Irv Cross: Welcome to the NFL!

May 6, 2010

Irv Cross has had a long and well-respected career in professional football. Drafted by the Eagles in 1961, Irv spent 9 years as a defensive back, eventually playing his last year with the LA Rams in ’69. In 1971, Irv became the first African-American national NFL analyst for CBS. Then in 1975, he started a 15-year career as co-anchor on the newly-created NFL Today, which completely changed the way football coverage was broadcast on television. Last August, The Washington Examiner had a short piece on Irv’s life and career - click HERE to read the article. Without further introduction, here’s Irv’s story:

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A few weeks ago, Ed Khayat, one of my best friends and teammates from the Philadelphia Eagles sent me an old newspaper article from the original Philadelphia Bulletin written by Sandy Grady reporting on my concussion history during my rookie season in 1961 with the defending World Champion Eagles. I have attached the article to give you a sense of my experience. Just a few days ago, I was talking to Dave Pear about some of the issues we as retirees are facing and he suggested I share my story with everyone hoping it might encourage others to speak up. I must confess I have never shared this with anyone. So as Dave and I talked, I felt a groundswell of emotion as I began to remember each of my most serious concussions. What I am about to share with you is not in the story Sandy Grady reported so many years ago, because no one knew except the team doctor (Mike Mandarino) and me.

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I do not have any idea how many concussions I received throughout my playing career; to say a lot would be close. I was described as the “hardest hitting” defensive back in pro football. I will accept that, but there was a high price to pay for that distinction. For the sake of time and space, I will just write about the concussion I suffered in Pittsburgh. At the time, Timmy Brown and I were the twin safeties on the punt return team. The ball was kicked to him and I blocked the first defender. The block was crisp and I was later told Timmy Brown had a big punt return. While executing my block, I took the defender’s outside leg and as we collided, his knee was buried in the back of my head (concussion number three in a short span). I was out cold. Somehow I got to our bench and at that point went into convulsions and nearly swallowed my tongue. My next conscious memory was waking up in the hospital the next day. It must have been a pretty tough game because George Tarasovic, a defensive player for the Steelers, was lying in a bed next to mine being prepared for knee surgery!

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After a stay in the Pittsburgh hospital, I returned to Philadelphia to meet with our team doctor. This was a big week, because the NY Giants and the Eagles were on top of the Eastern Division and were scheduled to play at Franklin Field for the Conference Championship. I met with Dr. Mandarino to find out if I could play or not that week. I have never missed a game during my entire playing career and I would do anything possible to be on the field for the Conference Championship.

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Dr. Mandarino’s report to me the Wednesday prior to our Sunday game was: “Irv, if you get hit in the head again with a blow like you took in Pittsburgh, you could die.”

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My response: “Doc don’t tell anybody. All I need is a new helmet!” In my mind I would do anything to be on the field for the championship. I know it sounds “dumb,” but I really felt more for our team and the game than my own safety. Perhaps that is why I never said anything about it. Here I am , a Northwestern University graduate going to graduate school, working in industry and television, and was in high demand as a public speaker and just recently married.

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The week of practice was light for me. I was not allowed to wear a helmet or have any contact. Another helmet manufacturer delivered a new helmet that I wore for the balance of the season and seemed to offer better protection. As Dave and I talked, I nearly broke down because I began to remember the beginning of the game. I put on a helmet for the first time that week, and I could clearly hear Dr. Mandarino’s warning: “Irv, if you get hit in the head again with a blow like you took in Pittsburgh, you could die.” I started at right corner, and I played as hard as I possibly could, knowing that any hit could be my last. I know it sounds stupid but the culture during my time was you had to be tough and if you could walk, you played; even with a severe concussion and a fractured skull.

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I have carried this experience around for a number of years. And because I believe our issues with concussions, disability and pension issues are so critical, I am once again willing to pay whatever price it takes to have our active and retired colleagues receive adequate pension and disability coverage to live our lives in a dignified fashion.

