In the auditorium, Ray Farmer, a former player who is now an assistant general manager of the Cleveland Browns, stepped to the front of the room to deliver a sobering message to Kyle and his fellow rookies.
“All of you are in the process of being replaced,” he said. “Right now, the clock is ticking. For some of you quicker than others.”
‘Don’t be football players’
Be boat builders, the father told his three boys, or play the piano. Secretly he thought, don’t be football players.
At first none of the Long sons showed much interest. Christopher (born in 1985), Kyle (1988) and Howard Jr. (1990) were too small during Howie’s prime to understand what he did for a living, and Diane rarely took them to the stadium; they were happier fishing in a pond.
Then the oldest, Chris, came home from high school and announced he wanted to play. That night Howie and Diane lay in bed murmuring their concerns to each other. Maybe he wouldn’t like it, Howie said. “He’ll get his nose bloodied, and he’ll come home and not want to play anymore.” But Chris didn’t get his nose bloodied; instead he got a scholarship to play defensive end at Virginia. Next Kyle and Howie Jr. were wearing high school uniforms, Howie Jr. as a quarterback and Kyle as an offensive lineman.
For Howie, football had been a desperate necessity, but he wasn’t sure he wanted the next generation of Longs to make it their livelihood. He was a poor kid from the Charlestown section of Boston, son of a milk loader, raised by an assortment of tough, blue-collar uncles. He had done shifts longshoring to make extra cash and was headed to vocational school until football had given him a Villanova education and a better living than his laboring uncles. The NFL not only had supported him until he retired in 1993, it had opened other doors as an actor, corporate pitchman and Fox Sports studio analyst. All of which afforded his family comfort and meant his sons didn’t need the game for socioeconomic improvement, didn’t need to sacrifice chunks out of their necks, back, shoulders and legs to rise in the world.
In the NFL Howie played in, his body wasn’t his own; it was a highly perishable commodity. In training camp he went through grueling, twice-a-day practices Mondays through Thursdays, and if you passed out it meant you weren’t tough. “Water was for wussies,” he says. He practiced five days a week in full gear, and every drill and every snap was all-out.
When he got hurt, doctors simply drained the ailing joint with a needle. They never showed him his medical records or gave him an option. “It was shocking what the training room was like and the things the team tried to explain away as something minor when it was potentially not,” Diane says.