DeMarcus Ware is sitting in the old Dallas Cowboys locker room at the Cotton Bowl. It’s been four decades since the Cowboys played in this stadium -- now a relic adjacent to the Texas State Fairgrounds, something out of a Ray Bradbury story -- but the blue of the original tile in the bathrooms still matches the star on the side of Ware’s helmet.
Ware is starting his eighth year in the NFL in the loftier surroundings of Cowboys Stadium in nearby Arlington, Texas, a glossy thunderdome for 110,000 fans and the triple-digit decibels they emit for the team’s star linebacker.
“When you’re right there in the center of everything,” Ware says, “it’s like, ‘Yeah, I’m a gladiator.’”
Aside from the outsize environs they now play in, Ware’s Cowboys are very much the same as when they occupied this tatty locker room. The team has never suffered the soft contempt of ambiguity among fans: You either love to love America’s Team or love to hate them. Ware’s daughter, Marley, dresses up in her Cowboys jersey every Sunday, just like Dallas kids have done for generations.
But Ware’s NFL is very different from what it was just a year ago. Since August 2011, hundreds of retired football players and their families have filed class-action lawsuits claiming the league concealed information about the damage caused by repeated concussions.
Football kills, they say. Slowly and surely, the body gives up after years in the NFL, and then, terrifyingly, as the years pass in retirement, the brain does too. The lawsuits cite dementia, depression, and Alzheimer’s disease as attributable to those concussions on the field.
When football stadiums double as funeral parlors for the game’s most revered athletes, there is no doubt that America’s game is in the midst of crisis.
It seems as though tragedy is stalking the NFL -- in the past year and a half, three retired players have taken their own lives. In May, former San Diego Chargers Pro Bowl linebacker Junior Seau committed suicide after reportedly suffering from depression. He was 43. Seau’s memorial service in San Diego was open to the public; 20,000 people paid their respects at Qualcomm Stadium, where he played for more than a decade.
When football stadiums double as funeral parlors for the game’s most revered athletes, there is no doubt that America’s game is in the midst of crisis. As the 2012 season starts, players like Ware -- those sparkling with the cutthroat charisma that causes fans to swoon -- are taking a field that’s haunted with the ghosts of an uncertain future.
In 2012, after six Pro Bowl starts and 99.5 career sacks, it seems woefully obvious that Ware was born to be a professional football player -- and one of the league’s most explosive defenders at that. But Ware -- even as he stood 6’ 4” and weighed in at 262 pounds -- says it really didn’t dawn on him until his senior year at Troy University at Alabama, when the NFL rainmakers came to see him play. “When the scouts came, I was still taking my final exams,” Ware says. “I had to finish school. I was taking an exam at 11 a.m., and then I was going to run for the scouts at 1 p.m. It was back and forth -- but I knew if I put in the work then, I wouldn’t have to do it later.”
Ware earned a degree in business information systems -- the first in his family to graduate from college -- and was picked in the first round by the Cowboys in the 2005 NFL draft. He tallied eight sacks his rookie season -- tying veteran defensive end Greg Ellis for most on the team that year -- and since then it’s been off to the races. Each season, he’s completed between 11 and 20 sacks on the year; he’s tantalizingly close to Michael Strahan’s single-season sack record of 22.5, which was set for the New York Giants in 2001.
In this era of the superstar quarterback, Ware provides a worthy foil. Just when a football fan can’t stand the smug competency of yet another perfect spiral thrown into the end zone by a pass-happy offense, here comes Ware to knock the quarterback down. Type in “DeMarcus Ware sacks…” into the search engine on YouTube, and the Google oracles suggest the following in rapid succession: “DeMarcus Ware sacks Mark Sanchez”; “DeMarcus Ware sacks Tom Brady”; “DeMarcus Ware sacks Drew Brees”; “DeMarcus Ware sacks Eli Manning”; “DeMarcus Ware sacks Peyton Manning” and on and on and on. Ware is the showstopper.
