THE NARRATIVE ARC of football's past three decades sits across the table from me in a restaurant in Escondido, Calif., and asks the obvious: "So what's this story about?"
I have a million answers and yet no answer. I want to tell him it's about men and boys, toughness and weakness, fathers and sons, the invincibility of youth and the vulnerability of age. It's about the importance of football in places like Napa, Calif., our shared hometown, and the culture the game creates in boys who love it. And, sometimes, what that culture does to men like him who love it too much.
The answer I give Steve Hendrickson is abbreviated and ineloquent, but he nods along politely and tells me the story of the voice recorder. He has many stories of being unmade by the game that made him, sad stories he tells with unflinching, painful honesty, and it's the story of the recorder that gets me the most.
He bought the voice recorder as a means of hot-wiring his failing memory. His thinking went like this: He would tell the recorder everything he did, from conversations with his two children to walks with his dog, and wake up every morning to review what took place the day before. The experiment lasted one day. He woke up the next morning and never found where he left it the night before.
He laughs, but the story lands hard. I try not to let him see the sadness I feel. His mind is like a strainer; larger decisions, like buying and using the recorder, tend to stick, while the smaller ones, like where he left it, pass through, lost. "I can remember 20 years ago like it was yesterday," he says with a rueful, well-practiced smile. "I just can't remember yesterday."
The first time I heard Hendrickson's name, I was a senior in high school and he was a freshman playing varsity football across town. He was a clichéd version of the small-town football hero, an after-school special sprung to life: smart, handsome, charismatic, with his blond hair parted in the middle and feathered over his ears in the default look of every jock in the early 1980s. There's a photo from his senior year, Steve and three friends posing in their letterman jackets. He's the one with two league-championship football patches sewn into his block-N jacket, the one who looks most comfortable, the alpha, with his left hand slung over the shoulder of the buddy next to him. The others seem less sure of themselves, perhaps happy just to share the same lens.
Now Hendrickson is 46 but looks much older. His hair is the color of old concrete as it strings out from under a well-worn Chargers cap. He hasn't been able to hold a job in six years. The last time he did work was as a soil tester, a job he lost when he failed to show up regularly. "I would swear I got up and went to work, but I was asleep," he says. "When I did show up, they'd tell me what to do, and I'd say, 'You never taught me that.' They'd look at me and say, 'We taught it to you yesterday.""
His life has no rhythm, no urgency, and after the adrenaline rush of a football career, that's what bothers him the most. He and his ex-wife, Carla, a former Napa High cheerleader, divorced in 2008 when his mood shifts and depression -- he'd spend three or four days at a time in bed -- worsened. "He had this larger-than-life personality," she says. "It was a hard thing to watch deteriorate."
Hendrickson represents the push-pull of football's Grand Reconsideration. He is the embodiment of the sport's greatest dreams and deepest fears, an unquestioned success story and an unsettling cautionary tale. Those who once admired the glass-encased shrine to him in Napa High's gym, the one holding the photos and his retired No. 30 jersey, now stop and wonder if the game's perils outweigh its virtues.
In the eyes of football culture, Hendrickson made it. He beat longer and longer odds the more he played: as a tough kid from Napa High earning a scholarship to Cal; as a not-quite-fast-enough hybrid linebacker/fullback being drafted late by the 49ers and making the team out of training camp; as a wild, do-anything special-teamer who destroyed even the most optimistic actuarial predictions to play seven years in the NFL, including five in San Diego. Hendrickson won a Super Bowl ring with the 49ers and will forever be a Chargers legend for his ferocious hits on kick coverages and occasional short-yardage running back duties.
But he left flesh on the game's altar. He embraced the culture to an extreme, collecting colorful nicknames -- Rocket, Brunswick, Mad Dog -- and playing much of his career with his own version of a mouthpiece: a wad of Beech-Nut chewing tobacco wrapped in gum.
Hendrickson says he suffered 15 Grade 3 (blackout) concussions in the NFL. He has been deemed permanently disabled by the Social Security Administration, but his case for enhanced disability benefits through the NFL was turned down by a six-person panel that deemed his injuries non-football-related. His Social Security disability was based on neurological testing conducted at Cal State Northridge. "The NFL wasn't fighting the results of that, they were fighting how I got the injuries," says Hendrickson, his voice rising. "What else did I do the past 20 years?" He is not one of the thousands of ex-players who are part of a massive lawsuit against the NFL. (On July 22 a judge will rule on the NFL's motion to dismiss.) He calls many of those players opportunists -- "Quarterbacks and kickers," he spits out. He's determined to fight the NFL on his own, but the paperwork, deadlines and appointments that the reapplication process requires are nearly overwhelming. In the ultimate cruel irony, he may be too disabled to prove his disability.
