone Monday morning. "It took something away that was precious and important."
This thing was chronic traumatic encephalopathy, or CTE, the brain disease that has afflicted dozens of NFL players. McDonald, the Philadelphia Inquirer's Frank Fitzpatrick reported last week, had the most advanced form of the disease — it can be diagnosed only posthumously — and the timing of the revelation ... well, was it fitting or ironic? Just a day earlier, the NFL's 32 owners, with the collectively bargained assent of the league's players association, approved the extension of the regular season from 16 games to 17.
So how do those of us who love football get past this? I have said this before, and I repeat it now: There's little I enjoy more about covering sports than the NFL season: the storylines, the sport itself, the attention and enthusiasm of those who follow it. Yet with every one of these revelations about the damage that football, at its highest and most brutal levels, delivers upon those who play it, I find myself asking myself: How do I reconcile that cost with my enjoyment of the sport and with my very livelihood, with the frequent requirement to turn a blind eye to the damage?
Didinger — a panelist on NBC Sports Philadelphia's Eagles Postgame Live, a host on 94.1 WIP, a member himself of the Pro Football Hall of Fame — is regarded as the city's most respected authority on the history of the league and, in particular, of the Eagles. And even he finds himself asking the same questions.
"It bothers me now," he said. "I have to admit, when I watch it now, I have trouble separating it, and it's tied to my relationship with Tommy. He was like family to me. To know he went through this, yeah, it affects how I feel about the game. I watch it, and it's not what it was."
NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell defended the league's expansion decision with some statistical sleight-of-hand, citing league-gathered data that echoed what Dr. Allen Sills, the NFL's chief medical officer, said last year: that players were more likely to get injured during the preseason than they were the regular season. Even if that data were accurate — and there's ample reason to be skeptical — a 16-game regular-season already featured more than enough punishment to put players at risk of CTE and other brain trauma. McDonald never played more than 14 games in any regular season, but the accumulated hits and concussions over his 12-year career left him less than himself just the same.
"When you read about a lot about these cases, when CTE really begins to take hold, guys get sullen and violent," Didinger said. "You read, 'His whole personality changed.' That was never true with Tommy. That was one of the things I thought about. Maybe he's got this, but there was no evidence of that part of it.' There was absentmindedness, him calling me at 11 o'clock at night. But I had heard all these stories about guys going into really dark places, but his personality never changed. He was cheerful, upbeat, happy-go-lucky. That was his basic nature. CTE never took that away from him."
At the time, McDonald didn't have available to him the same depth and breadth of research about head injuries, and it's that distinction — or is it just a rationalization? — that separates the athletes of past generations from those of today's. Ask most NFL players about CTE and concussions now, and what they want most is an honest and thorough accounting of the information and risks. Give them the facts, open and unvarnished. Then, they can make their own choices.
That's the out for a lot of us. That's the out for someone like me. Someone who sometimes has to look for a reason to look away from football's toll. Someone who gets that familiar pang of guilt every time he sees those three terrible letters in a headline and waits to find out who's next.(c)2021 The Philadelphia Inquirer Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.