‘Father Time Ain’t On My Side, That’s the Truth’

Former fullback Fred McCrary banged heads for 11 seasons in the pros. He’s working to become an NFL referee and watching his sons grow up in the game. Life is good, he says—except for the migraines, and the fear of what’s to come

By
Jim Trotter
· More from Jim·
Fred McCrary in the quiet room he retreats to when the headaches get bad. (Pouya Dianat for Sports Illustrated)
Fred McCrary in the quiet room he retreats to when the headaches get bad. (Pouya Dianat for Sports Illustrated)

CANTON, Ga. — The sand-colored, brick-front home with the pointed roof and the rock-lined driveway sits at the top of a hill. Reaching it requires a drive through modern-day Mayberry, where trees line meandering streets and laughter from playing kids can be heard during Saturday morning strolls. Peer across the street from its perch and you can see slivers of a golf course that’s as easy on the eyes as it is tough on the nerves.


Can football change? Will the sport become safer? How are concussions impacting the game’s future?

Introducing an in-depth series where we tackle those questions, starting at high schools and continuing into college and the NFL. Read the entire series.

The 6,000-square foot, five-bedroom, five-bath home is where Fred McCrary lives with two of his three sons, ages 11, 10 and 7. It’s one of the trophies he earned from an 11-year NFL career that ended 2007. The 41-year-old played fullback for Philadelphia, New Orleans, San Diego, New England, Atlanta and Seattle, starting 65 of 128 games and blocking for Ricky Watters, Charlie Garner, Warrick Dunn and LaDainian Tomlinson, among others. His basement is a shrine to those years. A wall-length trophy case features helmets of the Falcons, Patriots, Chargers and Seahawks, as well as game balls, framed jerseys and a key to the city from his hometown of Naples, Fla.

Still, the most prominent reminder of his playing days is a large, empty room that’s fronted by glass-paned double doors. This is where McCrary sometimes disappears for two or three days at a time to fight off migraines he attributes to the “hundreds” of concussions he sustained while playing football. When they attack the back of his head, with the acuteness of sharpened knives and the pressure of a closing vise, he pulls a couple of large, thick folded blankets from a closet and places them over the glass doors. He needs darkness and silence to make them disappear. The episodes occurred so regularly early in his retirement that his kids stopped knocking on the doors to ask what’s wrong. They knew daddy was having an attack, which meant they shouldn’t disturb him unless absolutely necessary.

Back then, the migraines would hit three or four times a month. Today they visit him once or twice a month, in part because he has learned to avoid the stresses that can trigger them. Nevertheless, McCrary remains scared. For himself. For his sons.

*  *  *

The cracked helmet from Fred McCrary keeps from his training-camp collision with teammate Junior Seau. (Jim Trotter/SI)
Fred McCrary’s cracked helmet from his training-camp collision with teammate Junior Seau. (Jim Trotter/SI)

The year is 2001, and the thrill of starting a new season has worn off for the Chargers. They’re a week-plus into training camp when the coaches notice the players are dragging, lethargic, in a fog thicker than the marine layer that hovers over the coastline just a mile or so from their UC-San Diego training site. Something has to be done, so the staff calls for a full-contact run drill to liven up things.

When the play is called in the huddle, McCrary feels a sense of anxiousness. It calls for him to take on perennial Pro Bowl linebacker Junior Seau in the “A” gap. To that point Seau had been having his way with the offense. He knew the schemes so well that he sometimes correctly called out plays at the line of scrimmage, just because the offensive formation. McCrary was entering his third season with the team, but he knew his job wasn’t safe. Few were. San Diego was coming off a 1-15 season in which it had lost its first 11 games. How could anyone other than stars such as Seau or safety Rodney Harrison or defensive tackle John Parrella be safe, particularly with new general manager John Butler watching so intently?

When the play call came in, McCrary tightened his chin strap and told himself to get low. He would need to get beneath Seau’s shoulder pads to win the battle. At the snap of the ball, Seau came charging through the gap, where McCrary was there to meet him. This time McCrary won, putting Seau on his back. But that’s not what got everyone’s attention. It was the force of the collision, so loud it could be heard a couple of football fields away. So violent that it left a 3-inch crack across the bridge of McCrary’s helmet.