His entire NFL career was predicated on his ability to play through concussions. A head coach once told him, Rocket, the day you can't cover a kickoff is the day you're out of a job. Hendrickson's eyes widen. "I couldn't ask out because of a headache," he says.
He coughs out a brittle laugh and says, "Look where it got me."
FOR ALL OF its wine-country trappings, for all of the hillside French châteaux and Tuscan villas, Napa has a working-class heart that beats to the tune of a high school marching band on a fall Friday night. It's a town with cosmopolitan airs but an insular soul. High school football is the last bastion of old-guard Napa, the blue-collar folks who live in neighborhoods like Bel Air and Westwood and Springwood. There's a stadium in the middle of town that rivals any in Texas, $13 million worth, with 7,500 seats and separate press boxes for Napa and Vintage, the two public high schools in town. The scene at Memorial Stadium is a subconscious rebuttal to the nouveau riche with their $300 cult cabs and effete sensibilities.
Hendrickson and I grew up in two of those non-nouveau neighborhoods. We went to different high schools; Steve was at Napa High, I was at Justin-Siena, a Catholic school across town. An old coach of mine once said he came to town in the late 1970s and thought he had landed on the set of Happy Days. Entertainment on a Saturday night was a few bumper-to-bumper trips up and down Jefferson Avenue -- cruisin' the J -- with AC/DC and Hank Jr. colliding in the air between cars.
Football ruled Napa, and Hendrickson ruled football. It provided his identity starting from Pop Warner days, when a running back turned the corner, saw Hendrickson and dropped to the fetal position. ("I thought he was going to kill me," the kid told Hendrickson's sister.) He was running gassers at one of his first practices as a freshman on varsity when he spotted a senior lineman dogging it. Hendrickson knocked him flat on his ass, stood over him and said: "You're a starter on an undefeated team. Start hustling." His high school coach, Les Franco, says, "That's when we knew we had something special."
It was impossible to be in Napa at the time and be unaware of Hendrickson. It's cliché but no less true: Football is in the town's DNA, and it courses through the veins of everyone who played. This was never more true than in the early 1980s, when both Vintage and Napa were powerhouses that played each other in the annual season finale before a standing-room crowd of more than 10,000, along with the 1,500-plus who were turned away by the fire marshal and sat in their cars, drank beer and listened to Ira C. Smith (still there today, still broadcasting) tell them about it on the local radio station. "If you want to find someone in this town, go to Memorial Stadium on Friday night," says Marty James, who has covered high school sports at the Napa Valley Register for 35 years. "The stadium is the community center."
Football in Napa is by no means viewed as a way out -- there's not nearly enough talent or deprivation for that to work -- but it is a way of life. In fact, it might be more accurate to describe football in Napa as a way in; a strong prep football pedigree and a few good stories can keep a guy in free golf games and drinking partnerships for life.
Russ Orrick, a legendary Vintage fullback, died in 2009. For his memorial service, the chapel at Tulocay Cemetery was packed. James, the executive sports editor of the Register, gave a eulogy. The room was decorated with framed jerseys and newspaper clippings from Orrick's days as a Vintage Crusher. He died at 47 (of complications related to diabetes), and his sports career included a handful of at-bats in the minor leagues. But many of those who walked into the chapel that day left with the impression of a man frozen in time, forever 18.
MY WIFE, MIRIAM, and I have four sons. Three of them played four years of high school football; the youngest stopped after his sophomore year. They played in Napa, at the same high school their parents attended, on the same field I played.
Football's Grand Reconsideration includes some hedging, some hope and some willful ignorance. The game has gone from being viewed as a relatively safe and controlled outlet for the violent tendencies of normal teen boys to an all-out hysteria of brain trauma and CTE and, eventually, early onset dementia. Cognitive worries have overtaken skeletal concerns. Panic has replaced reason. How many concussions does it take? What is the risk? And moreover, why take the risk in the first place?
