head tackle football

It was November 1982, and I was a sophomore at the University of Pennsylvania, in the nosebleed seats of Franklin Field with friends, watching our Quakers fritter away a 20-0 lead against Harvard, which took the lead 21-20 late in the game.

With less than 2 minutes to play, the Quakers somehow make a miraculous comeback – missing a field goal but still getting the roughing the kicker call, and making a winning field goal with zero seconds on the clock.

It was a euphoric moment for students at Penn on that cool Autumn afternoon. With that victory, Penn won it’s first Ivy League championship in 26 years. Did we expect Penn to go on to win four more Ivy titles in a row? Did anyone outside of Penn care? In college-football-mad-America, probably not. But we the students were pleased as punch – we could shout “Kill ’em Quakers!” with glee and pride while enjoying the irony.

Malcolm Gladwell’s Call for a Boycott

And then, 36 years later, I’m listening to one of my favorite podcasts, Malcolm Gladwell’s Revisionist History, and feel this tightening of the stomach as my writer hero rips into my alma mater, reliving a speech he gave to Penn students in 2013 that football was dangerous, citing the death of Penn student and varsity football player, Owen Thomas. Gladwell called for Penn students to boycott football, that we were too smart to be so ignorant of the inherent risk of the game.

Well, it’s your classmates who are dying, right? It’s your classmates who are putting their lives at risk by playing this game. I think all of you has to think about, has to consider boycotting football games at Penn and I think you have to convince your friends to boycott football games at Penn and I think you have to picket outside football games at Penn. And I think you have to go to the administrators of this university and you have to ask them why is a world-class institution, one of the finest universities of higher learning in this planet, exposing its own students to the risk of injury and death? And if they ask for proof, tell them you don’t need proof. Sometimes proof is just another word for letting people suffer. Thank you.

The reaction at Penn was mixed and muted. A Wharton senior who was also on the Penn football team, John Onwualu, said that “the way [Gladwell] expressed his opinions was inappropriate and disrespectful for a speech like that.”

Dartmouth Leads the Way

Gladwell’s intent was to be provocative. Perhaps he was aware of the movement taking place in another part of the Ivy League when he broadcasted this podcast earlier this year. According to a New York Times article called “The Ivy League Becomes the Future of Football,” the coach of the Big Green of Dartmouth began instituting changes to the way the team practices that impacted not only the number of injuries sustained during the season, but also the team’s performance. More significantly, Dartmouth’s practices have influenced how football players all over the country, at the college and professional level train. Here’s a close look at two that are revolutionizing football:

No Tackle Practice: When the head is hit or shaken countless times, the brain is physically impacted and over time, this repeated head trauma can lead to degenerative brain disorders, life-threatening disorders, like CTE (chronic traumatic encephalopathy). In 2010, the head coach of Dartmouth College’s football team, Buddy Teevens, decreed something very unique – the elimination of tackling in practice year round. As the Times’ article states, Teevens likes to say that a Dartmouth player will never get tackled by another Dartmouth player in his career there.

Remote-controlled Tackling Dummies: Looking for a way for his players to safely practice their tackling, Teevens helped develop a technological solution – remote-controlled dummies. Dubbed “mobile virtual players,” these MVPs are fast, able to change directions quickly, and can self-right themselves after getting tackled. In this manner, Teevens can arrange practices that allow his players to focus on tackling technique without the risk of injury to another player.

“The only times my guy tackle are ten times in games,” said Teevens in the video below. “It will allow them to be more proficient and successful. And concussive injury reduction is going to be huge for us.”

The Impact: Immediately after the implementation of the No Tackle policy, Dartmouth’s Big Green had mixed results, but trended positively. In 2011, 2013, and 2104, they always won their final three games of the season, displaying a late-season resiliency, before winning a share of the Ivy title in 2015.

Perhaps influenced by the fewer injuries and freshness of Dartmouth players, Ivy League coaches voted unanimously in March, 2016 to change a rule that results in the elimination of tackling in practices during the season throughout the conference.

At the same time, the Ivy League also voted to reduce injuries during kick-off returns, where 21% of all concussions were experienced, despite the fact that the kick-off return accounted for only 6% of all plays. The kick off allows players to get to full acceleration before hitting each other – imagine two accelerating cars smashing headfirst into each other. A rule change moved the kick-off to the forty yard line from the thirty-five, resulting in far more kicks unreturned. Two years of data showed a significant decrease in concussions during kick offs.

