It’s the day before the Super Bowl, America’s most grandiose unofficial national holiday. I’m talking with Anthony Davis, one of the legendary athletes to ever come out of the Valley (specifically Pacoima). It seemed like a good time to talk football.
Only the “game” Davis wanted to talk about had nothing to do with the Super Bowl, which was won by Denver over Carolina on Sunday, Feb. 7.
He wanted to talk about the kind of toll playing football had taken on him physically.
“For me, I would not have touched a football from what I know now,” Davis said. “I would have gone into baseball.”
It was a chilling admission from a man who first came to prominence at San Fernando High School, played on two national championship football teams at USC (and three more in baseball) and was an All-American in both sports, then played pro football in the WFL and NFL, — and briefly pro baseball — giving him, at 63, a name recognition level that has lasted beyond his playing days.
Football gave him the greatest amount of recognition, especially from two monster games against USC’s storied rival Notre Dame. In the 1972 game, Davis scored six touchdowns against the Irish and became famous nationwide.
But the price to his health, was high. Davis maintains that anyone who puts on a helmet and pads will have post-football trauma. Some more, some less; but no one escapes.
“I always advocate that football is a great game, but a dangerous game,” he said.
Davis has written and released a memoir (with Jeremy Rosenberg) called “Kick-Off: Concussion.” As memoirs go, it’s not a large scale tome, with just 121 pages and no photos. Davis said the “production costs” were more than anticipated, which caused him and his co-writer to scale back ambitions.
Still, “I said what I wanted to say,” he insists. “I could have gone on with a lot of things …. [and] I elaborate on more things when I speak in public. I emphasize more of what should have been in the book.”
Having a product like “Kick-Off: Concussion” has given Davis a platform to address what he sees wrong with the game, particularly in the NFL — the lack of examinations and proper care for current and former players, especially in regards to concussions and head trauma.
“I made a statement on radio that the great Peyton Manning, the day he is finally out of the game, the first thing he will do is get his brain scanned,” Davis said. “That’s the first thing. I’m not a doctor, but I have learned … when you have trauma to the head the blood flow to the brain slows down. It can lead to Alzheimer’s and dementia. I didn’t play as long as many people, and I had significant damage.
“You can’t play in the NFL, and other levels, and not have damage. And guys who play know that now. I believe if the NFL wants to have a good image with the public, it has to be aware of what is happening. You can’t make all this money and not having something for your former players. If [the NFL] wants to make a stand, it will have to take care of them after the game. Anyone who puts a helmet on and helps build the brand, should be taken care of.”
He said he was examined by Dr. Daniel Amen, an Orange County psychiatrist and brain disorder specialist who has been doing brain imaging since 1991. Amen had set up a study to scan the brains of 115 former NFL players. “I was the second (in 2007),” Davis said. And he was stunned by Amen’s diagnosis that Davis, then 54, had “the brain of an 85-year-old man.”
But now, Davis said, some things made sense. He writes in the book he had been “falling apart in the 2000s. That means physically, mentally, emotionally and financially.” The physical decline was most obvious to the public. He had ballooned in weight from 205- to 315- pounds and led him to seek gastric-bypass surgery. He was afflicted with sleep apnea, diabetes, and gout. He was also losing his memory and clarity of speech.
Davis has been taking supplements prescribed by Amen for nearly 10 years. Amen’s research, books, clinics and supplements have their detractors in the scientific community. But Davis is firm in saying they have, for him, restored a quality of life.
“I’m not totally recovered but I function better,” he said. “I could not verbalize like this 10 years ago. When I do radio and TV now, I see the difference. The guys on the programs can see the difference.”
Davis is not the only former Valley athlete who has struggled after football.
Manfred Moore — who played with Davis at San Fernando High and at USC — played four seasons (53 games) primarily on special teams in the NFL for San Francisco, Tampa Bay, Oakland and Minnesota. After being cut by the Buccaneers during the 1976 season, Moore caught on with the Raiders near the season’s end and wound up appearing in Super Bowl XI, when the Raiders beat the Vikings.
Ninety-eight days after the Super Bowl, Moore also played four games of rugby with the Newton Jets of the New South Wales Rugby League in Sydney, Australia. He scored the team’s first try (an equivalent to an American football touchdown) of the season. However, in his fourth (and last) game against Penrith, he was kicked in the forehead and cut above the eye, requiring stitches. He said it was the first time he recalled getting hurt. He also decided to end his rugby experiment. He returned to NFL and Minnesota in 1977, in part to qualify for a NFL pension.
Moore visited San Fernando High School a week before the game, as part of a promotion by the NFL, bringing a gold football symbolic of the 50th Super Bowl game. But he is also living in a care facility in Los Angeles due to football-related injuries.
It gives Davis further moments to pause when he thinks about Moore, and when he learns more deceased players had CTE (chronic traumatic encephalopathy), a degenerative disease found in people (and not just athletes) with repeated brain injuries — and that can only be diagnosed after an examination following death. Or when seeing too many friends and former competitors seemingly afflicted by, and succumbing to, dementia and other disorders before they should be.
“I see guys who played the game 15-20 years ago, and I don’t know how they survive,” Davis said.
He’s just grateful that he has.