As parents, especially parents who once played, we comfort ourselves with the knowledge that our kids aren't being coached or outfitted the way we were. Hendrickson tells parents to forget the $200 shoes and "buy your kid a $300 helmet and a $12 pair of soccer cleats." The emphasis on safety is apparent from the coaching methods to trainers hired to keep an eye out for wobbly players.
Hendrickson and I recount old stories of the unique savagery displayed by some high school coaches. We laugh and wonder how no one died as we try to convince ourselves that everything has changed, that stories like his have raised awareness and created a mythical world where our kids, unlike us, are being protected from themselves. We nod at each other, two dads agreeing that high school football these days is nothing like what we experienced, maybe because the alternative -- that we know the dangers and are thereby complicit -- is something we'd rather not consider.
Our sons never experienced the pleasures of such drills as Bull in the Ring or Machine Gun, undertaken for the sole purpose of creating head-to-head collisions for the entertainment of sadists. If you set out to devise the fastest and most definitive means of acquiring a concussion, you might start with Machine Gun, which consisted of two lines of players taking turns running full speed at the one poor sap who was charged with keeping his balance while being repeatedly head-butted as hard as possible.
Despite the evolution (better helmets, computerized concussion testing, a greater understanding of the perils of repeated blows to the head), the litany of injuries racked up by my sons is impressive: a broken shoulder, a broken hand, three broken fingers, a dislocated elbow, torn tendons, concussions. Our eldest, Brandt, came home from a season-opening game played on a hot night in early September of his senior year and informed us that his pee looked like Dr. Pepper. He unsuccessfully resisted a trip to the emergency room (his mom is a nurse; he stood no chance) and ended up spending three days in the hospital with rhabdomyolysis, a condition often caused by overexertion in which muscle fibers break down and enter the bloodstream. He's 6'5" and 230 pounds, and he'd played nearly every down on both sides of the line in a long, high-scoring game. The ER doctor said if we'd waited until the next day, there was a chance his kidneys would have shut down and he'd have been on dialysis the rest of his life. His coach visited him in the hospital, clearly shaken, and said he'd never experienced anything like it in 30 years of coaching.
It could have been a life-altering tragedy; instead, it's just another chapter in family lore: My Rhabdo Weekend. But there's the taproot of the Grand Reconsideration: If football is something you hope to survive intact, with working limbs and kidneys and a brain that functions into your 50s, how is it defensible? Would my attitude toward the game be different if my son were spending hours a week attached to a machine? And if he were, would I blame football?
Our second oldest, Tom, got locked up with an offensive lineman and had his face mask shoved skyward. His face exposed, his chinstrap stuck on his nose, he met the running back's helmet with his chin. The blood poured onto his jersey and the field like bright-red vomit. In the stands, my wife was understandably upset. I sat there and repeatedly said, "He's okay. It's just a cut." Four hours in the emergency room -- his teeth visible with his mouth closed -- and six stitches later, I realized my response was the culture talking. It spoke through my son too, as he sat on a gurney holding gauze on his chin. "This is going to be a cool scar," he said.
Push. Pull. Is it worth it? Our third son, Alex, played with such reckless disregard for his body that it was sometimes hard to watch. Whenever he got his wits scrambled on the field (it happened more than I care to admit), he had a preternatural ability to scan the sideline, find the trainer and jog to the farthest point away; it bought him a few seconds to regain his bearings. I marveled at his ingenuity while cursing it. Is it magical thinking to believe my brain-fogged son's savvy in avoiding the trainer will translate into problem-solving skills that will benefit him in life? His play epitomized the conflicted nature of the football parent: You look forward to the game all week and dread it once it starts. And yet I still can't shake the belief that there's something intrinsically valuable -- something, dare I say, worth it -- in the football culture. When our youngest, Andrew, decided to stop playing, a decision that took more guts in our family than playing, I thought about what he'd miss: on game days, the air infused with an intoxicating mist of power, fear and togetherness, where nothing matters but the guys in front of you and the guys next to you, where the whole world is reduced to that green rectangle. No matter when you finish playing, high school, college or pro, it's a feeling you chase the rest of your life.
Hendrickson can't shake it, that's for sure. He tells me about the time he hit the Cardinals' Freddie Joe Nunn on a lead block. Both fell, and when they looked at each other they realized their face masks were broken. Nunn said, "For a slow white dude, you sure can hit." And the time when he was wobbling in place after covering a kickoff -- "Bambi'd," as they say -- and awoke to find Cowboys safety Bill Bates holding him up. "How you doing, Billy?" Hendrickson asked. Repeating the story with a laugh, Hendrickson says: "I didn't know where I was. It was like two old friends running into each other at an airport."