Buddy Teevens
Head coach of Dartmouth College football team, Buddy Teevens

The NFL is making changes, probably due to a fear of liability and diminished popularity over time. As the San Francisco Chronicle points out, participation in high school in the United States has been dropping since 2008, falling even more rapidly in California, probably because high school football players are significantly more likely to experience a concussion than baseball or basketball players in high school.

It may not seem like an existential crisis for football in America. But safety is growing in importance, as Teevens is quoted in the Times:

Beyond wanting to win, Teevens is motivated by a fear that an irreplaceable sport could die. “I think it’s too valuable a game to say, ‘Oh, we’ll do something else,’” he said. “But I also look at the data and the medical side of it. Something has to be done.”

 

Shimazaki on Yumenoshima
Shimazaki hiding from the police on Dream Island, in the Asahi Television produced film, Olympic Ransom

The phone rings. It’s Kunio Shimazaki, and he’s asking for police inspector Masao Ochiai, to inform him where to deliver the ransom money. If the police do not comply with his demand for 80 million yen, then he will set off another bomb in Tokyo, one that will certainly derail the good-feel bandwagon of the 1964 Tokyo Olympics. (See part 1.)

Shimazaki hangs up, but the police notice in the recording of the call that seagulls could be heard in the background. The Tokyo University student, Shinozaki, as created by Hideo Okuda, in his 1984 novel “Olympic Ransom” (Orinpikku no Minoshirokin), is keeping out of sight.

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Yumenoshima today. The area behind the white fence will be the archery venue for Tokyo 2020. You can see the chimney for the incinerator that get rids of waste and provides heat for the greenhouse.

The police, of the possible hundreds of seaside spots along Tokyo Bay, wonder where Shinozaki, and his partner in crime, Tomekichi Murata, could be.

As it turns out, they are hiding on Dream Island, a landfill in Tokyo Bay off of the mouth of the Arakawa River. First planned in the 1930s as the possible site to replace Haneda Airport, it was opened to the public as a beach called Yumenoshima, the island of dreams. Alas, dreams don’t last forever. The beach was closed, re-opening as a garbage dump in 1957, an out-of-the way destination for the increasing amount of waste generated by a fast-growing economy.

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The map of Yumenoshima, the white box in the middle is where the archery venue will be.

Unfortunately, the ten million tons of garbage accumulated over a ten-year period, was left to fester. And only 8 months after the end of the 1964 Tokyo Olympics, it was reported that massive number of flies, that literally blackened the sky, made their way from Yumenoshima across the Sumida River into the heart of Tokyo. As famed translator, Edward Seidensticker wrote in his book, Tokyo Rising, the Japan Self-Defense forces were brought into the fight off the plague of flies.

Initial efforts of the Self-Defense Force (the Japanese army by another name) to exterminate the flies seem initially to have had only the effect of spreading them. Finally a scorched-earth policy worked. Dream Island was for a time a cinder on which not even flies could live.

Today, Yumenoshima is a nice weekend outing, where you can hold a barbecue, sail away from the Marina, walk through a tropical greenhouse, visit the museum of the famed Daigo Fukuryu Maru, a symbol of the horrors of the nuclear age in the 1950s, or play baseball by the seaside on one of 12 fields.

Tokyo 2020 archery field yumenoshima
An illustration of the planned archery venue for Tokyo 2020.

It will also be the site for the archery competition during the 2020 Tokyo Olympics. A grassy field across the street from the greenhouse, the area is fenced off as construction continues.

From an idea to a dream to a nightmare, Yumenoshima has settled into middle age as a family outing. And in 2020, the world of archery will descend on the man-made island, dreaming of gold.

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If you look closely, you can see Tokyo Skytree in the distance.
Musashino Forest Sports Plaza 1
Musashino Forest Sports Plaza on the left, and Ajinomoto Stadium on the right

It was a cold and desolate Sunday when I walked around the grounds of the new Musashino Forest Sports Plaza. Located a short walk away from Tobitakyu Station on the Keio Line, the Musashino Forest Sports Plaza is right next to Ajinomoto Stadium, the home of the J-League Division 1 soccer team, F. C. Tokyo.