But when Ware attacks, it isn’t just Sanchez, Brady and the brothers Manning who get jostled and thrown around on the field. In 2009, Ware gruesomely sprained his neck playing against the San Diego Chargers. After spending the night in the hospital, he was released -- and went on to sack Brees twice the next week and end the New Orleans Saints’ undefeated season.
Ware will pay a physical toll -- even he admits that 10 years in the NFL is about as much of a beating as a body can take. Dallas Cowboys Hall of Famer Randy White, the defensive tackle known as “The Manster” when he played -- half man, half monster -- is a plaintiff in a class-action lawsuit filed against the NFL in late April; court documents link repeated concussions to cognitive impairment. Can Ware imagine this as a future?
“I think I only can worry about the now,” Ware says. “I take it a day at a time and a play at a time, and hopefully everything turns out all right for me. You start looking toward the future? You ain’t got there yet.”
Ware’s live-for-the-moment ethos is the hallmark of a young man, of course, but it’s also generated by the rigors he’s experienced in his 29 years. Cowboys fans are boisterous about Ware’s talent but speak of his personal life in hushed, reverent murmurs: “Did you read the New York Times story? Did you see the show on ESPN?” they quietly ask.
In 2005, Ware married his high school sweetheart, Taniqua. Within the next three years, they suffered three failed pregnancies. Hoping to decrease the stigma associated with miscarriages and stillbirths, the couple has been very public about their losses.
“Sometimes I go back and watch films of myself and I think, ‘Where is that guy coming from?’”
“When you think about how short your life is and how life -- or a life -- can be taken from you, you need faith that you can get through any situation with Christ,” Ware says. “You can’t get through any situation with money. You can’t get through any situation with cars. It takes the intangible to get through anything.”
The couple now has 4-year-old Marley and 1-year-old DeMarcus Jr. Ware’s glee in being a father is infectious; he chuckles as he sneaks a big chocolate-chip cookie from the catering table to take home for Marley. The losses don’t fade for him, of course. But they do fuel him and provide a deeper context to his playing. It’s not just a sport. It’s a statement.
“Sometimes when I’m out there on the field, I’m tired,” Ware says. “But I’m like, ‘What if one of my kids that I lost had one more breath? They would be here right now.’ So that drives me to keep playing even harder. Because I have this opportunity.”
Off field, Ware is unfailingly polite and soft-spoken, but during a game, he can throw Pittsburgh Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger -- at 6’ 5” and 241 pounds, Ware’s close equivalent in sheer mass -- to the ground like a child bored with a toy. “Sometimes I go back and watch films of myself and I think, ‘Where is that guy coming from?’ ” Ware says.
It’s a dichotomy -- the God-fearing man who puts the fear of God into other players. And while he admits that football is a merciless game, Ware argues that his ferocity on the field is not at odds with his faith. It is, in fact, a tribute. “What guy does not want to showcase what God’s given him?” he asks. “I’m going to go out there and just play my heart out because I know I’m playing for Him.”
The injury tally of any run-of-the-mill football game -- sprains, fractures, torn ligaments -- speaks to a sociopathic, craven desire to do harm. But sports psychologists say there is a critical difference: Football isn’t actually about violence. It’s about trained, pinpoint aggression. Trauma isn’t the desired outcome -- stopping the play is the goal.
“They’re fast, they’re powerful, they’re explosive, and on the defense their job is to run interference and stop a play from unfolding,” says Michael Gervais, director of performance psychology at the Pinnacle Performance Center, who is working this year with the Seattle Seahawks. “Intent to harm is a very different mindset than focusing on the tactics or technique.”
In May, the NFL suspended four New Orleans Saints players for a program that rewarded cash bounties for injuring members of the opposing team. Gervais says this kind of system is an outlier, and the “pay for pain” mentality isn’t part of wider football culture. “A player told me, ‘I never went to the line with hate. I never went to the line with rage,’ ” Gervais recalls. “ ‘I went looking to find a sense of calmness so I could execute and do the job I trained my entire life to do.’ ”
But it’s becoming increasingly hard to argue that playing football doesn’t cause lasting damage -- whether the players are hitting the field ready to injure or not. (In a statement released in response to the class-action lawsuits, the NFL said it had “never misled players with respect to the risks associated with playing football.”)
