The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

They were the first Redskins to play in the Super Bowl. Decades later, they’re paying the price.

Clockwise from top, former Redskins Paul Laaveg, Ray Schoenke and Larry Brown all played on the 1973 Super Bowl team. (John McDonnell/The Washington Post)

Football fans of a certain age will remember the Super Bowl VII matchup between George Allen's Redskins and Don Shula's Dolphins in 1973. Miami became — and remains — the only team in National Football League history to finish the regular season and the postseason undefeated. Yet Washington, making its first-ever Super Bowl appearance, and playing in its first NFL championship game since 1945, was slightly favored to win.

That game was the hottest in Super Bowl history (it was 84 degrees in Los Angeles that afternoon). It is also the lowest-scoring. Washington held Miami to two touchdowns, shutting out the Dolphins in the second half. But Washington's offense never could score, and the Redskins' only touchdown came on a fluky fumble recovery after a blocked field goal in the fourth quarter that is still recalled as one of the more bizarre plays in Super Bowl annals. Miami won 14-7 — and finished the season 17-0.

Forty-five years later, Super Bowl VII is ranked among the most important games for both franchises. For Washington defensive end Ron McDole and many of his teammates, it represented the ultimate achievement of their playing careers. But McDole, now 79, has a difficult time recalling details from that day. "I can't remember a lot of things," he said in a telephone interview from his home in Middletown, Va.

Back then, he weighed 265 pounds and was known as "The Dancing Bear," because his fancy footwork made him uncannily adept at blocking field goals and extra points. Today, he's dealing with the symptoms of neurodegenerative disease, quite possibly a result of his 15 years as a professional athlete playing one of America's most violent pastimes.

I caught up with McDole and others from that team in the weeks leading up to this year's Super Bowl, because I wondered how they were doing, physically and mentally, particularly in light of all the research linking concussions and head trauma to serious neurological problems. I feel connected to the players from that era, because 1972 was my first year covering professional football for The Washington Post, and I took over the Redskins beat starting in '73. Looking back at the coverage, hard hits and physical injuries were always part of the story. But it wasn't until 1994 that the NFL created a Mild Traumatic Brain Injury Committee. It wasn't until 2002 that forensic pathologist Bennet Omalu identified chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE), a degenerative brain disease, in a former NFL player — and it took many years after that for the significance of Omalu's findings to take hold.

I was curious to hear from these former Washington players. Knowing what they know now — that the NFL has conceded it expects almost a third of its retired players to develop cognitive problems at "notably younger ages" than the rest of the population, that Boston University researchers have found CTE in 99 percent of the brains from deceased NFL players that they have studied, that Miami's 1972 quarterback Earl Morrall had Stage 4 CTE when he died in 2014 — do they have any regrets or second thoughts about playing the game at its highest level? And how do they feel about the modern game that's far more complicated, and arguably more brutal, than the sport they played nearly a ­half-century ago?

Most of the surviving players from the '72 Redskins are now in their 70s and 80s. (Allen's team was known as the "Over the Hill Gang ," because he'd traded away virtually all his draft choices to acquire older, experienced veterans, many in their 30s and on the downhill side of their careers.) A good number have stayed in the Washington area, where their names remain familiar and they can make appearances at sports banquets, celebrity golf tournaments and Christmas parades. None of the players I tracked down reported the sort of judgment or impulse-control issues that can be a sign of CTE. And among those with memory loss, none could say for certain that it was football-related, since CTE can be confirmed only by an autopsy. All the same, these players — who performed in an era when the average Redskins salary was about $35,000 a year, or $205,000 in today's dollars — have paid a staggering price for their still-flickering fame.

Ray Schoenke

An offensive lineman who played in Washington 10 out of his 12 years in the NFL, Ray Schoenke was known in the locker room as "the Mummy" because of the endless yards of athletic tape he used to hold himself together for practices and games. Now 77, he's had five surgeries, including two knee replacements, plus countless dislocated fingers and a separated rib cage that eventually healed on their own.

Schoenke says that cognitively, he has no problems. He says he had only one concussion, in college at Southern Methodist University. "But I'm assuming I'll have CTE," he says. "It's just a matter of time." Schoenke explains: "When I played, I used my head as a battering ram to gain an advantage. I'd hit the guy under the chin strap with my head. It was like using a sledgehammer. You'd jack them up and sometimes put them on their backs. When you hit them like that, they knew you could do it again, so maybe they didn't come at you quite as hard. I did that my entire career." He cringes today when he watches those super-slow-motion TV replays of players colliding helmet-to-helmet.

Schoenke vividly remembers the '72 season — and being "very, very angry" all year. He was demoted early on to a reserve role for reasons, he says, that had less to do with his play than with his politics. Schoenke was an active Democrat and the national chairman of Athletes for McGovern in 1972. Coach George Allen, meanwhile, was a friend and supporter of President Richard Nixon — a huge football fan and an alum of Whittier College, where Allen had coached in the 1950s. Nixon attended many Redskins practices. Allen, privately dubbed "Nixon with a whistle" by several snarky sportswriters, even once ran a double-reverse pass play that, at least by some accounts, was suggested by the president. (The play backfired, resulting in a 13-yard loss.)

