Behold the mighty woodpecker.
On average, it weighs about 2 ounces and can generate up to 1,000 g forces while pecking at tree limbs 12,000 times a day. Yet the woodpecker’s brain remains pristine and unscathed, a fact that has intrigued researchers for decades. Nature essentially has turned the woodpecker into a shock absorber from beak to foot. The bird’s uneven bill deflects much of the impact of its incessant head banging. A third interior eyelid prevents its eyeballs from popping out. The woodpecker’s tongue is one of the most unusual features in nature. It extends from the back of the bird’s mouth and through its right nostril, finally wrapping itself snugly around the entire crown of the head. Chinese researchers who subjected the great spotted woodpecker and the Eurasian hoopoe to super-slow-motion replay and CT scans concluded that the tongue serves as a kind of safety belt for the brain.
In the late 2000s, Julian Bailes displayed a woodpecker skull in a jar on top of his desk in Morgantown, West Virginia. Bailes was a top neurosurgeon and a former team doctor for the Pittsburgh Steelers. He incurred the wrath of the NFL when he joined a small group of researchers who concluded that football was causing brain damage in an alarming number of former players. During a closed-door meeting in 2007 that was attended by the NFL commissioner, Roger Goodell, and 200 team doctors, trainers, and players, a neurologist affiliated with the league had mocked Bailes, rolling his eyes as Bailes showed slides of diseased brain tissue collected from dead players. “I’m a man of science!” the NFL’s neurologist had bellowed, implying that Bailes was not. It was an ugly scene, one of many that took place during those strange years when the National Football League went to war against science.
Every once in a while, someone would ask Bailes about the curious object on his desk. Bailes loved football—he had been an all-state linebacker in Louisiana—and even though the NFL was attacking him, he surrounded himself with artifacts of the sport: a shelf filled with old helmets of the Steelers, Cardinals, Chiefs, and Rams; deflated footballs; a panoramic photo of Pittsburgh’s Three Rivers Stadium, where he once had worked; and a signed photo of the legendary Steelers linebacker Jack Lambert, snarling and toothless. “My whole life was football,” Bailes would say. He would pick up the tiny bird brain from his desk and explain that if only NFL players were built like woodpeckers, none of this would have happened.
September 28, 2002, is one of the most significant dates in the history of American sports. You won’t find it in the record books.
That morning, on a stainless steel autopsy table inside the Allegheny County coroner’s office in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, lay the body of Mike Webster, the legendary center of the Pittsburgh Steelers. He had been stripped to his blue jeans, and his stomach had been injected with embalming fluid. Even in death, Webster looked formidable, with a muscular thickness from head to foot, a body that seemed designed to absorb and mete out punishment. But on closer inspection, it was a body that showed horrific signs of wear. Late in Webster’s life, his personal physician had noticed that the skin on his forehead had become “fixed to his scalp,” a shelf of scar tissue built up over 17 years of pro football. Odd bulges protruded from his back, varicose veins spidered down his legs, and deep cracks ran along the bottoms of his feet. His fingers were thick and crooked like splayed branches. Webster’s ex-wife, peering into his casket, had noticed that his fingers remained curled so that “it looked like he was still holding a football.” Webster was 50 years old when he died, but a lot of people thought he looked 70.
Five years earlier, when Webster was inducted into the Hall of Fame, his old quarterback, Terry Bradshaw, introduced him as “the best center that’s ever played the game, the best to ever put his hands down on a football.” Bradshaw, bald except for a fringe of blond hair, looking like a TV evangelist in his gold Hall of Fame sport coat, gazed up to the gray skies and cried: “One more time, let me put my hands under Mike Webster’s butt!” Webster, looking sheepish and befuddled, bent over in his khakis and hiked the ball to Bradshaw as the crowd roared. That was in 1997. Webster was already a very sick man. How sick, only a few people knew. Steelers fans had heard some of the stories: that Webster was broke and jobless and living in his truck, that his body was falling apart, that he was seeing a psychiatrist. The reality was far worse: Webster, a kind, thoughtful man during his playing days—many imagined he would go on to a successful career in coaching or perhaps broadcasting, like Bradshaw—had been transformed into a completely different person.