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I want to thank Ed Khayat for reminding me of that 1961 season and a special thanks to Dave Pear for helping me express the feelings I had suppressed for so many years. Guys, I hope some of you will join the bandwagon and contact Dave’s blog with your concussion story. Each story is important because no one knows better than you the impact a concussed brain has had on your life. The more stories, the stronger our case.

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WELCOME TO THE NFL!

Irv “Paperhead” Cross

Philadelphia Eagles & LA Rams
1961 – 1969

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And here’s a copy of that original Philadelphia Bulletin article from Irv’s rookie year (click to enlarge for reading):

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8 Responses so far | Have Your Say!

  1. Dave Pear
    May 6th, 2010 at 12:28 pm #

    Dave at Home
    Irv,

    Thank you for sharing your story!

    It’s our hope that more retired and active players will continue to come forward and tell their stories about the serious injuries they received playing in the NFL and how the League then finds loopholes to escape liability. In Corporate America, this would “NOT” happen. Why is the NFL allowed to continue this misconduct?

    Certainly, GREED is their motivation. The NFL is a $40,000,000,000 industry that grosses $8,5000,000,000 annually. And this cash cow keeps growing.

    Irv, your concussions happened in the 60’s and it was obvious the team doctor and coaches knew even back then that concussions were life-threatening. A picture is worth a thousand words but an example is worth a thousand pictures! These continuing examples of malfeasance by the NFL regarding retired players and their life-changing injuries are illegal and morally wrong.

    Retired players need justice. NOW!

    Regards,
    Dave & Heidi Pear

  2. Burt Grossman
    May 6th, 2010 at 12:53 pm #

    Burt Grossman
    Wow Irv,

    I know the culture you speak of well: “If you can walk, you can play”or “Tape an aspirin to it.” I grew up in Philadelphia and also remember Dr. Mandarino and as well as his son who was also a doctor and treated me for a High School knee injury. I got to know the family and can remember having dinner at their home off Montgomery Avenue close to Lower Merion High School.

    Thanks for the memories as well as all your help and input during my Severance fiasco!

    Burt Grossman
    San Diego Chargers, Philadelphia Eagles
    1989 -1994

  3. Irv Cross
    May 6th, 2010 at 1:12 pm #

    Irv Cross
    Burt:

    Thanks! We still need to find your SEVERANCE PAY!

    Irv Cross
    Philadelphia Eagles & LA Rams
    1961 – 1969

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  5. George Visger
    May 7th, 2010 at 12:34 pm #

    George Visger
    Irv,

    I applaud you for stepping forward to share your story. This is a dirty little secret the NFL has tried to cover up for years. Thanks to people like you, Dave Pear and others with the courage to tell their stories, we may be able to prevent young players and their families from facing the carnage many of us have faced.

    As many already know, I have had 8 VP Shunt emergency brain surgeries since developing hydrocephalus during the 81 season with the 49’ers and was forced to sue for Workers Comp to get brain surgeries # 2 and # 3 paid for (these occurred 10 hours apart, just 4 months after we won Super Bowl XVI). Today’s players must realize the warrior mentality we all played with carries a price. To have someone who never played the game tell you to tape an aspirin on it infuriates me. We all did it and never had a second thought about it, as that was how we were taught to play the game. Today’s players may not pay now, but 10, 20, 30 years from now, cognitive declines will take their toll.

    It’s our obligation to speak out. I will be the opening speaker at the first ever Northern California Neuro Recovery and Health Conference in Rocklin, CA on June 12. (see link below)

    http://www.prbuzz.com/health-a-fitness/46064-neuro-recovery.html

    We will bring to light new treatments for brain injuries which may offer the first real hope for recovery in brain injury victims. I just recently completed my 40th HyperBaric Oxygen treatment at the HyperBaric Oxygen Clinic of Sacramento and – for the first time in decades – I can actually remember some of the things on my agenda for the day without looking in my notebook, Post-Its or Blackberry.

