I recently played golf with John Hilton. He became a bit of a local legend in the late 1950s and early 1960s.
A Hermitage High School product, John made all-state in basketball and football; set a school record in the mile run; and won a junior golf championship. Urban legend identified him as the toughest man around town.
He played football for the University of Richmond, the Pittsburgh Steelers, the Green Bay Packers, the Detroit Lions, the Minnesota Vikings and the Washington Redskins. A great tight end, he ended his NFL career coaching with the Redskins. He is a member of the Virginia Sports Hall of Fame. So a day of golf with John would be special.
I played with John a few years ago. In his late 60s then, he played far better than any of our contemporaries. A great overall game combined with an intense competitive spirit made him quite a partner in a Captain's Choice tournament.
This time out, we played on a miserably hot day, so I timed my arrival just before the tournament began.
From time-to-time, I heard about John's declining health. "Health" doesn't really describe John's problems, though. His issues come from the concussion syndrome defined somewhat loosely as chronic traumatic encephalopathy, or CTE, that plagues more and more former NFL players.
When I arrived, I immediately saw Hilton. He looked the same, came over, shook my hand and gave me a little hug. I noticed a young woman standing with John. He turned to her and said, "Joey, I want you to meet my caregiver, Stacie." John Hilton with a caregiver? I couldn't believe it.
We had a foursome and then John and Stacie in the cart behind us. On the first tee after everyone in the foursome teed off, Hilton hit. Memories of his long, booming drives flashed through my head as he approached the ball. His first drive went about 20 yards to the right as it skittered off the end of the club. That typified his whole round.
The more I talked with Hilton, the more I realized that not just his motor skills suffered. The John Hilton I knew no longer resided inside this large, athletic man.
As a football fan, I follow the CTE controversy from afar, and those harmed by it — Junior Seau, David Duerson and, even though I knew him, Richmond's Ray Easterling — were just names. Like many fans, I looked at CTE as an assumption of risk by people who play.
As an old coach, I know the physical aspects of football play a big part in the game. I now understand better the complaints coming from the retired NFL players about the care and treatment of concussions.
Playing golf with Hilton brought home that more needs to be done to protect the players. John played professional football in the 1960s and 1970s, when many pro football players played a part-time game. Most of them held off-season jobs out of football.
The defensive tackles weighed 250 pounds and the linebackers 210. Now players train year-round. Linemen weigh 300-plus pounds, and linebackers weigh 250. Today's players run faster and are stronger than anything seen back in the 1960s and 1970s. You can multiply by whatever number you want the dangers facing the pro players today compared to Hilton's era.
Outlaw football? Certainly not. But the NFL needs to take care of these players. Indeed, all the way down to little league, more steps must be taken to protect the players and to treat the damage suffered from head injuries.
Hilton's wife, Penny, carries a tremendous burden. She works every day at a job outside their home and takes care of John. She appreciates all that the NFL does for him. She also sees every day the need to protect players from the cumulative effects of these injuries. She has read this column to him.
All in all, it was a great day playing golf. Hilton made it through only nine holes. He seemed happy, but tired. I decided after about six holes that I would think of my earlier rounds of golf with him. That was the John Hilton I prefer to remember.
I want the football powers to know about my recent round, though. More needs to be done to protect the Hiltons of the world. If you don't believe me, play golf with John Hilton.