“You’ve always got to show good sportsmanship, but football is always going to be a brutal game. That’s what people like."
Ware thinks that in the coming years the NFL will institute changes to enhance player safety -- such as protective innovations in pads and helmets -- and he says he would be more than happy to help develop and test such gear. He also expects the league to continue tinkering with gameplay rules to restrict player contact. In 2011, the length of kickoff returns was reduced; after the season, the NFL released statistics showing that as a result, the number of overall concussions during the season dropped to 190 in 320 preseason and regular season games, from 2010’s total of 218 in 321 games.
There is a limit, however. From gladiator battles to boxing to Mixed Martial Arts, for millennia fans have cheered the showcasing of aggression in sports. When tens of millions of people tune in each Sunday and billions of dollars are at stake, the physicality of the game isn’t going to be watered down beyond a certain point. Football, for better or for worse, is part of a bloodthirsty lineage. “You’ve always got to show good sportsmanship, but football is always going to be a brutal game,” Ware says. “That’s what people like. That’s what the guys that are playing like. That’s why they’re playing the game, and that’s why they do it so well.”
The Dallas Cowboys’ 2011 season was mediocre; the team finished 8-8 and failed to make the playoffs after losing to the eventual Super Bowl champions, the New York Giants, in the NFC East division title game. An opportunity for redemption comes early in 2012: The Cowboys will play the Giants in the season opener on September 5. “Everybody is going to be watching that game,” Ware says. “Why not be able to showcase, ‘Hey, this is what y’all are going to have to deal with this whole season, so get ready’?”
To that end, Ware began voluntary workouts with the team in April; official training camp started in July in Oxnard, California. As the season starts, workouts are paired with endless reviews of video: Ware watches film of himself, the upcoming refs, the upcoming team -- and of how other players in his position, like the Minnesota Vikings’ Jared Allen or the Indianapolis Colts’ Dwight Freeney, played against that team.
After all that prep -- which takes 45 to 50 hours a week -- Ware views the game as a chance to show off what he’s learned. “You study the whole week, you figure the team out and how you attack them, like a chess match,” he says. Two quarterbacks are especially hard to crack: the Philadelphia Eagles’ Michael Vick and the Giants’ Eli Manning. “Michael Vick is left-handed, so he’s one of the few quarterbacks in the league who can actually see you coming -- and he can actually run faster than you can, too,” he says. “Eli Manning is the same way -- he’s not as fast, but he’s a little looser in the pocket and he can play really well.”
(For the record, Ware has taken Manning down nine times in 14 games. “For a guy who has sacked me more than anybody, he’s a nice guy,” Manning said in an interview last December with the Dallas Morning News.)
Photo shoots are tedious beasts, but Ware is holding up well amid the monotony. Standing in the tunnel that leads to the field at the Cotton Bowl, he agrees to make a half of an inch movement to the left to catch better light, then another quarter of an inch movement to the right to snap a more flattering expression. He does one costume change, two costume changes, three costume changes -- and it’s only noon.
Suddenly, Ware has had enough. He grimaces in fury and violently rears back with the helmet in his hands, as though he’s about to cannon it directly at the crew. The photographer and his assistants flinch, fearing the impact.
Ware smiles, lowers the helmet and laughs at his feint, all dimples and charm. He’s back to being the gentle man the photo techs nicknamed “America’s Sweetheart” during the shoot. We laugh with him. And then we ask him to play angry again for the camera. Because that’s what we want to see.
Check out the September 2012 issue of Red Bulletin magazine (on newsstands August 14) for more articles. To read the magazine on your iPad, download the Red Bulletin iPad app.
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