Sally Jenkins: Stabler knew, others will learn – the football life exacts a price

SAN FRANCISCO – Cam Newton and Peyton Manning are moving toward each other from opposite directions in time. Newton is coming on fast, Manning is fading slow, and the Super Bowl is the intersection at which they will cross. One guy is 26, with youth on his side. The other guy is 39, and he knows more. Mainly what he knows is the price of a long time spent in this game, because he can feel it in his dead arm and his stitched neck and his bad hip, and he hopes some day he doesn’t feel it in his head, too.

Twenty-one years ago, Manning was an exuberant schoolboy signing his national letter-of-intent, just as thousands of other kids did this Wednesday. Ten years ago, Manning was at his physical peak and making his first Super Bowl appearance, just as Newton is about to. Twenty-five years from now, Manning hopes he’s not another Ken Stabler, a mourned prince with traces of chronic traumatic encephalopathy in his brain.

This is the potential arc of an NFL career, no matter who you are. There is no such thing as a protected position in the NFL, no rule, magic helmet or special golden status that wards off age, the wages of a long career and the potential scourge of CTE. We know that now, thanks to the once-lithe and jaunty Stabler, who donated his brain to a Boston University research center. Stabler suffered from the degenerative effects of CTE before he died last year at age 69 of complications from colon cancer, it was revealed Wednesday. A 15-year career that included an MVP award and a Super Bowl title with the Oakland Raiders left him with wrecked knees and a ringing in his head from CTE lesions, according to the excruciating details his family shared with The New York Times.

Frank Gifford. Junior Seau. John Mackey. Seven members of the Pro Football Hall of Fame now have had CTE diagnosed posthumously.

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Peyton Manning knew Stabler through his father, Archie, who was a contemporary and briefly a teammate of Stabler’s with the New Orleans Saints before they both retired in 1984. At a Super Bowl news conference Wednesday morning, Manning spoke warmly of Stabler as “a prince of a guy.” He then added some surprisingly confessional details and thoughts about his own health at 39. Manning has already had three neck surgeries and apparently is facing a hip replacement.

“Certainly when you have injuries, when you have surgeries, the doctors sometimes will mention to you, whether you ask them or not, ‘Hey, you’re probably headed for a hip replacement at a certain time in your life,’ ” Manning said. “And I said, ‘Doc, I didn’t ask you. Am I going to have a hip replacement? I didn’t need to know that right here at age 37. But thanks for sharing. I look forward to that day when I’m 52 and have a hip replacement.’

“So am I going to have some potential neck procedures down the road?” Manning continued. “I don’t know the answer to that. The hip part was true. I can’t remember which doctor told me that. I’ve seen a lot of doctors, but he was nice to share that information with me. As those things come along later in life for me, I will try to handle them and try to have a good plan when those are around. I feel pretty good as we speak, and I am fortunate for that.”

Should 39 sound this old? A man not even 40 is already planning for his first joint replacement. As for the implications of Stabler’s CTE, Manning said, “I’m still trying to process that.” The reality of the NFL is that by the time a player like Manning gains the self-awareness to make a good plan for his future, it already may be too late.

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It’s striking how intensely the players in this game live in the moment. They treat the future as a benign blank. The Carolina Panthers have a mantra this week: “Be where your feet are.” The competitive mindset is to exist solely in the current and ageless instant.

“It’s football, man,” Denver cornerback Aqib Talib said in response to a query about whether he thinks about his post-retirement health. “As players we know we’re not signed up to play tag or play flag [football]. You think about that post-career. I don’t worry about it. I’m enjoying the football now. Who knows what the future brings?”

You can tell Newton doesn’t think there’s any way he will end up like Manning, much less Stabler. You can tell he doesn’t think he ever will be 39. He’s all easy superiority and taut young skin, seemingly untouched, walking around almost lazily in his balloon sweats and black flip-flops, as if he’s got all the years and well being in the world ahead of him. He has been playing the game since he was 7, he noted, and the quality that has gotten him to his first Super Bowl is the ability to play the game as a perennial child, no different than “when I was back playing at the park.”

Perhaps it’s an essential piece of mental equipment, this ability of an NFL player to exist immortally in his own mind. Maybe it’s a needed psychological buffer, given that there is evidence right in front of him that the NFL makes young men into old ones so very, very quickly.

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Manning addressed a stark inescapable fact of life in the NFL: that even a much-protected quarterback must plan for an artificial hip and worry about dementia. The NFL has tried everything, made all kinds of recent efforts toward “health and safety,” passed dozens of rule changes. There are watchful trainers in skyboxes, independent neurological consultants on the sidelines. And yet concussions are up – they increased from 115 in the 2014 season to 182 in 2015.

There is no way to make this game a healthy enterprise. If the league really wants to care for its players, honor its past and future Hall of Famers, it should invest in lifetime health care. By the time a 7-year-old reaches the NFL, he already has suffered thousands or maybe even hundreds of thousands of hits to the head in the name of his NFL ambition. It’s not the short-term living in the moment that does it. It’s the longevity. It appears that a ruined body is the unavoidable price of a longtime devotion for this game.

Fort Worth native Sally Jenkins is a sports columnist for The Washington Post. Contact her at