Musashino Forest Sports Plaza google maps

There were no events scheduled at either the Sports Plaza of Ajinomoto Stadium on the January afternoon I visited, but come July 2020, this quiet area of Chofu, very near the American School in Japan where my son went to high school, will be filled with thousands of noisy fans. The Musashino Forest Sports Plaza opened on November 27, 2017, the first of eight new permanent Tokyo 2020 venues to be completed. The Plaza will host badminton and pentathlon fencing in the 2020 Olympics, as well as wheelchair basketball during the 2020 Paralympics.

Musashino Forest Sports Plaza 3
View of the Main Arena on the left background, the sub-arena with its pool and gym on the right background, with a track and field in the foreground.

According to this article, the Musashino Forest Sports Plaza is built to serve the community long after the Olympics end. The facilities include a swimming pool, a gym, a multi-use sports area and two fitness studios which are available to the public. The roof of the facilities are made up of solar panels, to help provide a more sustainable energy source.

Musashino Forest Sports Plaza 2
Main Arena and its solar panel roof

And in line with Tokyo2020 Accessibility Guidelines, “the facility designed to be accessible to all, including the elderly, people with impairments, parents with infant strollers and those with guide dogs. The main arena has space for wheelchairs, and the space is designed with enough height difference between the rows of seating to ensure that those in wheelchairs can see clearly, even if spectators in front of them stand up.”

Ajinomoto Stadium will also host matches in the soccer competition during Tokyo 2020, and will be called Tokyo Stadium during the Olympics in accordance with its non-commercialization policy.

Musashino Forest Sports Plaza 4

Yasuhiro Yamashita overcome 3
Yasuhiro Yamashita at the 1984 Los Angeles Olympics

The Modern Olympics have been going strong since 1896, so there is no shortage of stories about Olympians or Olympics past. Here are a few I wrote about in 2017.

 

Mark Hamill with Olympian and Darth Vader stand in Bob Anderson
Mark Hamill with Olympian and Darth Vader stand-in Bob Anderson

 

Japan's Women's Volleyball team victorious 1964_Bi to Chikara
Japan’s Women’s Volleyball team victorious from the book, Bi to Chikara

As I drive towards the first draft of my book on the 1964 Tokyo Olympics, I wrote extensively on some of the greatest as well as some of the lesser known dramas of those Games, some of these based on interviews I’ve had with Olympians. Interviewing Olympians, as well as reading about them, has been such an inspiration to me. I hope they are to you too.

 

Billy Mills at Haskell Institute
Billy Mills at Haskell Institute, from the collection of Billy Mills.

 

Kader Rahman and Sarinder Dillon
Kader Rahman, Sarinder Dillon at Indian Recreation Club in Hong Kong

They were the lowest seeded team, and had already lost their first three matches to Malaysia, Belgium and Canada. Their fourth match at the 1964 Tokyo Olympics was against India, a global field hockey powerhouse and a favorite to win gold.

But somehow, Hong Kong – a team of part-time players, primarily bankers who stayed fit in amateur clubs – held India scoreless in the first half of play. That would be akin to Team USA basketball team being tied 20-20 at the half in an Olympic first rounder against Team Haiti, for example. In the half-time huddle, the India coaches and players must have been scratching their heads wondering why they weren’t trouncing Hong Kong.

In the second half, Honk Kong had lost two of their regular defenders to injuries, and eventual gold medalist India went on to score six unanswered goals to indeed trounce Hong Kong, a team that would go 0-6-1 and place 15th of 15 teams in Tokyo.

But that was OK. After all, the players from Hong Kong were in one sense, lucky to be in Tokyo at all. Sarinder Dillon was left half on that Hong Kong field hockey team, and recalled in late 1963 that there was an outside chance Hong Kong could make the cut for the Tokyo Olympics, so they had better be ready just in case.

Hong Kong was outside the top 16 before the Olympics. But we were told that there was a good chance that one of two teams might drop out, so the president of the Hong Kong Hockey Association told us that training would start in January and that we should turn out. We thought, “this is a golden opportunity.” Hopefully a team or two would drop out, so we had to get fully fit and develop as players.

In the subsequent months, the field hockey teams from France and Poland would drop from the list, allowing Hong Kong’s field hockey team to qualify. Now it was up to the players. “We were 17 players, almost all of us bankers,” Kader Rahman, who played right half, told me.

