Hanging in my basement, alongside the posters and magazine covers of Philly legends like Dr. J, Moses Malone, Ron Hextall, Mike Schmidt and Harry Kalas is a framed photo of Andre Waters. On an Eagles team full of superstars, Andre was my favorite.
Growing up, I was a relatively good kid who respected rules and authority. For a young rule-abiding kid there was something so thrilling about Andre’s blatant disregard for late hits, personal foul penalties, and the league office. The nickname “Dirty Waters” only contributed to the mystique.
He was badass. His legend was forever cemented when I heard Vai Sikahema tell a story about just how far Andre would go to intimidate the opposition. Sikahema, while a member of the Cardinals, was going about his business on the field during pregame warm-ups. The Eagles defensive backs, including Waters, were jogging around the perimeter of the field at Busch Stadium when they approached the Cardinals punter.
The next thing Sikahema knows Andre breaks away from the other Eagles defensive backs at the precise moment the Cardinals punter is preparing to uncork a practice punt. Andre steps in front of the punter, blocks the punt, and starts yelling, "All day. It’s gonna be like that all day." This was during pregame. It sounds ludicrous, and perhaps my fondness for Andre clouded my memory a bit, but I reached out to Vai over at NBC10 who confirmed the story.
For reasons like blocking a punt during pregame, Andre Waters was one of my favorite players ever. On November 20, 2006 Andre Waters killed himself.
I’ve been thinking about writing this post for a long time. Perhaps it was the three separate stories that Guest Editor Peter Gammons and Series Editor Glen Stout selected for the 2010 edition of The Best American Sportswriting that motivated me to finally write.
Pieces by Malcolm Gladwell, Jeanne Marie Laskas, and Robert Sanchez, all exploring concussions in football, were chosen for the anthology. Make no mistake about it, by including these stories Gammons and Stout were making a statement about the seriousness and severity of concussions in sports.
Perhaps it was the recent exhaustive three-part multimedia piece by The New York Times on the life and death of former hockey enforcer Derek Boogaard that made me finally sit down to write.
Or, perhaps my recent Twitter timeline had something to do with it. My timeline was flooded with updates on athletes dealing with the effects of concussions. Tweets about Chris Pronger’s severe post-concussion symptoms and Claude Giroux’s recovery from a “minor” concussion were sandwiched between a conversation about concussions between former professional soccer players Taylor Twellman and Alecko Eskandarian, both of whom were forced to retire due to head injuries.
The question in my mind, the question I still have been unable to answer, is what is my role in all of this? I love seeing big hits and physical play. I admire fearlessness and recklessness -- total and complete disregard for one’s body. It’s what drew me to Andre Waters.
However, the very things that left me in awe of him likely killed him. Dr. Bennett Omalu, who was the first person to discover physical evidence linking football-related brain injury and dementia, examined Waters’ brain.
Hal Habib, who interviewed Omalu for a piece in the September 11, 2010 Palm Beach Post, wrote:
"After Waters' suicide, Bennet Omalu, the doctor who studied his brain - and that of other NFL players who died young - said the damage he discovered was consistent with that of 80- to 90-year-olds suffering from dementia.
Family and friends are still not sure what made Waters pull the trigger, but Omalu offers a stark conclusion.
“Football killed him,' the doctor said.”
Leagues and teams continue to cling to the party line that there is not enough science to definitively state that there’s a link between concussions and Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy (“CTE”), the progressive degenerative disease typically associated with boxers.
Hockey agent Allan Walsh shared his thoughts on the rash of concussions suffered by NHL players and the link to CTE with Los Angeles Times writer Lisa Dillman:
"When [NHL Commissioner Gary] Bettman says there's no definite proof that there is a link between concussions and CTE, I think that statement will not hold the test of time, and once science catches up with the issue, Bettman is going to be on the wrong side of the science.
"It reminds me very much of tobacco executives in the '70s screaming to the media and testifying before Congress that there is no definitive link between cigarette smoking and cancer."
I don’t want to completely blame the teams and leagues though. The players willingly put themselves at risk. I’d be willing to bet that if given the option of either not playing and living a healthy life or playing and risking long-term health risks, the majority of professional athletes would opt to play and risk their health.
Aside from the obvious world class athletic ability, it’s what makes them different from you and me. They are willing to put their bodies and well-being on the line in exchange for the opportunity to make obscene amounts of money and secure the financial future of their family for generations. In turn we marvel at their willingness to sacrifice their health and we glorify them.
It’s a vicious cycle. In Andre Waters’ case, it likely cost him his life. As much as his playing style endeared him to me, the reality was he was not just some mythical disposal late-hitting machine here for my entertainment.
Today, I cringe when Brent Celek or Michael Vick staggers to his feet, punch drunk after getting up from a hit. I hold my breath whenever Claude Giroux goes into the corner to battle for a loose puck. If I am being honest though I’ll admit that part of my concern, a large portion of it in fact, is predicated on how an injury to one of them would impact the Eagles’ or Flyers’ chances of winning.
Then I catch myself and realize it’s easy to lose sight of what’s important. I look over at the framed photo of Andre Waters hanging on my wall a
nd remember that he was a warrior. He was as tough as they come. And that sadly, he’s dead.