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Football better than life


(Sept. 25)--They were three of the NFL's all-time greats; two Hall of Famers and another who may, yet, make it to Canton.

In less than two weeks, the NFL lost Johnny Unitas, Bob Hayes and Mike Webster. Their deaths provide us with sobering thoughts in a game that often seems to have gone mad.

But sobering may not be a strong enough description. In these three cases, greatness was followed by desperation.

Unitas, arguably the greatest quarterback who ever played the game, was buried with more fanfare than any player in NFL history. He is pro football's first example of a Lou Gehrig-like farewell; a Joe DiMaggio-type passing. Unitas' death was covered by the TV networks he literally introduced to the NFL.

Unfortunately, Unitas' years after football were not befitting the level of achievement and stardom he reached during his playing days. Soon after he retired from the game in 1973, Unitas met with financial despair. In recent years he had lost the practical use of his right arm and hand. Life after football was not good.

Hayes, as was Unitas, was one of the players who changed the game. He introduced speed to the game as no other player had previously. Hayes will forever be remembered for beating cornerbacks down the sideline to catch long touchdown passes, but he will also be remembered for his performance in the "Ice Bowl," when Hayes shut it down in the sub-zero temperatures. Some believe that game has kept Hayes out of the Hall of Fame, and it's a tragic thought to think that one game could mean that much.

He will also be remembered tragically for a drug conviction, and for difficulties with alcohol. Life after football was not good.

Webster was the best center in the game on the best team in the game. Some believe he was the best center who ever played the game. He was the first offensive lineman to tailor his jersey so that it fit tight to his chest and above the bulging muscles of his arms. On those cold playoff days in Pittsburgh, Webster's bare arms were an intimidating sight.

He will forever be remembered for his incredible work ethic and durability. Webster didn't miss a game for 10 years. But life after football produced severe hardships: divorce, homelessness, declining health most attributed to steroids abuse. During one acute stretch of hardship, Webster was living under a bridge across the river from Three Rivers Stadium, and nobody knew.

Financial woes forced him to sell his four Super Bowl rings. He suffered loss of memory, which was attributed to the cost football had exacted on his body. Without a doubt, life after football was not good.

It's what bonds these three players; tough times followed their days of greatness. Now, the greatness that had temporarily abandoned them, has provided them with immortality. It is the very best the game has to offer.

So why were we presented with the passing of these three players in such rapid succession? Is there a message in all of this? Or is it just coincidence that three great players who were hard-luck cases following their playing days passed away in a span of 12 days?

For these three players, football was not a microcosm of life. Football was much better, and that's a very sobering thought.

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