I worked for Bank of America, others Hong Kong Bank, for example. And in those days, bankers played field hockey in amateur leagues. But when we realized that we had a chance at the Olympics, we worked at our offices from 9 am to 5pm, then took a bus to King’s Park and played a match every night. On Sundays, we played two matches. It was tough training for ten months, and most of the time, we still had not qualified.

Eventually, the Hong Kong Hockey Association selected 30 players from the various clubs for special training, eventually whittling down the team to 17 – all from different clubs. Due to the international nature of Hong Kong at the time, it was a very multi-cultural team with 7 Portuguese, 3 Indians, 2 Pakistanis, 3 Malays, and an Irishman and a Scot – all Hong Kong permanent residents. “When we walked around the Olympic Village with Hong Kong on the back of our jackets, other athletes were amazed at our team make up,” said Dillon. “We had no Chinese on the team as the few who played in Hong Kong were from the lower divisions. We all spoke English, but would sometimes talk to each other in Chinese. This further amazed the other athletes.”

In addition to the training on top of their day jobs, the members of the field hockey team were tasked with raising funds themselves. The head of the Hong Kong Hockey Association, who doubled as the Olympic squad’s team manager, went to many companies appealing for contributions. In the end, each team member was still required to put up a thousand Hong Kong dollars each of their own money to help pay for airfare, as well as the required fee for board and lodging in the Olympic Village.

Since Dillon was a student, he was asked to pay only 130 Hong Kong dollars, which his school kindly covered. But Dillon could not escape other duties required. In early September, weeks prior to the start of the Tokyo Olympics, the Olympic torch made its way through Asia, coming to Hong Kong via Manila. As Dillon was the youngest HK Olympian, he drew the short straw and got assigned midnight guard duty of the Olympic torch, to ensure its safety before it took off for Taipei the next day.

Hong Kong Field Hockey Team_1964
The Hong Kong Field Hockey Team of 1964; Sarinder Dillon seated on the ground lower left, Kader Rahman standing far right

Like the torch, the Hong Kong team made it to Tokyo, enjoying the awesomeness of a global event decades before television and the internet could bring instantaneous news and images to our homes and hands. Sarinder recalls his amazement at seeing his field hockey heroes from India and Pakistan in the Olympic Village, and naiveté at thinking that the song he repeatedly heard was the Olympic theme, only to learn it was the American national anthem.

But feelings of awe and wonder were often muffled by the reality of the Games. From October 11 to 18, Hong Kong lost their first 6 matches scoring only 2 goals to the oppositions’ 25. Their final match was against Germany, a team made up of East Germans that would eventually place 5th in the Olympic tournament. The German team and fans in the stands were expecting a rout, a shut out, based on Hong Kong’s previous matches.

Hong Kong did not comply. They scored a goal in the first half to lead the mighty Germans 1-0. In fact, they led the Germans throughout the match. With minutes to go, the players on the Hong Kong team could taste victory, a moment all underdogs dream of – a chance to shine on the biggest stage of them all.

“We were playing a blinder, out of our usual selves,” said Rahman. But then, Hong Kong, with a mere two minutes to go, was assessed a penalty resulting in a short corner chance for Germany. And when the ball flew through the air towards the line of Hong Kong players, it somehow hit the shoulder of one of the defenders and deflected into the goal. When the final whistle blew, it was Germany 1 – Hong Kong 1.

And that was the last time a team from Hong Kong, of any sport, participated in the Olympics. “Our team was 100% amateur compared to other countries in 1964 we played,” reflected Rahman. “Our results were not great, but we enjoyed our time. And today, our hockey team remains the only team from Hong Kong to go to the Olympics.”

Ed Caruthers at Santa Ana
Ed Caruthers at Santa Ana College

Still a freshman at Santa Ana College, high jumper Ed Caruthers was headed to the Tokyo Olympics in 1964. Caruthers had always been a football player, and as a pretty good wide receiver/defensive back, he hoped one day to get drafted by an NFL team. Out of football season, Caruthers dabbled in track and field. Strangely, with little effort, Caruthers would win most high jump competitions. In 1964, he told me, he “went to the AAU championships, and lo and behold, I jumped 7 ft 1 inch, and beat John Thomas, which then qualified me for the Olympic trials.”

