I’ll never forget the dead boy in a casket.
It was the fall of 1998 and I was assigned by the Fort Myers News-Press to cover the funeral of 16-year-old Rusty Larabell. He was a junior varsity football player at Naples High School who died after collapsing on the sidelines during a game.
Even now, nearly 20 years later, I recall arriving early at the church, before any mourners. The church was empty when I walked into the sanctuary and noticed flowers and photos of up front. I wandered up to look at the pictures of Rusty as a little boy and then a high school kid. He was a boy who was loved, that was clear.
I sidled along looking at photos and wasn’t prepared as I shuffled along to see the open casket and 16-year-old Rusty Larabell, still and dead, his promise and life snuffed out, a family left bereft.
Did football kill Rusty Larabell?
I bring this up now because of all the coverage in recent years about the dangers of football. A former Washington Post sportswriter recently wrote that he should have written more about the sport’s dangers.
I suppose that is true of all of sportswriters. I loved football. I loved the athleticism of its best players, their power and grace and speed and elusiveness, the ability of quarterbacks to fling a pass 50 yards downfield, to have it spiraling sweetly through the air and plopping into the hands of a wide receiver sprinting faster than I ride my bicycle.
I loved the tradition and pageantry and excitement. I loved the stories of the athletes, the gumption and moxie and courage it took to play this difficult sport with grace.
Don’t forget the violence. Football wouldn’t have become what it is without violence, without spine-rattling hits, brain-concussing collisions, high-velocity mash-ups of elite athletes crackling and crashing into each other. Over and over and over again. …
I covered hundreds of football games, from Pop Warner to high school to college and the NFL. My stories focused on the thrills of the game and the challenges and the hard work.
I didn’t often write about dead boys in caskets or the cumulative effect of thousands of hits on the players who reached the NFL.
No, like virtually all fans and sportswriters I was swept up in the game.
Does football kill? Yes.
Did football kill Rusty Larabell, the boy I saw in a casket in Naples in 1998? I found an excellent 2008 Naples Daily News story marking the 10th anniversary of Rusty’s death.
This is part of what Scott Hotard wrote for the paper: “It would be inaccurate to say Rusty Larabell died on the football field. It would even be inaccurate to say he died because of anything that happened on one.
“Nobody knows for sure.”
An autopsy report noted that Rusty died of a brain hemorrhage.
As Scott also wrote: “Whether it resulted from contact to the head was never confirmed.”
In the many years I covered high school football games I recall I needed a bit of conditioning. No, not the physical conditioning players require but a sort of mental conditioning to the sport’s violence.
It happened late every summer when I covered the first games and witnessed the sport’s ferocity up close, the way high school kids clobbered each other. The first few hits were unnerving, even from my vantage point on the sidelines, toting a clipboard and pen.
After a few hits, I became accustomed to the ferocity. OK, this is football, even on the high school level.
As I prowled the sidelines keeping stats, writing down every play, there were times players came hurtling, barreling and flying out of bounds, landing at my feet. I was never injured but there were close calls.
I’m sure over the years I wrote countless stories about players getting injured or coming back from injuries. Everybody gets hurt in football. I’ve heard it said that in the NFL the injury rate is 100 percent.
Players know that going in. Fans and the media know it as well.
But the majesty of the competition and the ferocious hitting and the supreme athleticism of the best players combine for a spectacle that is compelling.
I recall covering a Redskins-Bucs game in Tampa’s Raymond James Stadium perhaps 15 years ago.
The Bucs were down by seven points in the last minute or so but quarterback Brad Johnson found wide receiver Keyshawn Johnson in the back of the end zone for a touchdown, bringing the Bucs within a point. All they needed to send the game into overtime was an extra point kick.
The Redskins committed a penalty, moving the ball half the distance to the goal line. Bucs coach Jon Gruden forgot about the game-tying kick and sent in the offense for a two-point conversion and victory.
Everybody in the stadium knew what was coming. Both teams. All the fans. The media. The millions watching on TV. We knew.
There would not be a play-action pass or sweep or end-around or bootleg by the lumbering quarterback. No. Gruden would have the ball handed off to bruising fullback Mike Alstott to power the ball a foot or two into the end zone.
I was watching. And listening. The 65,000 fans in the stadium were standing and screaming. The noise might have been louder than a jet airplane revving its engine.
I felt blessed to be in this spot, to have a job where I could cover something so amazing. The ball was snapped. The behemoths from the lines crashed together.
Johnson handed the ball to Alstott. I could see from the epic tussle as the lines collided. I could see Alstott pushing forward, inch-by-inch, edging the nose of the football ever closer to the end zone.
The crowd roared. Somehow, the Bucs offensive linemen created enough space and Alstott scored.
That was football for me. And for the fans.
The best player on that Bucs team might have been defensive lineman Warren Sapp.
I recently read that Sapp, now 44, is suffering from memory loss and may be exhibiting the early signs CTE, which has killed many football players.
Did football kill Rusty Larabell? Nobody knows.
But I sometimes find myself thinking back to that boy in a casket in Naples in 1998, to Rusty Larabell.