    The HyperBarics (no drugs involved, just lay in a pressurized chamber with pure oxygen at 2x atmospheric pressure for an hour), combined with natural food products from Dr. Barry Sears MedWell Health products are actually repairing and regrowing new neurotransmittors in the brain. I am scheduled for a second SPECT scan at Dr. Amen’s clinic in June. It will be interesting to compare the before and after scans. Examples they have at the clinic show major improvements in damaged areas after HyperBarics and this should be accelerated with the nutritional supplements. Dr. Sears’ products are based on Omega 3 fish oils (mainly DHA and EPA of which 80% of the brain is comprised of), and antioxidants to reduce and prevent further damage to brain cells.

    I look forward to using my 28-year journey of battling for Workers Comp, managing brain surgeries and multiple gran mal seizures to help other players and families avoid what my family has faced. 6 different seizure medicines (Dilantin, Depacote, Kepra, Zonegran, Phenobarbital, Lamactil), and currently taking 2 dementia medicines to try to help my nearly nonexistent short term memory have all taken a huge toll on my family & business relationships, not to mention my physical and mental health.

    We need more men such as yourself and Dave Pear with the courage to continue to bring the truth out.

    George Visger
    San Francisco 49’ers 1980 & 1981

  6. Marc Rettus
    January 1st, 2014 at 7:22 pm #

    Hi, Mr. Cross,
    My comment is this; Do today’s players, who are faster, stronger, and bigger than ever, REALLY think they will be exempt from the same brain issues that ex-players suffer from? I really don’t see how the NFL can become safe. (And fining players for legal hits just doesn’t please anyone, or really do much, IMO.)

  7. C W S mith
    February 13th, 2014 at 6:14 pm #

    Dear Mr Cross
    You may never read this but I always had very much admiration for your playing style while on the field and your never ending smile as a broadcaster and a darn good one at that. I have always wondered why you left broadcasting being that in my estimation a gentleman and a very nice guy. When I see these players today with head injuries I often wonder just how many like you were injured with no compensation whatsoever. What about Ed Podalak ? Another player from your era that has somehow been left behind and fans today have no idea what a Great player he was for KC. I was back in the day a Green Bay Packer fan am still today .You guy’s were what they called a man’s Man but the punishment that you and your teammates had too endure was horrendous and hardly worth that moniker.I always wondered if Lombardi and Shram and the other coaches in that day and age knew about or cared for those that were injured and showed the effects of concussions on their players? I surely do not recall it being discussed ( maybe behind closed doors? ) if at all.
    Probably the absolute worst athlete that I ever saw that showed the effects of concussions was former boxing great Jerry Quarry ,that hit home and it also hurt to watch that. I wish you well and all of the athelets that give their all for the game they played and loved and am so sorry that they were deserted and left alone too suffer without help. I will always remember you as a player that gave your all each and everytime you stepped onto the turf.And I believe that you and all the other players should be entered into the Pro Football Hall Of Fame for your devotion and bravery.

    Thank you and best regards
    C W Smith

  8. C W S mith
    February 13th, 2014 at 6:19 pm #

    Dear Mr Cross
    You may never read this but I always had very much admiration for your playing style while on the field and your never ending smile as a broadcaster and a darn good one at that. I have always wondered why you left broadcasting being that in my estimation a gentleman and a very nice guy. When I see these players today with head injuries I often wonder just how many like you were injured with no compensation whatsoever. What about Ed Podalak ? Another player from your era that has somehow been left behind and fans today have no idea what a Great player he was for KC. I was back in the day a Green Bay Packer fan am still today .You guy’s were what they called a man’s Man but the punishment that you and your teammates had too endure was horrendous and hardly worth that moniker.I always wondered if Lombardi and Shram and the other coaches in that day and age knew about or cared for those that were injured and showed the effects of concussions on their players? I surely do not recall it being discussed ( maybe behind closed doors? ) if at all.
    Probably the absolute worst examples of an athlete that I ever saw that showed the effects of concussions was former boxing great Jerry Quarry ,that hit home and it also hurt to watch that. I wish you well and all of the athelets that give their all for the game they played and loved and am so sorry that they were deserted and left alone too suffer without help. I will always remember you as a player that gave your all each and everytime you stepped onto the turf.And I believe that you and all the other players should be entered into the Pro Football Hall Of Fame for your devotion and bravery.

    Thank you and best regards
    C W Smith