No one questioned Earl Morrall’s ability as a communicator, but if they had, there were 10 witnesses who could have testified he knew what to say and how to say it.
“Come on, let’s keep it going,” was the concise but necessary lift Morrall gave in the Dolphins’ huddle seconds after starting quarterback Bob Griese broke his ankle early in the 1972 season. Few in South Florida need reminding that all that happened next was the most significant accomplishment in the region’s sports history: 17-0.
So it didn’t take a doctor’s diagnosis for Earl’s son, Matt, to know something was very wrong with his father the past handful of years.
“He would always be reaching for a word,” Matt said.
Too often, that word — unlike an Earl Morrall pass — was just out of reach. It became a struggle for Earl and it became a struggle for his family to experience a downward spiral Matt labeled “horrific.”
Earl Morrall died last April at 79, 42 years to the day after he was acquired by the Dolphins in what must be considered the best value they ever received on $90,000.
The heroics Earl is remembered for — for keeping The Perfect Season going — are in stark contrast to his final years, which included a variety of serious ailments including Parkinson’s. Last week, Matt added to the list, confirming that his father had CTE, the brain condition detected in countless other former pro football players.
“Dad deteriorated pretty badly the last couple of years of his life,” Matt said. “It was a dramatic changeover . He’d always been very athletic and outgoing, and as part of the process, he went from about 235-240 pounds to about 158 pounds. He had difficulty swallowing, difficulty communicating and talking. He was wheelchair-bound probably the last three to six months of his life.
“It was obviously horrific to watch.”
Morrall’s brain was examined by researchers at Boston University who have been at the forefront of studies on CTE, chronic traumatic encephalopathy. Matt said he suspected something along those lines before CTE became well known. He saw it happen to many of his father’s former teammates, including John Mackey, whose health struggles before his death shaped the NFL’s nursing-care benefits for former players.
“It seemed to be a recurring theme,” Matt said, adding that as far back as in his father’s late 50s and early 60s, there were times “he did not act how he normally would.”
It’s a price players of that era didn’t know existed but has come to light in the current Will Smith film Concussion, about Dr. Bennet Omalu. Even knowing what he knows now, Matt said, “I don’t know that Dad would have traded any of that because he loved playing football and he loved his teammates. But it’s an issue that has to be considered.”
If Earl wouldn’t trade it, what about his family?
“It’s a difficult choice,” said Matt, a Fort Lauderdale lawyer who played at the University of Florida. Part of him that wishes his father gravitated toward baseball since he was talented in that sport, too.
Matt hopes his father’s health issues provide information for athletes and their families weighing risk vs. reward.
“I’d like everybody to understand their kids don’t need to play tackle football as early as possible — not until the seventh or eighth grade,” he said. “At least that’s one of the ways to limit some of this. If they do learn to play, and if they play at a young age, they do need to learn how to tackle.”
Matt doesn’t know how many concussions his father suffered and said that’s not the point.
“It’s really talking about direct blows to the head that create certain damage to the brain,” he said. “If you look at a perfect example of this, and what has changed since Dad played, one of the highlight films shows him scrambling out of the pocket. The first blow comes while going back to pass. One of the defensive linemen reached out and delivered a head slap.
“He spun out of that and he scrambled to the sideline and got horse-collared. He was about a yard out of bounds and someone came in and had helmet-to-helmet contact as he was going down.
“Dad dropped the ball on the ground, shook his head and went back in the huddle. That’s what happened in that era.”
by Hal Habib firstname.lastname@example.org Twitter: @gunnerhal
Permission to repost from the Palm Beach Post.