If civic-minded Giants hero Harry Carson could do it all over again, he wouldn't
About twenty-five years ago, minutes before kickoff of Super Bowl XXI between the Denver Broncos and New York Giants, five members of the Broncos walked out to midfield for the pregame coin toss. Only one Giant did the same.
Harry Carson was 33 years old at that point, a team captain and 11-year veteran. The idea to send him out alone belonged to the Giants' coach, Bill Parcells. It was one of his little psychological games: One of our guys equals five of your guys.
Carson was used to standing alone, anyway. During the early part of his career, the Giants teams he played on were putrid. He had been a beacon of talent and dignity when the once-proud franchise couldn’t get out of its own way. On the field, as the inside linebacker, he would have to stand his ground in the chaotic scrum of the play while enemy blockers hurtled toward him.
He looked the part of a football player. He was 6-foot-2, with a classic athlete’s build: broad shoulders, accentuated by his boxy shoulder pads, that tapered down to a thin waist. His dark face, distinguished by his sharp jaw and high cheekbones, was smeared with eye black, and hidden behind the full-cage facemask that was near-universal among linebackers in the 1980s. In the late afternoon light of Southern California’s Rose Bowl, he was the picture of a padded-up warrior leading his troops into battle.
Carson lost the coin toss—he always did, the running joke around the Giants' locker room went. But the Giants handily won the game, and Carson took his place in the pantheon of Giants legends: captain, champion and, as of 2006, Pro Football Hall of Famer.
I SPENT A DAY WITH CARSON IN SEPTEMBER AT HIS HOME in bucolic, well-to-do Franklin Lakes, N.J.. He lives in a spacious center-column brick colonial house, around the corner and up the street from Phil Simms, the quarterback of the 1986 team and now a prominent football analyst. Carson is in excellent physical shape, a shade over his playing weight of 237 pounds. He greeted me warmly, and we chatted for several hours.
This was before it was reported, earlier this month, that Carson was considering running for Congress in Northern New Jersey’s 5th Congressional district, which includes most of Sussex County along with parts of Bergen, Passaic, and Warren. The incumbent is Republican Scott Garrett, one of the most conservative members of the New Jersey delegation, who has amassed ratings of 100 from the American Conservative Union throughout his career.
The news came as no surprise to me, not only because Carson possesses so many of the attributes of a natural-born leader, but because he's so clearly unsatisfied with the customary lot of a retired football hero. He believes he can do a lot of public good, and he is restless.
He had just published a memoir called Captain for Life. He gravitated to the captain role with the Giants, and is fondly remembered as the wizened Papa Bear of the ’86 team.
Since he retired, he has been one of the most visible advocates for health benefits for former players, and for raising awareness about football’s concussion crisis—an issue that hits home for him because of the post-concussion syndrome he has lived with for two decades. When he got elected to the Hall of Fame in 2006, Carson turned his induction speech into a message about what he sees as the N.F.L.’s negligent treatment of its former players.
I asked him about his solo walk to midfield before the Super Bowl.
“As I'm walking out, I realize, ‘Damn, I’m representing the whole organization," he told me. "I’m representing all Giant fans. I’m one person, and I’m representing everyone."
“All the guys [in college] at South Carolina State, all the guys in high school, all the guys at the Florence [S.C.] Boys Club. I had navigated my way to be that person on the field, and I was representing all of them. To me, that’s the significance—I’m sort of bound by all those relationships.”
If being a politician, in the most basic sense, is about wanting to represent people, to lead them, to be the person who binds people together, it’s not surprising that it would appeal to Carson.
But the second reason news of his potential Congressional run didn’t surprise me was this: Carson has always harbored a deep ambivalence about the career path he fell into, and has long resisted being defined as a football player. This goes beyond the old “more than just a jock” cliché. It’s about feeling trapped in an identity, both in terms of how the outside world sees him, and, because of the neurological damage football has wrought, how he processes the outside world. Football defines him from the outside in, and from the inside out.
“Knowing what I know now, I wouldn’t do it again,” Carson told me, a realization he took years to come to, but which crystallized for him with the writing of his book. It's a realization he is desperate to publicize as a cautionary tale.
CARSON HAS BEEN OUTSPOKEN ON CONCUSSIONS AND THE DANGERS of football for a while. He was on the front lines of the issue long before Alan Schwarz of The New York Times wrote a series of articles bringing into the mainstream the idea that America’s favorite game has permanent, devastating consequences for its practitioners at a much higher rate than anyone had cared to think.
By Carson’s estimate, he sustained between 12 to 18 concussions during his playing days, but neither he nor anyone else thought much of it at the time. It’s a fairly common story you hear from football players about subjecting themselves to risks they didn’t realize at the time were risks: They’d get dinged up, they’d get their bell rung, they’d see stars—then they’d clear out the cobwebs and get back on the field. The disturbing visualization of just what a brain injury entailed wasn’t in the public consciousness. So Carson got dinged up throughout his whole career and he soldiered on, for 13 years.
