-- Howard Rosenberg
Los Angeles Times
January 11, 1985
FOOTBALL GLORY DOESN'T ALWAYS HURT SO GOOD
Oh, the excitement, the euphoria, the glory, the money.
Yet before edging forward on your seat awaiting the Jan. 20 kickoff for Super Bowl XIX on ABC, think of Roger Stillwell, a former defensive end for the Chicago Bears.
Before toasting Joe Montana of the San Francisco 49ers or cheering for Dan Marino being carried off the field on the shoulders of his fellow Miami Dolphins, listen to Stillwell Sunday on pay TV's Home Box Office (HBO).
"When the ball was hiked, I was running up.... I've got this running back here, to take him down. And these guys all crashed into my left side here. They had my foot pinned to the ground, and that kind of started the process.
"I could feel my knee starting to give, I could feel the bands and ligaments starting to quiver. It's like taking a rubber band and pulling it until it can't go anymore, and that same feeling I had the first time I heard a chicken bone just going. . . crrrrack.
"I ended up or the bottom of the pile with 11 people piled on top of me, the left foot close by my ear here, and just the most hideous, awful feeling of my leg, just feeling like it's exploding.... I could feel the muscles tear. you know, snap and pop, and, of course, the ligaments had already gone.
"And I could feel then the bones crunching together. And I'm laying on the bottom of the pile, and we're laying there and we're laying there, and I can't get anybody off of me. And as we got up, they got up one by one, and I pulled my leg back.
"It started to go into shock, which means I didn't have any feeling. That red-hot feeling of pain started diminishing, and that football mentality took over again and I said, 'Hey, Rog, maybe, maybe nothin's wrong.' "
Something was wrong, though. And today, at age 32, seven years after ending his football career, the 6-foot-6 Stillwell is a virtual cripple, unable even to tie his own shoes.
Pro sports gets more free hype than any other industry in the United States, continual publicity from the media-on sports pages and especially sportscasts - that is very rarely negative. And with the Super Bowl nearing, the happy mirth makers are queuing up, the drum roll growing ever louder.
But Stillwell and Jim Otto, an all-pro center with the Raiders for 15 years, are the chief focus of a powerful and shocking documentary on HBO that shows the grimmer flip side of pro football.
After the utter absurdity of its pilot for a new pro football comedy called "First ~ Ten," HBO redeems itself with this significant hour program from Else, Couturie and Korty Productions.
"Disposable Heroes - The Other Side of Football," premiering Sunday with replays throughout the month, is less an angry documentary than a candid and compassionate one, caringly and skillfully shaped into a pointed statement about the seldom-reported-on-tv downside of organized sports. After the career is over and the cheers fade, what is left? Sometimes this:
There is Otto-old "double zero"-at 46, financially secure all right, but living in such intense pain and so torn up from 25 years of playing organized football that just getting out of bed in the morning makes him feel like he's been hit by a truck.
"An iron man pays for it later," notes John Madden, the CBS football commentator, who was Otto's coach at Oakland.
When the body ultimately breaks down, "there's a factory out there called the NCAA (National Collegiate Athletic Assn.) producing replacement parts," says Gene Upshaw, executive director of the National Football League Players Association. Most of them are merely would-be replacement parts, though. For every Stillwell and Otto who at least get to taste the glory, for every O. J. Simpson making a fortune on TV, there are thousands of aspiring pros who never make it. "They're college stars who, in effect, major in athletics and have nothing to fall back on when their quest for the brass ring fails.
"Disposable Heroes" finds a touching counterpoint to the brutality of the sport, finds tenderness in the families of Otto and Stillwell lamenting their fates, and in Stillwell pining for that old football camaraderie. "No one understands," he says, in a voice breaking with emotion.
So Otto is having his scarred knees operated on-again. So Stillwell now hobbles with a cane and tries to scratch a living selling insurance by phone. But so what if they are in so much pain that just watching them makes you wince? So what if there are many, many more like them?
Once an addict, always an addict. The circle is unbroken.
There are Otto and his wife cheering on their son, who plays football at Utah State and someday could end up like his father. And there is Stillwell helping coach a high school team, advising teen-agers how to play the game in a manner that could mash other bodies into pulp. "Now is the time to develop that killer instinct." he says, "and go for the jugular."
Happy Super Bowl.
Gold Medal from the International Film and TV Festival
Golden Gate Award for Best Documentary from the San Francisco Film Festival.