“I’ve never seen anything like that before in my life,” McCrary said after practice. “I’m going to take [the helmet] home and get Junior to sign it, and I’m going to sign it, and I’m going to put it in my trophy case.  That’s a piece of art right there.”

McCrary may have considered the helmet a badge of honor at the time—he still does today, featuring it prominently in his trophy case—but he soon realized the damage from the collision extended far beyond his equipment. When he saw spots and flashes of white after the initial hit, he dismissed it as a “ding.” But as the day progressed, his head began to hurt, and his equilibrium was off. When he saw Seau that night he complained that something was wrong. Seau responded by saying his own head was “on fire.” But the two kept their conditions a secret for fear they would be held out of practice.

When we played, you weren’t allowed to get hurt. You’ve fought all your life to become an NFL player. You don’t want that taken away from you, so you suck it up.

McCrary thought the symptoms would subside, but they wound up persisting for more than six months. On one occasion he lay in the bed at 2 in the morning, arms outstretched, clutching the edge of the mattress. His then-wife was so scared she pleaded with him to go to the emergency room. He refused because he feared it would cost him his job.

“My wife was like, ‘What’s wrong with you?! What’s wrong?’ ” McCrary recalls. “I knew what it was, but I didn’t really know, if you know what I mean. I can’t tell you how many face masks I broke from just running into linebackers. They’re five yards back, we’re five yards back and … POW!!! Over and over. It has no choice but to take a toll on your brain. Me being an idiot, loving it, I kept doing it. But I didn’t really know the damage I was doing.”

He received an answer earlier this month when he watched “League of Denial,” the PBS documentary based on the book of the same name, which outlined the link between head trauma in football and long-term brain damage and how the NFL hid those dangers from players.

“You have a ray of emotions,” he says after viewing it. “You become angry, you become sad, you become hurt because they should have warned us. They should have told us about that stuff. They never did. Not any team that I’ve ever been on told me. It makes you angry, almost like they’re using us. It hurts.

“When we played, you weren’t allowed to get hurt. It was like, ‘He’s fine. Get him back in there.’  What are you going to do? You’ve got to feed your family. You’ve fought all your life to become an NFL player. You don’t want that taken away from you, so you suck it up. But if I had known the dangers, it absolutely would have changed things. I would have blocked differently. I wouldn’t have been going in there head-first as much. I would have been using my shoulders a lot more. I probably would have cut-block more instead of running in there hitting them face first. That takes a toll.”

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32 comments
lionoah
lionoah

I think everyone knew that playing football is very unhealthy. Thats why there are broken limbs and torn soft tissues. However, who ever publicly came to the conclusion that 'dizzyness' and 'fog' meant dementia, Alzheimer's, PERMANENT brain damage? Boxers were 'punch drunk' and football players were...what exactly? It's obvious now, but I think everyone was kind of blind to the fact that those hits had longer lasting effects on the brain than the ones that broke bones and tore tissues.

It was all thought to be temporary until someone found out it wasn't. 

George
George

I don't wish anyone like Fred McCrary or his sons any harm.  I hope he recovers rather than regresses.

But I don't think even all the new rules are going to make that much of a difference.  You've still got huge fast "freak"-conditioned genetic specimens HITTING each other like trucks.  It's simple science - Force = mass x acceleration.   You're still going to have concussions and long-term disabilities later in life, if not even shortened lifespans, no matter how many rules are implemented by the NFL to diminish the type of damage Fred McCrary is suffering from.   Thank God he didn't end up like Junior Seau.  

I was stupid and smoked cigarettes for years.  So did my wife.   I am (fingers-crossed) still fine.  She is dying from COPD.   Smoking was a choice (a stupid one).     Choosing to play professional football with all we know today is also a choice.

If I had sons, I would not let them play football until high school, and unless they were exceptionally gifted large physical athletes and over-ruled me, I would not let them play even at the college level.   


