October 1, 2011 in Sports

Blanchette: Give Tofflemire thought on Sunday

 

Revel in your football today.

Throw on your replica NFL jersey, invite some friends over, wolf down some wings. Meticulously add and project your fantasy league points. High-five your buddy when a particularly vicious hit is delivered. Maybe even lament that the last labor agreement didn’t allow the league to add two more weeks to this wonderment.

And make a run to the fridge to re-beer yourself when they have to take time to help off some grimacing warrior.

Don’t give it a second thought.

Or, if you’re of a mind, do.

Think about Joe Tofflemire and those like him whose willing participation in our Sunday amusements came at the steepest price.

On Monday, Tofflemire will be buried in his hometown of Post Falls, not quite a week after his death from heart failure at the age of 46 devastated his family and jarred friends who struggled to reconcile such a thing with the sculpted athlete they once knew. Though his brother, Paul, who is well-schooled in the probabilities, allowed that, “This is not a surprise, really.”

So think about the concept of death by NFL.

Yes, that’s a particularly unvarnished way to put it, and it’s unlikely that even Tofflemire himself would have embraced such an accusatory tone. He took pride in his football career, even as the toll of all the injuries and surgeries mounted.

“There is something special about being a professional football player,” he told this newspaper in 2000. “I didn’t think of it then, but now I realize I was part of an elite group.”

Elite, and frightfully at risk.

Tofflemire’s journey from Post Falls to Arizona to starting center with the Seattle Seahawks was untypical only for where it began and all the honors he amassed along the way. Somewhat untypical, too, was the tender way Tofflemire was eulogized last week, particularly by his high school coach, Nick Menegas.

“We rarely lost,” Menegas recalled, “and when we did the bus was like a morgue, and I sat in the front with my head in my hands in disbelief. It was Joe who came up and put his arm around me and comforted me the whole way home.”

But Menegas and others couldn’t help but marvel at Tofflemire’s indestructible side. He wasn’t just a high school champion in the shot and discus, he ran – at 230-some pounds – on the Trojans’ 4x100-meter relay team that placed at state. Menegas remembered him churning with the baton in a lane next to Moscow’s Doug Riesenberg, another future NFL lineman – “wonder boys,” he called them, “which is what it takes to play at that level.”

Said Post Falls teammate Eric Tibesar, “He used to flex and call his arms and chest ‘cold steel.’ That’s how I remember him: bulletproof.”

But there is no underestimating the NFL’s ordnance.

Tofflemire injured a shoulder at Arizona that suffered further pounding in the pros. There would be nine surgeries for that, over time, including a replacement. Four screws were implanted to keep his spine in place. Concussions, not remotely the red flag they are now, were sustained and likely unreported.

“These things impacted the rest of his life,” Paul Tofflemire said. “He was always in pain. He couldn’t be active and his weight was up to 300 pounds plus. The sad thing was watching him get out of bed. I felt so bad – this guy was so active and agile when he was younger and he was like a crippled old man.”

And yet Tofflemire didn’t leave the NFL because he felt he was no longer capable of playing, but because the Seahawks insisted he take a salary cut. Like most players, he fought back and endured more punishment because that’s what he wanted to do – what athletes are conditioned to do. Meanwhile, the game’s proprietors have had to be dragged into viewing players as anything more than expensive equipment – the push for an 18-game regular season being just the latest example.

A study in the 1990s by the National Institute of Occupational Safety and Health noted that NFL linemen had a 52 percent greater risk of dying from heart disease than the general population. In 2006, the St. Petersburg Times reported while average life expectancy in the United States was nearly 78 years, the average for NFL players was 55 – 52 for linemen.

“The NFL stands for ‘Not For Long,’” said Paul Tofflemire, who followed his brother at Post Falls and Arizona. “It’s a violent game with a cost.”

We feel better about it because they consent to that cost. Every now and then, it wouldn’t hurt to take a moment to feel something else.


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