Even more strangely, Caruthers wasn’t even aware that the Olympics were that year – 1964. He was simply more interested in preparing for the football season that Fall. But when he won the finals in the high jump at the Olympic trials in September, he realized that he wasn’t going to play football for Santa Ana in the coming months, and so did not register for school. As he told me, his track coach was “happy as a lark,” while his football coach had a hole in his team.

So Caruthers the football player, who was an accidental Olympian, took off for Japan in early October, about a week in advance of the Tokyo Olympics opening ceremonies. Caruthers was in good shape when he arrived, but with so much time before his competition, he needed to train. Unfortunately, it was hit or miss if a particular US team had dedicated coaches or not. The high jumpers, according to Caruthers, did not. And for a kid like Caruthers, who a month before wasn’t even aware the Olympics were taking place, a naïve kid who wondered why his teammates would not train with him, was suddenly thrust wide-eyed into the world of super mega-sports spectacle, complete with all the food you can eat.

The high jump competition was in the last two or three days so I was in Tokyo three weeks without competition. I didn’t have any coaching, and I didn’t go up to any coach and ask them either. I’m jumping by myself so I didn’t have that extra thing to push me higher. If John Rambo or John Thomas were out there training with me, I might have had the adrenaline going, wanting to show them. But (even though we were teammates) I was a competitor to them, so we didn’t.

Caruthers was not born of wealth, and was barely eating a bowl of cereal a day when he was a student in junior college. But when he came to Tokyo, and was privy to the bounty of the Olympic Village, he ended up eating eggs, waffles, bacon, cookies, ice cream, and lots of it. “I weighed 190 pounds when I arrived. After two weeks, I weighed 198 pounds. I thought maybe when you go to the other side of the world you gain weight, but no.” He just ate too much.

So prior to the high jump competition, Caruthers stopped eating. For three days, all he consumed was cornflakes, milk and salad. So, no, Caruthers was not feeling as strong as he wanted to at the start of the competition, nor feeling right or ready. As a consequence, Caruthers did not perform as well as he had expected, as he explained to me in detail:

I was getting up really good but I couldn’t tell what I wasn’t doing wrong. People in the stands who saw me jump said “we can’t believe you missed that… all you had to do is step one foot back”. I was about 3 – 4 inches over the bar. My plant wasn’t in the right place but I couldn’t tell. I’m 19 years old. The first jump was easy. But you have to make adjustments in your 2nd or 3rd jumps. At 7 feet everything has to be really refined and precise – there’s less room for error. I needed to make adjustments. After my second attempt I really needed someone to tell me but all I’m doing is I’m trying to run faster because I think I need more effort. I ended up jumping only 6-10 and a quarter.

Caruthers finished in eighth place. He sat on the bench and watched the others compete to the finish. Valeriy Brumel of the Soviet Union and John Thomas both jumped 2.16 meters, but could not go beyond that. Brumel took gold on fewer misses, Thomas silver and Rambo bronze. Caruthers thought, “damn, there are two guys on the medal stand I’ve beaten this year. There’s no reason I shouldn’t be on that stand.” He thought about the opening ceremonies, being together with thousands of athletes, all the flags of the world flapping around him, and “I’m right there in the middle of it. I am with the best athletes in the world.” He realized at his darkest moment that finishing eighth was not good enough, that his attitude and focus were inadequate, and that he wanted, needed to redeem himself in Mexico City four years later.

When Caruthers returned home to California, he was determined to focus more on track than on football. He was offered scholarships to play at USC or UCLA, but he picked the University of Arizona because it was 500 miles away from home, and from all the distractions of his friends and neighborhood. And he also wanted to make sure that he got his degree, and sought help from the university to ensure that he did well with his grades and graduated.

That’s what Tokyo did for me. Prior to that I only cared about two weeks from now. After Tokyo, my attitude was the difference between night and day. Training. Confidence. Everything. I knew what I was in school for. I had a schedule. I built up my strength. I refined my technique. I worked it so that I knew exactly what I should be doing to jump my best height.

In 1967, there was no better high jumper in the world than Ed Caruthers. He was primed for gold in Mexico City. He was determined. Nothing was to get in the way of his goal – to erase the memory of his poor performance in Tokyo. Nothing.

Nothing….except the Flop.