Kyle Long is going into the family business. “Some people are third-generation carpenters, and that’s what they do,” his father says. “Well, we hit people.” So it’s a good thing Kyle is shaped like a bullet, a streamlined 6 feet 6, 313 pounds, broad at the base, narrowing to a cleanly shaved head. His skull is so shiny and hard that it reassures his parents, Pro Football Hall of Famer Howie Long and his wife, Diane. “It’s like a double helmet,” his mother says.
On a late June afternoon, Kyle sat in an Aurora, Ohio, auditorium alongside other National Football League draftees, young men of differing heights, masses and shapes filling up seats like rows of giant newly sprung wildflowers. They were gathered for the league’s annual rookie symposium, a mandatory orientation consisting mainly of lectures on how not to become the NFL’s latest casualties. It’s a topic Kyle already has been tutored on by his father, an iconic defensive end for the Raiders organization from 1981 to ’93, who at the age of 53 has had 13 surgeries.
“Keep your head on a swivel,” he warns his son.
Kyle, 24, a promising offensive lineman for the Chicago Bears, was one of 254 rookies who listened attentively as symposium speakers advised them on everything from baby mamas to saying “no” to friends seeking loans. But much of the talk was devoted to the legal and ethical crisis that haunts the modern NFL: player health and safety. With training camps opening this week, the league Kyle enters is in mid-transformation as it attempts to reform a variety of practices, from medical treatment to a play-through-pain culture to equipment. It’s a game in some ways dramatically changed from his father’s primitive era. “They had salad bowls for helmets,” Kyle says.
It’s an industry struggling with a central question: How to protect the rookies who are the future without admitting to any liability for the past? A total of 4,300 former players — fully one-quarter of the NFL’s alumni — are suing the league, claiming it concealed the links between repetitive head trauma and chronic neurological diseases while profiting on violence. The concussion litigation has put billions of dollars potentially at stake.
Perhaps just as important, it has planted a question in the minds of the audience, including millions of parents, whether to steer their sons to another sport. Even the president of the United States said in a January interview with the New Republic that he would think “long and hard” before letting a son play football. So did Howie Long.
This halting attempt to break from the past and move into a healthier future is personified in the Long family, which now will have not one but two sons in the league; their eldest, Chris, 28, is a defensive end with the St. Louis Rams. The Long boys dream of Super Bowl rings and perhaps a bronze bust in the Pro Football Hall of Fame, like their dad. Howie and Diane wouldn’t mind that, but what they want from the modern NFL is more modest and fundamental: that it take better care of their sons than it did of the father, who can barely turn his head.
“The thing that is non-negotiable with the kids is I monitor and stay on where they are from neck up,” Howie says, “and if it became an issue I would strongly recommend packing it in.”
The likelihood is that Kyle will experience injury in his career. The NFL Players Association recently commissioned a study of injury data, which counted 3,126 injuries last season. Nearly half required at least a week of recovery, and more than 350 resulted in surgery. That means Kyle is entering a profession with an injury rate well over 100 percent — and an unforgiving habit of discarding its wounded.
In the auditorium, Ray Farmer, a former player who is now an assistant general manager of the Cleveland Browns, stepped to the front of the room to deliver a sobering message to Kyle and his fellow rookies.
“All of you are in the process of being replaced,” he said. “Right now, the clock is ticking. For some of you quicker than others.”
‘Don’t be football players’
Be boat builders, the father told his three boys, or play the piano. Secretly he thought, don’t be football players.
At first none of the Long sons showed much interest. Christopher (born in 1985), Kyle (1988) and Howard Jr. (1990) were too small during Howie’s prime to understand what he did for a living, and Diane rarely took them to the stadium; they were happier fishing in a pond.