Get well Fred.  And please take the time to teach young players and their parents what you have learned by experience.


DavidHarte
DavidHarte

Bizarre logic, Fred.  Rethink it.  This game is a fraud: brain damage leading to Alzheimer's, ALS, Parkinson's and various other forms of dementia and cognition problems.  

Why would you let a child risk that future?  You've got the house, some financial security.  Help your kids grow up to be lawyers, doctors, whatever they want, and live long, healthy lives.

Football is a drug in this culture and the price for it is way too high for too many of those who play.

KevinAustin
KevinAustin

Wow. He knows football causes concussions and debilitating brain trauma, yet he lets his kids play. 


I like watching football, but I would never let my son play. 

AtlantaJeffS
AtlantaJeffS

I think the only NFL player to actually WALK off the field into retirement - was Fran Tarkenton - and he spent his career scrambling to get away form those big hits!!!  It is the price you pay - for the money you make!!! When you have people that are HUGE - crashing into other people that are HUGE - what do you expect to happen?  OF COURSE they are going to have head and brain injuries - if they are lucky enough to limp away from the game - without the help of a wheel chair!!!  It is simply  a very violent game and YOU WILL pay the price if your play long enough!!  You can wear all the padding you want - but when a powerful 6 foot 3 inch 265 pound guy - gets to backup and take a shot at you - YOU WILL SUFFER FOR THE REST OF YOUR LIFE!!  I gave up football when I was about 14 years old - and took up soccer (high school/college/NASL professional.  Now - I limp where ever I go - but when I sit/lay down - I don't feel the hip/leg/knee/ankle pain too much!!  REALLY HARD to play ANY professional sport - AND complain about pain from playing the game - for the rest of your life!!  They bought your pain - MANY years ago!!!

wanganui
wanganui

Really?  You didn't know smashing your head into things would be bad for your brain?  The NFL should have told you?  Wow.  I have sympathy for anyone suffering, but come on.

Mech
Mech

It's like smoking cigarettes. Everyone knows its bad news, they know what its doing to your body but they make the choice to take the immediate gratification the smoke provides,,, in this case the big check. Its not that the NFL is hiding anything, everyone knows. Perhaps the only thing they can do is better equipment and more penalties for helmet hits and I think they are doing that. You make a decision ,, don't back step on it. Yeah get your union to provide better healthcare and long term protection but you know the chances you are taking... look at Muhammad Ali.

JahliSuwaghaman
JahliSuwaghaman

Best of luck to him.  Perhaps with better awareness we'll have far more interest in researching brain trauma and CTE.  

It's not exactly Alzheimers / Parkinsons / ALS / which have been known for decades but, with more people paying attention and doing research there might be some solutions for guys like him before their conditions worsen. 

superquad168
superquad168

Guys back then were making decisions without full information. The NFL was withholding info on what all those hits to the head do to a person. Forcing guys to hide concussions for fear of their jobs.

bigleagueathletics
bigleagueathletics

I absolutely hate it when someone says "they choose to play so quit your whinning". These people are not football fans!! I love Fred McCrary, one of the most under rated fullbacks of all time. I don't see that what he's saying is blaming anyone. He followed his dream! Not everyone can do that. Pull the blinds and take a couple of Exedrin Merv!!! Don't be a hater!!

Dave Hunt  

GlennPalmer
GlennPalmer

"...I wouldn’t change anything but the concussions. All the hurts and pain, that’s part of the game. That’s what I signed up for. But them not telling me about my brain, that says a lot. That’s hurtful. That’s painful. That’s not fair. But what are you going to do?"

- Fred McCrary

Great read. Chilling too. I really appreciated the candidness.

Merv
Merv

He could have used his College Degree and got another kind of job.  He chose to play Football, and accept the big money rather than play it safe.

Sorry for the guy but I get 1-2 Migraines a month also, without the 3 million dollar a year paycheck.

bulletrico
bulletrico

Somebody better get  real with that foolish CB in Seattle

warechauncey
warechauncey

@wanganui Knowledge now isnt knowledge earlier. And if you read the article, he says he knew but didnt know what was going on. What he meant was that he didnt know the long term effects...past playing career. And he also talks about why a player had to keep playing.

sneakypete79
sneakypete79

@wanganui Exactly. If you need the NFL or a medical professional to tell you that then you already have brain injuries to begin with.

