'You're playing Russian roulette'

Harry Carson understands why the NFL has become the greatest show on earth, appointment TV for millions upon millions of viewers who cannot get enough of the sanctioned violence between the goal lines.

As a middle linebacker, the game's ultimate seek-and-destroy position, Carson lived the drama and enjoyed the chase. He made it to the Hall of Fame by hitting opponents of the New York Giants harder than the human body was designed to be hit.

And no matter how much the NFL has regulated helmet-to-helmet contact, the number and intensity of offseason and preseason workouts, and the old rub-some-dirt-on-it approach to treating concussions, the league still sells collisions as eagerly as it sells Tom Brady jerseys on the Web. Moving up kickoffs 5 yards isn't going to change that.

The reason why MetLife Stadium will be filled Sunday afternoon for Jets-Jaguars, and filled again Monday night for Giants-Rams, is the same reason why the NFL can stage a Super Bowl that is the most watched program in television history: Fans are drawn to the danger of high-speed impact.

"But most of them don't understand what the grueling nature of the sport does to our bodies," Carson said by phone. "There is a price that you pay for the glory you might be looking to achieve."

The average customer isn't too worried about that price. The average customer is just happy the new labor deal guarantees 10 years of uninterrupted fury on the field.

Yet the game takes a staggering human toll on the men who play it, a truth less interesting to some than the beer and bimbo ads. Carson believes that he suffered 12 to 18 concussions as a player. He believes the brain damage contributed to the despair he felt the day he was driving to practice and considered steering his car off the Tappan Zee Bridge and into the Hudson.

He made it to Giants Stadium safely, he said, "Because I thought to myself, 'Who will take care of my daughter if I just accelerate and go straight through the curve and do this?' I knew I had something to live for."

Carson confessed to no such weaknesses during his playing days. At Lawrence Taylor's side, he fit the part of the chiseled and immovable linebacker as perfectly as Rafer Johnson had fit the part of the chiseled and immovable Olympian.

At 57, Carson is the author of the poignant book "Captain For Life," and he's a living monument to the unforgiving nature of the sport. Fans and well-wishers tell him he looks great, tell him he can line up for Tom Coughlin right now. "But looks are deceiving," Carson said.

He mentioned Lee Roy Selmon, who entered the NFL the same year Carson did, 1976, and who suffered a fatal stroke two weeks ago at 56. "We are dying," Carson said of his generation, "and that's reality."

Carson played through all of his undiagnosed concussions, if only because that's what NFL players did in the '80s. He knew something was wrong when he struggled with his vocabulary during interviews, a problem that inspired him to secretly listen to language tapes on his drives home from practice in the hope, he said, "of retraining my brain."

Carson was diagnosed with post-concussion syndrome in 1990, and he does what he can to manage the pain. He can wake up with headaches that last all day and that leave him sensitive to noise and bright lights.

But Carson hasn't had any hip or knee replacements. He works out regularly and holds functional conversations. In other words, Carson counts himself among the lucky ones.

As an advocate for retired players, Carson knows the horror stories of Mike Webster, John Mackey, Andre Waters, Dave Duerson and Terry Long. He finds it hard to watch the great Earl Campbell, now a broken man in a wheelchair. He is troubled by the tales of oft-concussed Jets receivers Wayne Chrebet and Al Toon, and by the daily agony that consumes another ex-Jet, Wesley Walker.

Some days Chrebet struggles to get out of bed or to find his way home in his car without a navigational system. A few years ago, Walker told me he often woke up in the middle of the night and prayed to God to make his searing pain go away. Years of pounding had left him a surgical mess: Walker had severe damage to his spine and 14 screws and a plate inserted in his neck.

"If I knew then what I know now," he said, "I don't think I would've even played football."

He sent me a recent message saying he's still fighting chronic pain and enduring sleepless nights, and none of this surprises Carson a bit.

"For the most part you're playing Russian roulette when you play football," he said, "and it just takes one play for your body to never be the same. Look at the kid from Buffalo, Kevin Everett, or the kid at Rutgers [Eric LeGrand].

"In the NFL, you're allowing a team to lease you like someone would lease a car. There are going to be dings and scratches on the outside of the car, but nobody really knows the true damage done to the engine or to the computer system regulating everything in the car. And that computer system is your brain."

Carson personally lobbied commissioner Roger Goodell for enhanced benefits and disability coverage for retired players, issues addressed in the new collective bargaining agreement. "Is it enough?" Carson said of the increases, including $620 million assigned over 10 years to a "legacy fund" for pre-1993 players. "No, I don't think so."

Carson isn't among the 28 retirees, including 23 Hall of Famers, who sued the NFL Players Association for cutting a labor deal on behalf of the ex-players it allegedly had no right to cut. The plaintiffs believe they got shafted by the current players, who, of course, get shafted by a league that refuses to go the baseball, basketball and hockey route and offer guaranteed contracts.

But back to the retirees. "We don't have the juice or the leverage," Carson said. "We've already played. What are we going to do? We certainly don't have the representation in place to demand certain things."

So many of them suffer in the shadows of America's most popular game, some dealing with memory loss, a fear of public speaking, and everyday life in a cognitive fog.

Sometimes Carson counsels retired players in need, he said, "especially from a neurological standpoint, because I don't want guys to commit suicide or think they are going crazy."

The former Giant wishes fans cared about these men more than they cared about the point spread.

"But athletes are perceived to be gladiators making big bucks," Carson said, "and they should be able to play with some injuries and pain.

"Nobody's going to feel sympathetic for me now. I add nothing to the team or the game today, and we all knew what the risks were. I have to deal with the ramifications of what I did years ago."

Harry Carson made a career out of pro football years ago, and paid a heavy price for it. On another big weekend in the NFL, it's worth remembering that the losses don't just show up on the scoreboard.

Ian O'Connor is the author of "The Captain: The Journey of Derek Jeter." Sunday Morning with Ian O'Connor can be heard every Sunday, 9-11 a.m., on ESPN New York 1050.