Roger Goodell at Super Bowl XLVII. (Charlie Riedel / AP) Roger Goodell at Super Bowl XLVII. (Charlie Riedel / AP)

In the lengthy profile of NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell in ESPN the Magazine, one passage in particular has gotten a considerable amount of attention.

Don Van Natta Jr., citing an unnamed source in “His Game, His Rules,” wrote that Goodell’s biggest fear is that player will die on the field during a game.

Greg Aiello, the NFL’s spokesman, disputed that.

“I don’t know anyone who’s ever heard him say that,” Aiello told Gary Myers of the New York Daily News. “I’ve worked closely with him for 24 years and have never heard him say such a thing. Beware of anonymous sources.”

Van Natta writes that Theodore Roosevelt stepped in when a number of players died playing the game early last century:

As part of his mission, Goodell often tells audiences a favorite story: More than a century ago, before there was an NFL, President Theodore Roosevelt saved football with the blunt force of his visionary leadership. In 1904, 18 student-athletes died playing the game, mostly from skull fractures. A devout fan, Roosevelt convened the coaches from Harvard, Yale and Princeton to a White House meeting. The innovations that were adopted — the forward pass, the founding of the NCAA — helped propel an endangered game into the modern era.

The history lesson not only places Goodell in Roosevelt’s shoes and the current worries about player safety into a historical context, it also portends one of his greatest fears: An NFL player is going to die on the field.

It’s happened only once. Lions wide receiver Chuck Hughes died of a heart attack late in a game on Oct. 24, 1971. Within the past year, Goodell has told friends privately that he believes if the game’s hard-knocks culture doesn’t change, it could happen again. “He’s terrified of it,” says a Hall of Fame player who speaks regularly with Goodell. “It wouldn’t just be a tragedy. It would be awfully bad for business.”

Goodell has increasingly emphasized safety over the last few years and now over 4,000 former players are suing the league over the issue of concussions. Perhaps he’ll clarify that report in his remarks today on the safety of the game at the University of North Carolina. In the meantime, fans and players have criticized Goodell for the power he wields…which isn’t likely to be helped by this new Sports Illustrated cover.

Follow @CindyBoren on Twitter and on Facebook.

After spending most of her career in traditional print sports journalism, Cindy began blogging and tweeting, first as NFL/Redskins editor, and, since August 2010, at The Early Lead. She also is the social media editor for Sports.