AtlantaJeffS
AtlantaJeffS

@wanganui Hard to disagree with that one!!!  I played football from age 8 to 14 - and stopped due to constant headaches after every practice and game - and NOT ONCE - did they even bother to even fit me with a helmet that fit!!! It was ALWAYS - Here's your helmet and shoulder pads - take care of them!!!

sneakypete79
sneakypete79

@superquad168 


That's BS. If you need a Dr or a medical professional to tell you that constantly banging your head is not good for you then you are an idiot. Sure, the league withheld information, which is not right, however, I will repeat myself. If you need the NFL or a Dr/medical professional to tell you that banging your head over and over is dangerous and not healthy then you lack common sense and probably shouldn't have passed the 4th grade.

sneakypete79
sneakypete79

@GlennPalmer  I feel for players who suffer after the game. However, as I stated to another poster, nobody over the age of 12 should need the NFL or anyone else to tell them that continuous blows to the head is not healthy or good for you. When you have children you always try to prevent them from hitting their head. The reason a helmet is worn is to protect your head. That's a newsflash for hitting your head isn't safe.

AaronDunckel
AaronDunckel

@Merv what an idiotic comment...  head trauma is a big deal now.... it wasn't 10-15 years ago even... people keep going around like this has always been in the media and players know what they're getting into... not always was this the case, and not always was what is common knowledge today accepted by the general public even 10 years ago

AaronDunckel
AaronDunckel

@bulletrico hes not foolish, he just realizes the risks and chooses to roll the dice.  Lots of people would take 10 years of fame, glory, and a ton of money in exchange for the possibility of problems ( not even a certainty ) later in life - and hes one of them.  

Also, Sherman is playing in an era where the players KNOW exactly what they're getting into, and still play.  All he is doing is speaking for 100s of players who think the same thing

redmch91
redmch91

@warechauncey @wanganui Football's been around a lot longer than this guy.  All he had to do was look at some of the older retired RB's from the decades before him to see what was in store for him.  Hard to care when you're the talk all over campus and then getting paid millions to play the game.  On another note...start testing these guys for HGH and maybe 260 lb freaks will run just a little slower and weigh a little less when their colliding.

AaronDunckel
AaronDunckel

@sneakypete79 @superquad168 you forget the "good ole days" - sports was a different animal back then.... water was for whimps, rest was for the weak, and banging your head showed you were tough


its a different age now, where we have more information available and at instant timeframes.   No more can cigarette companies buy advertising and doctors like they used to... its a different age in every facet

AaronDunckel
AaronDunckel

@sneakypete79 @GlennPalmer information you take for granted now just wasn't that accepted back in the day.  Nobody had seen football players suffering from head trauma long term.... so people didn't pay attention to it

DrX
DrX

@AaronDunckel @bulletrico Yes, he is taking the fame and glory now in exchange for money...and he's supposed enlightened about all the risks.   Problem is, in today's "lack of personal responsibility society", he'll still be in line to sue the NFL and probably by then his college and high school and little league for the pain and suffering he endures when he is 45 years old.    And our "lack of personal responsibility society" will be right there to support and agree with him with sympathy and a big lawsuit....as it is always someone else's fault these days.   Why do we no longer agree that we should be personally responsible for our decisions in life?   Why must everything always be someone else's fault?

89RedSox
89RedSox

@redmch91 @warechauncey @wanganui When you're young, you're invincible.  I'm sure he knew when his head/brain hurt that it wasn't "good"......but it wasn't entirely clear that you could wind up with severe issues later in life....nobody thinks of later in life when they're young......

sneakypete79
sneakypete79

@AaronDunckel @sneakypete79 @GlennPalmer  What a bunch of BS. Anyone who ever played football knew that banging your head over and over isn't healthy. Did they know the exact effect? Probably not, but they knew enough to know it wasn't good for them or healthy. 

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