Early in the fall of '72, Schoenke and his coach ended up in an argument about the president. "Allen told me I was being disloyal," Schoenke recalls. "I started screaming at him. I told him I had more loyalty in my little finger than any other guy out there, and I told him to cut me." Schoenke saw action that season and in the playoffs as a fill-in for injured starters, but in the Super Bowl, he was on the field for only a few plays.

Schoenke, who lives in Montgomery County, Md., went on to build a lucrative insurance business. In 1998, he spent more than $2 million of his own money in an unsuccessful attempt to become the Democratic nominee in the Maryland governor's race. He still follows politics but, as with football, mostly from afar.

Paul Laaveg

An offensive guard who played for six seasons, Paul Laaveg is the teammate who took over the starting position from Schoenke in 1972. He was a fine run blocker on a team that preferred to keep the ball on the ground whenever possible, while using its rushing attack to help set up a highly effective short passing game directed by quarterback Billy Kilmer.

As with Schoenke, Laaveg's mind is doing better than his body these days. "I know my memory is not what it used to be," Laaveg, 69, says from his home near Purcellville, Va., adding that he attributes minor lapses to aging. Physically, though, football has taken a toll. Laaveg says he's had nine surgeries since he retired — three knee, two shoulder, one back, one hernia, one ankle and a hip replacement — all of them related to football and not the home-building business he ran post-NFL. "I've also had pretty serious problems with my neck," he says. "Scale of 1 to 10, the pain is about 7. I just had a cortisone shot a few weeks ago for my back, which isn't that good, either. That affects my balance, and my legs are as weak as they've ever been."

And yet he says he doesn't have regrets. "Here's how I look it at," he says. "I'm a kid from Iowa, the son of a Lutheran minister who grew up in a town of 2,000. I ended up playing at the University of Iowa, and then I got drafted by the Redskins in the fourth round, their second pick. Who drafted me? Vince Lombardi. My rookie year, we're going to New York to play the Jets. I'm on the team plane looking out the window as we're flying over the city and thinking to myself: 'Look at all those buildings and all those people who live in them. I bet there's not one person down there who could do the job that I do.' For me, I always considered it a real privilege to play. I felt blessed. I still do."

Laaveg says he's astounded by the size of players today in the NFL, where the average offensive lineman is 6-foot-5 and 310 pounds. "I was 245 pounds when I came into the league and 265 when I retired, and we only had two or three guys in the whole league who weighed 300 pounds," he says.

He's also struck by rising injury reports. "We had guys get hurt, sure, but we practiced differently, and you got used to live hitting during the week. You had to strap it on all the time. Full contact. I had to go up against [defensive tackle] Diron Talbert every day in practice. He was just a wicked pass rusher, and he made me a better player, made me ready to play on Sunday."

Pat Fischer

When cornerback Pat Fischer retired in 1978, I wrote that he was probably the most popular Redskins player, especially among kids: "Maybe it was that little-boy face, that impish grin, or the itty-bitty body that withstood 17 years of pressure and pounding at one of the toughest positions."

Known as "the Mouse," Fischer was listed in the team's media guide as 5-foot-9 and 170 pounds, both exaggerations on the high side. But he managed to prevail over giants. He was a master of the "bump-and-run" technique, when defensive players were allowed to bump receivers at the line of scrimmage and take them out of their normal patterns. He also claimed 56 interceptions.

In 1972, after hurting a disk that would require back surgery, Fischer told a Post columnist, "The days of glory are all too short, and the football hero finds out that once he takes off the uniform for the last time, he's another 'ex' and there are too many of those around."

In 2000, when Fischer spoke to a Post reporter, his major complaint was about the arthritis in his hands. But in 2011, when he went to the Hall of Fame induction ceremony for his teammate Chris Hanburger, it was clear he wasn't himself. Bubba Tyer, a former team trainer, drove him to Johns Hopkins for cognitive testing. The diagnosis: dementia.

Now 78, Fischer resides in a Northern Virginia assisted-living facility. The NFL pays the bills as a result of the 2013 concussion settlement that provides up to $5 million each to players with dementia, Parkinson's and other neurological conditions. "In a lot of ways, he's still got the same old mischievous Pat personality," says Tyer, who visits three or four times a week, taking Fischer out for meals and the occasional round of golf. "He'll kid and tease the people who are living there — he's still engaging. But five minutes later, he doesn't remember what he just did." Caregivers have to remind him when to brush his teeth, take a shower and change his clothes.

Ron McDole

Ron McDole, who played with Fischer on three teams (the University of Nebraska, the St. Louis Cardinals and the Redskins) and even partnered with him on some business ventures after they left the game, is fully aware that he and his old friend now have something else in common. "You wish someone had known about it back then," McDole says, referring to CTE. "But nobody knew. You never even considered it. You just played."

