CHICAGO – Football breaks bodies, not just bones, more than most of us want to remember. Play stops for a few moments, the crowd goes silent and prayers follow the loaded-up cart rumbling off the field. Some of those players never climb down or walk again. “Think of your own son being paralyzed, with no insurance, and what that would do to your family, your job, your whole life,” said Bears coach Lovie Smith, who’s been instrumental with both his time and money in helping Grossnickle’s “Halftime Book Project” reach a wider audience. “It’s something we all live in fear of, but until you see it, or deal with it,” Smith added, “it doesn’t really hit home. And as good as football has been to a lot of us, it’s time to do a lot more. Especially at the grass-roots level.” Progress has been slow, but signs the game is coming to grips with that shameful part of its legacy are scattered throughout recent headlines. All during Super Bowl week, Mike Ditka lobbied poignantly on behalf of broken-down, destitute former players too proud to beg for the medical benefits they deserve for helping build the game. Just Wednesday, former Green Bay Packers great Jerry Kramer announced that donations and an auction he put together to assist some of those same pros brought in $125,000, including $12,200 for a ring Ditka put on the block. But none of those funds will trickle down to where Grossnickle and the young men he helps are struggling. And while raising money is a short-term goal – to help families deal with the trauma and cost of a catastrophic injury; to make sure high school coaches, referees and school officials are more knowledgeable and better prepared about how to avert them in the first place – Grossnickle has something grander in mind. What he envisions is a “high school warrior alliance,” a national clearinghouse that provides not just information and resources, but counselors in the form of kids who have been paralyzed themselves. That way, he explains, it’s not just help, but self-help. “Fortunately, it doesn’t happen to a lot of kids, but it’s a byproduct of the game we all still love, and these kids need and deserve a reason to get up in the morning, too,” he said. “At some point, football has to step up and say, `We take care of our own.”‘ In Grossnickle’s case, that happened shortly after he heard the story of Rob Komosa, who was paralyzed while playing on the scout team in practice at a nearby high school, then spent months trapped in his bedroom while his parents, Polish immigrants who spoke little English, tried to cope with medical and financial problems overwhelming them. Grossnickle began by helping widen the door frame in Rob’s bedroom. Next, he helped build a ramp at the front door, and then started in on the paperwork. Eventually, it consumed so much time that Grossnickle resigned his job as an assistant principal – “I’m lucky,” he recalled, “I’m old enough, with enough put away to do this” – and made it a full-time cause. In no time, other paralyzed high school athletes started finding him. So Grossnickle talked former Bears coach Dick Jauron and the late Randy Walker, Northwestern’s football coach at the time, into helping out. When Smith replaced Jauron with the Bears, and Pat Fitzgerald picked up the mantle at Northwestern after Walker’s sudden death, those organizations’ bonds to the “Halftime Book Project” got even stronger. “We need to remember the opportunity the game gave us,” said Fitzgerald, one of the speakers at the banquet. “This gives us an opportunity to give something back to those in need.” Bears community relations director Caroline Guip plans to bring the “Halftime Book Project” to the attention of the league at business meetings in the spring and propose each team in the league explore setting up a similar initiative in their towns. Grossnickle has found only one other project up and running, in Texas, where Eddie Canales started out looking after his son, Chris, who was paralyzed in a high school game, and now ministers more than a dozen kids. “We could both use some help,” Grossnickle said. It could be on the way. At most football banquets, from Pee Wee leagues on up to the NFL, some awards or scholarships are handed out, a few people speak and the luminaries in the crowd take a bow. All of that happened Thursday night in Chicago, too. But somewhere in the middle, after Grossnickle passed out copies of an inspirational book he self-published to raise money for the project and told the stories of the kids in the wheelchairs surrounding him, the game took an important first step. It’s not enough to just look at these kids and say, “`There but for the grace of God go I.’ What we’re asking people in football to do is help us pull together a safety net,” he said, “because nobody knows when they’re going to fall.” 160Want local news?Sign up for the Localist and stay informed Something went wrong. Please try again.subscribeCongratulations! You’re all set!
It happens rarely in the NFL – on average, only once every four years – but 10 times a year in high school games across the country. Worse still, we forget about nearly all of those soon enough. That’s what made a football banquet being thrown Thursday night by the Chicago chapter of the American Football Foundation so different. Thanks to tireless campaigning by a retired high school administrator named Don Grossnickle, and a little help from some high-profile friends, a handful of former players in wheelchairs were invited to tell comeback stories nobody in the audience will ever forget.