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The Dissenter: Pro football's loneliest position

By Terence Moore, Special to CNN
updated 3:13 PM EDT, Fri June 1, 2012
Lester Hayes played for the Oakland/Los Angeles Raiders from 1977-1986.
Lester Hayes played for the Oakland/Los Angeles Raiders from 1977-1986.
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Terence Moore says there's an "epidemic of long-term injuries" to past and present NFL players
  • Former players' lawsuits allege NFL didn't help protect them from concussions and other injuries
  • Former Raiders cornerback Lester Hayes argues injuries are players' faults
  • Hayes told Moore players will essentially ignore doctors' orders for love of the game

Editor's note: Terence Moore is a sports columnist of more than three decades. He has worked for the Cincinnati Enquirer, the San Francisco Examiner, the Atlanta Journal-Constitution and AOL Sports. Follow him on Twitter

(CNN) -- Never during its 92 year history has the NFL experienced anything like this: battles everywhere, but not inside stadiums. They're occurring in federal courtrooms, where more than 100 former players are suing the league over various health issues they claim were caused by negligence on the part of everybody from the commissioner to trainers to coaches.

Then there is The Dissenter.

The more Lester Hayes spoke on the other end of the phone from his home in Modesto, California, the more he delivered a blindsided sack to conventional wisdom. This was after I asked the former cornerback great for the Oakland/Los Angeles Raiders whether coaches, team executives or even leagues are responsible for the epidemic of long-term injuries to current and former players.

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Hayes responded with the speed of a blitz. Despite his lifelong battle with stuttering, he said clearly, "It's all on the players, not anybody else, because the players have the same gladiator genes that existed in Rome over 2,000 years ago. They have a love of football to the 10th power. So the players make the final call. Trust me. No matter what they are told by doctors or anybody else, they will fight to play."

Let that sink in for a moment.

Now consider that a slew of Hayes' former NFL peers disagree. Big time. In fact, Pro Football Hall of Fame runner Eric Dickerson just joined all those other retired players in filing lawsuits in federal courts alleging that the league hasn't done enough to protect players from concussions and other football-related injuries.

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There also have been at least 12 suicides involving former NFL players during the last 25 years, including perennial Pro Bowl defenders Junior Seau and Dave Duerson within the last 14 months. According to the suing players, such tragedies are related to the league's negligence in fully explaining the health risk of concussions to players. Not only that, the suing players claim the league isn't allocating enough of its estimated $9 billion in total revenue each season toward the proper care of its current and former players suffering from head trauma and other football-related injuries.

All Hayes knows is that, at 57 and in the midst of his decades-long run as a football youth coach in Modesto, his health is just fine after his 10 years with the Raiders through 1986. No knee or back troubles. Definitely no post-concussion woes.

Remember, too, that Hayes played during that generation of Raiders teams noted for mixing it up so much that he said the collisions "sounded like a 12-gauge shotgun blast." He contributed to more than a few of those blasts with noted enforcers for the Raiders such as Jack Tatum, George Atkinson, Ted Hendricks and John Matuszak.

Along Hayes' way to five Pro Bowls, two Super Bowl rings and 1980 NFL Player of the Year honors, he was known as everything from Lester The Molester to The Judge to The Only True Jedi.

Now just call him The Dissenter.

"Lord, have mercy. It's so much safer to play in the NFL these days than during my time," Hayes said, referring to the NFL Players Association joining former players in urging the league to make things even safer.

The league has responded. You've had NFL commissioner Roger Goodell doing everything from moving kickoffs up five yards (to reduce the number of injuries on kickoff returns) to delivering heavy fines to defenders who slam into quarterbacks too harshly.

There also are strict guidelines for teams to follow when a player has just the hint of a concussion.

Hayes chuckled, saying, "We didn't have any guidelines. You could actually lead with your face mask (as a defender) -- putting your face mask on an opposing player's face mask, without a $15,000 fine. You could throw a forearm shiver to the throat. People played with broken bones. Guys would carry smelling salt in their socks, so if you got a little woozy on the field, you'd reach into your sock for help."

Then there was the "secret room."

According to Hayes, it was a staple for the Raiders. "I don't know what other teams had, but I'm sure they had something that was similar," he said, referring to the place at stadiums that players visited on game days to receive a series of painkilling shots.

That said, Hayes said Raiders team doctor Robert Rosenfeld spent more time trying to talk him and other players out of taking the shots than otherwise.

"It was 1985, and I had never missed a game, and me and Dr. Rosenfeld were going at it -- back and forth, and I'm begging him, just pleading and screaming at him, 'Doc, I've got to play. Give me the shot,' " said Hayes, recalling what was a lengthy shouting match at the time on how to handle his strained calf muscle.

"The Doc is telling me, 'Lester, take a few days off. I don't like shooting muscle.' But it's going back and forth, with me yelling. And God rest his soul, he wouldn't back down, not until I just forced him to do it. He always showed a lot of love and compassion."

I encountered Rosenfeld, who died in 1994, as a Raiders beat writer for the San Francisco Examiner during the early 1980s, so I know Hayes speaks the truth -- for some Raiders.

As for others, not so much.

While offensive lineman Curt Marsh blamed the amputation of his right foot on a misdiagnosis by Rosenfeld, defensive end Pat Toomay once told ESPN that the typical response of Rosenfeld to most injuries was, "You're OK. It's just a bruise."

Hayes said in response, "Listen, I'm waiting there outside of the secret room, observing, listening to Doc tell players, 'Sit out. Sit out.' They wouldn't do it, because they were gladiators, and Mr. Davis had instilled such a will of winning into each of us that we had to get out there."

That is Mr. Davis, as in the late Al Davis, the notoriously hard-driving owner of the Raiders from 1963 until his death in October. His motto was "Just win, baby," which makes you wonder.

"No, no, no. Mr. Davis never pressured us to play," Hayes said. "He never, never did. It was always the player's call. You can't blame Mr. Davis, and you can't blame the doctors, because a lot of guys see stars (as in being physically dazed) on the field, but that gladiator gene takes over. I never saw Dr. Rosenfeld apply pressure in the secret room, except to try to put us in street clothes on game days."

The Dissenter laughed, adding, "In the 21st century, I don't know if secret rooms still exist."

If we knew, they wouldn't be secret.

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