The laughter is genuine. The stories that damaged him continue to sustain him. Where would he be without them? I ask what it's like to cover a kickoff, to run all out downfield knowing your job is to throw your body into a line of distemperate men trying to produce another Grade 3. His eyes light up. He's back in uniform: the Rocket. Brunswick. Mad Dog. It's as if that intoxicating mist is wafting through the restaurant's ventilation system. He can taste the sickly sweet mix of Beech-Nut and bubble gum. "You want to know what it's like to cover a kickoff?" he asks. "Get on a busy street, take off all your clothes, run across the street without looking and smack into a garage door on the other side."
"Why do you have to take off your clothes?"
"So you feel the burn," he says, laughing.
No matter how much we might have cursed the game at the time, no matter how torturous practice might have seemed, we value the toughness football produces, the bond it forges, the humility it demands. In other words, we value the memory of it. But how gauzy are those memories? How much have we allowed tradition to cloud truth? Admittedly there is a measure of sadism involved in promoting the culture: Everything is so easy for our kids, and football is hard. It's the antidote to the big-screen televisions and the game stations and the handheld devices that connect them instantaneously to a world of frivolous entertainment. They might not have to go to the library to do research anymore, but by damn they can still feel the pain of staring through a face mask while running interminably across a field on an August afternoon with the grass drying underfoot. Football, in the language of the culture, gives you something you don't get anywhere but in a war, a reference point that allows you to face any of life's difficulties -- mental, physical, emotional -- through the sweaty prism of a double-day workout in 102-degree heat. If I could get through that, I can get through this.
THE CULTURE PERSISTS. How can someone whose life was built on power and toughness admit to weakness and fear? How do the culture's three strongest words -- Suck it up -- turn into the three weakest -- I need help?
"People have a hard time believing I'd do it all again," Hendrickson says. "They look at me funny. That was my goal, though: Play in the NFL."
He's the ghost of football, hovering over the game. He looks down, picks at his food, takes a drink of lemonade. "Maybe I should have set my goals higher, you know? Maybe I accomplished my goal too young and then had this whole life to live after it."
There's an uncomfortable silence. This doesn't feel like a normal interview. Hendrickson and I had never spoken before I arrived today with my recorder and notepad, but after 15 minutes it felt as if we'd known each other forever. Shared friends, shared experiences -- we were two lifelong buddies who just met.
What's next? Steve shrugs. He's trying to make it through today so he can make it through tomorrow. He keeps up with his daughter, Courtney, and her field hockey team at Cal. He plans to move back to Napa next year, after his son graduates from Escondido's San Pasqual High, about 500 miles away. As luck and genes would have it, Kyle Hendrickson, 6'4" and 227 pounds, is a highly recruited linebacker who will be a senior in the fall.
One Friday in May, a coach from Alabama came to put Kyle through a workout. Steve calls to tell me Alabama liked his size and quickness. He says his son reads the guard better than his old man ever did. Without a hint of reservation, Steve says, "I think he can play on Sundays."
Should the sons of those damaged by the game be deprived of its pleasures? A few days later, I hear the wince in Carla Hendrickson's voice when I repeat Steve's words. "It's a double-edged sword for me to see my own son gaining attention in the sport that broke his dad down," she says. "I almost feel hypocritical supporting football with Kyle."
She and her son talk about it. Carla has asked Kyle whether he has any reservations about planning a future in the sport that has caused his father's deterioration. Kyle has an answer for that: He, like his dad before him, is the guy other parents worry about.
Carla knows that will change as size and speed concentrate at the college level. She says, "I don't want to see my kid in the same situation his dad is in now."
She gets it; she's grappling with a decision she knows was made years ago, in a place she knows well, where football is valued above all else. Not long ago, Kyle saw that photo of his dad and his buddies in their Napa High letterman jackets. "Whoa, Mom," he said. "Dad was a good-looking guy."
Something in her voice -- a mixture of resignation and concession -- makes it clear she understands she's fighting something bigger, something she's powerless to stop. She sighs and struggles with the words. It's a terrible feeling but one she can't shake. She's hoping against hope that her son will see his father as he is and not as he was.