Jeff Stover on the dangers of football

After ‘27 or 28’ surgeries, 49er great still loves the game

Jeff Stover stands before a trophy case, prominently displayed in the foyer of his Chico Sports Club, containing memorabilia from his eight years as a San Francisco 49er.

Jeff Stover stands before a trophy case, prominently displayed in the foyer of his Chico Sports Club, containing memorabilia from his eight years as a San Francisco 49er.

photo by robert speer

Jeff Stover has had so many surgeries on his knees he doesn’t know the exact number—“27 or 28, something like that,” he said during a recent interview at his business, Chico Sports Club. After all those operations, he’s opted for a new manufactured knee in one leg and plans to get another sometime soon.

Among retired professional football players, he’s fairly typical. Football is a violent sport that exacts a sometimes terrible cost from players. Several have ended up paralyzed. Most have leg problems.

As a result of his eight years as a defensive lineman for the San Francisco 49ers in the 1980s, Stover doesn’t get around as easily as he once did, and he knows it won’t get any better as he ages.

Does he have any regrets? Not at all. “I’d go back and do it again,” he said. “I loved the game, I loved going out and playing in front of the fans, and it’s given me a way to give back to the community.” He wears his two Super Bowl rings proudly.

But he also knows that football has gotten more dangerous since he played. “The players are faster, they’re stronger, they’re bigger, and their bodies are highly tuned from year-round workouts and diet regimens managed by professional trainers. We ate steak; they don’t eat steak.”

And the style of play has changed. The players are more specialized, with specific skill sets and body types, and their fatigue is reduced. The game is more open, a quality that can be traced back to Stover’s coach, Bill Walsh, and his fabled West Coast offense. As a result, the defensive secondary has expanded in size to accommodate the increased use of receivers, which means players have more opportunity to build up speed before they collide. And sometimes they collide with devastating force.

It’s “smash-mouth football” on the line and open-field collisions elsewhere.

The league has taken steps to decrease the danger. Plays are called dead much faster—as soon as the ball carrier’s knee touches the ground—lessening the number of pile-ons that lead to injuries. And quarterbacks are more protected than ever.

“I had a step and a half,” Stover said, meaning that if he was that close to the QB, he could tackle, even if his target had gotten rid of the ball. Today there’s far less cushion, which makes it harder for the defensive linemen, who must second-guess themselves before attempting a sack.

Until recently, the injuries coaches and players worried most about involved the legs, especially the knees, an extremely vulnerable part of the body. Now worry has shifted to the head.

Thanks to more than 100 stories in The New York Times by Alan Schwartz detailing the cumulative effects of concussions and sub-concussions on NFL players, the league realizes that a growing number of retired players are coming down early in life with an Alzheimer’s-like condition called chronic traumatic encephalopathy, or CTE.

Analyzing the data, Schwartz determined that retired NFL players are five to 19 times as likely to receive dementia-related diagnoses as nonplayers because of impacts to the head.

The danger of concussions was in the news earlier this year when Chico’s Aaron Rodgers, the Packers quarterback, was forced to sit out a game following his second concussion of the year.

“They’re being a lot more careful,” Stover said. He himself suffered a couple of serious concussions, times when he lost memory and awareness of where he was. After a week out of practice because of post-concussion headaches, the other players were teasing him, calling him a sissy for letting a little headache stop him. But when he suited up and went out on the field, the trainers ran out and pulled him back—fortunately, he now acknowledges.

One change Stover thinks might be worth trying is to eliminate linemen’s three-point stance. It’s a position designed to enable them to explode forward, head first, into the opposing player. If they were required to stand in a crouch, as players did in the earliest days of the game, the impact would be less intense.

“I would have liked that back when I played,” he said. “We were hitting head to head. We were down in the trenches.”

But he doesn’t support letting up in practice, as some have suggested. It’s estimated that the incidence of CTE could be reduced by as much as 50 percent if contact in practice were reduced. But, “If you let up in practice, what does it do to the game?” Stover asked.

Ultimately, he said, football is what it is. As with a number of sports, from boxing to hockey, violence is part of its beauty and appeal. Players know the risks.

“For me, football is like any other job. If you love it, why not do it?”