Webster had accumulated an arsenal of weapons that included a Sig Sauer P226 semiautomatic pistol, an AR-15 semiautomatic assault rifle, and a .357 Magnum revolver. He talked frequently about killing NFL officials, including Steelers executives and members of the league’s disability board, whom he blamed for his financial troubles. Webster had become addicted to Ritalin, a stimulant normally prescribed to children with attention-deficit disorder, finding that it was the only thing that got him through the day.
Webster, more than anyone, knew how sick he was, and he believed his illness was connected to the game to which he had given his life. Webster once went six seasons without missing a single offensive play; later, when asked by a doctor if he had ever been involved in a car crash, he replied: “Oh, probably about 25,000 times or so.” He read constantly, even during the worst of his illness, and he would pore over literature on head trauma and brain disease, putting exclamation points in the margins and circling terms that he thought applied to him, such as “ice pick headache” and “disinhibition” and “dysfluency.” He wrapped duct tape around his crooked fingers so that he could grasp a pen to write thousands of letters—some ranting and paranoid, some desperate, some incomprehensible—on any scrap of paper he could find. One read: What Do I do, I am over f***ing overwhelmed . . . what to Do . . . Have NO way Be able to Help my Kids Everyone other Family Dependents and Keep Them Healthy Safe. . . . Maybe me worthless piece of crap but can NOT Let That Get to me have to Keep Trying Keep Work at all this but How Do I Do anything Now?
As Webster lay dead inside the coroner’s office that September morning, a silver Mercedes-Benz turned into the back parking lot. A small, dapper forensic pathologist named Bennet Omalu climbed out. It was a mild fall day in Pittsburgh, not yet cold, the start of another football season. Outside the building, TV trucks and reporters had gathered with the news that “Iron Mike” Webster, the indestructible force of four Super Bowl champions, the center of gravity of the Steeler dynasty—“our strength,
” Bradshaw had called him—was inside on a slab.
Omalu was on call to perform autopsies that Saturday because he was the most junior pathologist in the office. He had been out clubbing the night before.
“What’s going on?” he asked his colleagues.
“It’s Mike Webster. His body is in there,” one of them whispered.
“Who is Mike Webster?” asked Omalu.
Over the last year or so, people sometimes have asked us: Is ESPN really going to let you write this book?
It is an interesting question. We are employees of the company once known as the Entertainment and Sports Programming Network but now commonly identified by its initials—a media empire that operates seven 24-hour sports channels, a website that attracts more than 37 million unique visitors every month, a radio network of more than 400 stations, and numerous other sports-related enterprises. The centerpiece of ESPN’s empire is its lucrative relationship with the National Football League. The network pays the NFL—and, by extension, its 32 franchises—$1.9 billion per year to broadcast Monday Night Football.
That’s $112 million per game, nearly the average budget for the Harry Potter films.
ESPN’s bet on the NFL is based on its own market research, which distinguishes the average sports fan from what the network likes to call “avids”—people who follow their sports regularly and crave information about them the way they crave food. According to ESPN’s internal data, by 2012 there were 85 million NFL avids—more than a quarter of the nation. The network has been able to pinpoint almost the exact moment when pro football permanently surpassed baseball as America’s pastime: the fall of 1994, when, not coincidentally, a seven-month strike wiped out the World Series. In some major cities today, having a pro football team is a higher priority than providing basic services. The city of Oakland and Alameda County, for example, shell out over $30 million each year to support the Raiders; by 2012, Oakland, with one of the worst crime rates in the nation, had cut 200 police officers to save money.
Copyright © 2013 by Mark Fainaru-Wada and Steve Fainaru. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.