(Fourth in a series)
"My roommate at Indiana State broke his neck my freshman year – he was a sophomore – and he was a quadriplegic for the rest of his life. Fred Rensing. He was in a wheelchair for the rest of his life until he passed about seven years ago. He was my roomie and one of my closest friends at Indiana State. To the day he died, he always said to me, 'I would do it all over again and not even blink. I loved football. I loved every minute I got to play. My only regret was I didn't get to play longer.' And that was from a guy in a wheelchair who broke his neck on the practice field.
"I only tell that story to say that I love the game, and I signed on for what I signed on for. After I saw him in the emergency room with a priest there by his side, I knew he might not make it out of that room. I saw him (lying there like that), and he was my friend. We remained friends, I was the best man at his wedding. But seeing what I saw, it never deterred me from playing the game. I saw it first-hand, I knew that could happen to you, but it never deterred me from wanting to play."
Tunch Ilkin played 14 seasons in the NFL, 177 games, and they were hard seasons. Fourteen seasons on the offensive line. Seasons when the most popular playing surface around the league was Astroturf. Seasons of practicing on Astroturf. Seasons under Coach Chuck Noll, who believed in two-a-days at training camp, and whose Friday in-season practices were de facto scrimmages. But Tunch Ilkin was more than a football player during his time in the NFL. He became the Steelers' player representative to the NFLPA in 1986, and then from 1989-94 he was one of the vice presidents on the NFLPA Executive Committee. What the NFLPA accomplished during Ilkin's time on the Executive Council was the professional football version of the Declaration of Independence.
Two games into the 1987 season the league's players went on strike, and the significant outcome of what happened over the next six years of negotiations and legal wranglings was the institution of a system of free agency tied to a salary cap. It is the model that has made the NFL the most successful professional sports league on earth, and Ilkin was there for all of it.
"When we went on strike in 1987," said Ilkin, "all the focus from then until 1993 when we ratified the new CBA was on getting free agency."
A class action lawsuit was filed against the NFL in June 2012 that claims the league "was aware of the health risks associated with repetitive blows producing sub-concussive and concussive results and the fact that some members of the NFL player population were at significant risk of developing long-term brain damage and cognitive decline as a result." A lot of players who have joined the class action were contemporaries of Ilkin's, they were members of the NFLPA during the 1980s and then into the advent of free agency.
"Nobody was worried about safety. Everybody wanted free agency, and that was very, very clear," said Ilkin about the concerns of the rank-and-file. "Some guys wanted lifetime medical. Some guys wanted to improve pensions, but the battle cry was free agency. Everybody wanted free agency, because everybody wanted more money. When you go in to negotiate a contract, you don't negotiate to protect yourself from a safety standpoint. You negotiate to protect yourself from a financial standpoint. Your earnings."
Ilkin remembers that fellow Executive Committee member Trace Armstrong, a defensive end who played for the Bears and Dolphins, was one person trying to bring the issue of helmets and concussion safety to the forefront, but that issue didn't gain the same traction as free agency. Not even close.
"I was not concerned with concussions," said Ilkin. "I was all about getting rid of Astroturf. That was my cause. Trace Armstrong, he was the helmet guy. He always said, 'We need to start worrying about concussions.'"
Ilkin said that in his 14 seasons as a player, he left two games because of concussions. The first came during his rookie season of 1980 while he was running down to cover a kickoff in Buffalo. He threw himself into the wedge "and the next thing I knew I was seeing bright colors." The other time was in 1990 when Bengals safety David Fulcher was returning an interception for a touchdown and in the process of trying to tackle him, Ilkin got kneed on the side of the helmet.
"Did I have others? I don't know. Did I get dinged? Who didn't? I can honestly say that, unless I'm delusional, I don't have any post-career concussion symptoms," said Ilkin. "I don't want to lie and say I have been affected by concussions, because I don't feel that way. I don't want to do that. Actually, I believe my mental capacities are pretty good. Do I forget names now and then? Sure, but I'm 55. My recall is pretty good. My memorization of rosters is good for my job as the analyst for games on the Steelers Radio Network, and for my job as a pastor in terms of reading the word of God and memorizing it. I have really good recall, so I don't see any effects."
Ilkin admits to hearing the stories, and he admits some of those stories move him. But he also explains that his only real point of reference is what he saw in the locker room as a player. He is adamant that the Steelers doctors – Dr. Joseph Maroon, a pioneer in the areas of concussion severity and the timing for return to contact sports, and Dr. Anthony Yates were on top of things, they were conscientious in their diagnosis and treatment of head injuries.
"I never felt any pressure from the coaching staff, from the ownership," said Ilkin. "In fact, in the (1990) game Dr. Maroon took me out of, I felt like I could have gone back in and played. I appreciate him taking that decision away from me, but I wanted to play."
He wanted to play, because he loved the game. Ilkin understands that the love of football is what motivated him and so many of his peers, but what he doesn't really understand is why football is being cast as a villain. He doesn't understand the growing assumption that playing football automatically leads to cognitive issues. He doesn't feel victimized.
"I feel pretty good," said Ilkin. "Andy Russell is brilliant, as bright a guy as I know, and he played 12 years. Jon Kolb, a very bright guy, and he played 14 years. Look at the Matthews brothers – Bruce and Clay. How do guys play 17, 18, 19 years? Jackie Slater played for 20 years as an offensive tackle. How do they play all those years and have no residual effects, while other guys who play only four or five years have post-concussion syndrome? Merril Hoge had his career ended by concussions, and now on television for ESPN he doesn't look punch-drunk to me. Except for his taste in clothes. (Laughs)
"I love the game. I don't see it as an evil. I don't see it as a death sentence. I think everyone has to weigh very soberly the cost, because there is a cost, and understanding that the cost can be post-concussion syndrome, and even more prevalent among a lot of my friends, maybe 90 percent, is they have artificial joints. That's very real."
Allow Ilkin to close with another story
"I got a call from a workman's comp attorney in California. He said to me, I'm just looking over your career, and I see you played 14 years. I said, yes I have. He said, you never filed for a workman's comp claim. I said, I have not. He asked me why. I said, well, I feel pretty good. He said, you know you're entitled. I said, entitled to what? Then he starts explaining some things to me, and I really don't know where he's going with this. I said, the way I understand workman's comp is that if I can't work because of what happened to me playing football, then I can file a workman's comp claim. He said, yes. I said, but I work; I have a great job; I'm doing what I love to do. He said, but I'm sure you had some injuries in those days. I said, I did. He said, well those injuries may be worth something. And I said, but those injuries aren't keeping me from working.
"I think lawsuits should be for guys who are really, really messed up as a result of this. That's what I think. If a guy is messed up, and this can help the quality of his life, those are the guys who should benefit. But I'm not a big jump-in-line-with-my-hand-out kind of guy.
"I would like to see the league take care of those really messed up guys in terms of benefits, but in terms of knowing what you signed on for when you decided to play this game – yes, you know what you signed on for."