That "Dancing Bear" moniker was given to him one night by Sonny Jurgensen when the Hall of Fame quarterback saw McDole high-stepping on the dance floor of a Georgetown bar. Clearly, though, it fit him perfectly. McDole still holds the record for interceptions — 12 in all — by a defensive lineman.

Although his recollection of that long-ago Super Bowl is hazy, he says he can still see Washington tight end Jerry Smith wide open in the end zone in the fourth quarter, and a pass thrown in Smith's direction by quarterback Kilmer hitting the crossbar of the goal post and falling incomplete. Back then, the goal posts were placed on the goal line, not at the back of the end zone. "It might have made a difference," McDole says of that missed opportunity. "But Miami was good. They deserved it."

He says he doesn't watch pro football much these days, "because I don't understand the game anymore. Guys are coming in and out all the time. Everyone weighs 300 pounds. They move people all around the field before they even snap the ball. Hell, I wouldn't even know where to line up anymore."

McDole is further turned off by some of the changes in the style of play. "I hate all the celebrating," he says. "Hey, act like you've been there before. You think Sonny would dance around after a play?"

Larry Brown

At 5-foot-11 and 195 pounds, Larry Brown was considered one of the most punishing running backs of his era, a man who gained 5,875 yards in an eight-year career. In the Redskins' '72 Super Bowl season, he was named the NFL's most valuable player and the offensive player of the year.

Yet, by the end of his career, Brown spent more time in the training room than on the field because of two bad knees. In an interview with The Post in 2000, he said the first five years after he retired from football were extremely difficult. "I couldn't walk a block without taking a taxi," he said, adding that he eventually was able to walk a mile or so most days, on grass instead of less-forgiving concrete when possible. On the golf course, he said, he tried not to twist his body any more than what seemed comfortable, preferring less distance and more crooked shots to the painful alternative. "When you turn 50," he said at the time, "those are the new rules."

Brown, now 70, works in commercial real estate and lives in the Potomac, Md., home he purchased in the early 1970s. "I still watch the game," he says. "These guys are so much bigger, faster, more agile than we might have been, and that's a plus for the game."

And a minus? "I think there are more injuries now because they're not in game shape. In practice, we used to hit a couple of times a week. From what I'm told, they don't hit much anymore during the week. The only time you get hit is in the game, and maybe that's part of it."

Brown, who's had both those knees replaced, doesn't recall any concussions during his pro career and says he tries not to think about the prospect of CTE. "If it happens, it happens," he says. "If I'd known back then what I know now, would I have still played? The answer is yes, definitely. If I had a son, I'd let him play, too."

Rusty Tillman

A reserve linebacker on that '72 team, Rusty Tillman was the captain and "King" of the Redskins special teams. He made his reputation as a "wedge buster." His job: morph into a sprinting human bowling ball and knock down as many opposition blockers in front of the return man as possible, the better for a teammate to make the tackle. After each game, he once said, it felt as if he'd been in five car wrecks.

Tillman, who also had a long career as an NFL assistant coach, now lives in Flagstaff, Ariz., and goes to Phoenix for regular medical testing. Like so many other former players, he's not sure whether his memory lapses are just an indication that he's getting older or a sign of CTE. "I had 22 concussions with the Redskins," says Tillman, 71. "I forget things a lot, to tell you the truth. I don't know how I couldn't have it."

Tillman is among the former players who were plaintiffs in the class-action lawsuit against the NFL that resulted in the 2013 settlement. He says he has no gripe with his old team, with league owners or the NFL commissioner's office, even if they did not take the concussion issue seriously for far too many years. "If you got knocked out, they'd give you smelling salts," Tillman says. "They'd hold up four fingers, and if you got to two, you'd go back in. That's just how it was."

When I interviewed him in 1976, Tillman told me the health risks were worth it. "What good is it to be in good health when you're 60 if you didn't do what you wanted to do when you were a young man?" he said. "If, when I get to be older and maybe I do have all these things wrong with me, well, that's part of the price I paid for doing what I wanted to do."

So, does he stand by that thinking? "Absolutely," he says. "It was a great time in my life."

He sees the game today as quite different from the one he played. "I always thought the toughest guys on the field were the wide receivers, because they'd go across the middle, catch the ball and get the crap beaten out of them," Tillman says. "That doesn't happen as much now. They're a little more protected, and there's too much pass interference. Let 'em play. The quarterbacks now are really protected, and that wasn't the case back then."

Tillman also sees a different level of tolerance for injuries and illness. "When you were hurt back then, you didn't always come out of the game. If you did, you might lose your job. They get hurt now, they come out. Guys miss practice with a cold or the flu. I never missed a day. When I was coaching in Seattle, I was out there for a game with walking pneumonia. That's just the way you did it."

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