“Players play,” Carson told me, reciting a mantra of the N.F.L.’s culture of machismo that has come under scrutiny in recent years because of the concussion crisis. “And players are very insecure. They don’t want anyone else to get out there and show that they can do the job as well as they can.”
With Carson’s concussions came headaches, but those too didn’t seem more alarming than, say, a sore knee or back. Players ache all over, but they play through it or else risk losing their livelihood.
Other warning signs, much more alarming, were shuttled to the back of Carson’s mind as well. Like the depression and suicidal thoughts Carson confessed to having in Captain for Life. A couple of times in the early ‘80s, while crossing the Tappan Zee Bridge from the Meadowlands back to his old house in Ossining, Carson would find himself thinking of driving over the side.
“I had these thoughts of, ‘Why don’t you just drive the car off the bridge? Instead of staying in the lane, why don’t I just accelerate off the bridge?’ And I thought about it a couple times. But then I was like, ‘Nah. I got my daughter—what would happen to her?’”
After games, while his teammates celebrated, Carson often felt at an emotional remove. Sure, he took part in the celebration—it was Carson, after all, who famously drenched Bill Parcells with Gatorade after every Giants win in 1986. But the outward expression of joy masked an inner sadness.
“I sort of noticed there were times that I’d be down for no reason,” he told me. “Like when you play a game and win a game, and everyone around you is jubilant, but you got this cloud over you, and you don’t really feel what they’re feeling. You want to be happy but you’re feeling just down in the dumps.”
Carson retired after the 1988 season, the depression having long since subsided. (Carson said it hasn’t resurfaced to nearly the same degree since those days.) But his problems weren’t over, as he discovered when he went into broadcasting immediately after he stopped playing.
He’d suddenly lose his train of thought mid-sentence, on air. He’d forget or mispronounce players’ and coaches’ names he knew that he knew. So he went to a specialist and endured a series of brain tests, which themselves gave him headaches. He was diagnosed with Post-Concussion Syndrome in 1990. He has been living with the after-effects ever since, like memory lapses, headaches, migraines and sensitivity to noise and light.
The diagnosis brought a measure of relief: At least Carson knew what was afflicting him. Now, he follows doctors’ advice by taking supplements like fish oils and doing mental exercises to keep himself sharp. To compensate for his memory lapses, he is meticulous about writing down appointments and names.
But the diagnosis also brought with it a terror of what lies in store for him. Because in the years since then, medical research has conclusively determined a link between playing football and dementia, depression and other cognitive problems.
A 2007 study showed that N.F.L. players who reported sustaining three or more concussions were three times as likely to have depression as those who didn’t report any concussions. A 2009 study determined that former N.F.L. players are between five and 19 times more likely to develop Alzheimer’s disease and other similar diseases than the general population, depending on age group.
The studies confirmed empirically what Carson saw in himself and his peers. He saw his friend, Ron Johnson, a former Giants running back, deteriorate to the point that his wife had to take his car keys away because he couldn’t find his way home. He saw “Iron” Mike Webster, among the best centers ever, a man with whom Carson literally butted heads countless times in high-speed collisions, develop mental problems so severe that he would urinate in his kitchen oven and put himself to sleep by zapping himself with a Taser gun. (“I feel somewhat responsible for having played a role,” Carson told me.)
He saw safety Dave Duerson, who he played in several Pro Bowls with and was later a member of the 1990 Giants championship team, shoot himself in the chest so that researchers could study his brain. They found an advanced form of chronic traumatic encephalopathy, a progressive degenerative cognitive disease linked to repeated head trauma that most football fans are familiar with by now. It was the same condition found in former Eagles safety Andre Waters, who committed suicide at 44 and was found to have brain tissue in the condition of of an 85-year-old's.
“The only thing I know is, I know what other people have gone through, and I see the end result," Carson said. "And I know those other people have played football.”
“Hopefully I live until I’m 90 and pass away of something else. But if there’s nothing I can do about it, at least you have a book about what I thought about it before everything went downhill. If and when that time comes, I think it will open up the eyes of a lot of people, because I’ve been very vocal and upfront about it.”
CARSON SAYS HE NEVER LOVED FOOTBALL.
“God’s honest truth, I started playing because I saw the girls flock to the football players, and I thought to myself, ‘I wanna be a part of that,’” he told me.
“And so I went out for the team, and I quit. But I hated the taste of quitting in my gut—that people looked at me as a quitter. Now, if I’d never have stepped on the football field, or never even tried, different story. But you quit. So you have to redeem yourself. So I tried to redeem myself. I played Boys Club football and then high school football.”
He was very good at it, and football became his ticket to college and out of poverty in Florence. And then the Giants drafted Carson in the fourth round, and there was no turning back.
Although he played on the defensive line in college, he was immediately moved to inside linebacker by the Giants. (He got a crash course on the position with an assistant coach named Marty Schottenheimer, who went on to a long head coaching career himself and whose son was until recently the offensive coordinator of the New York Jets.)
As the weak-side inside linebacker, Carson was an anchor of a run defense that, from 1981 through 1987, held opponents to an astoundingly low average of 3.59 yards per carry. Lawrence Taylor, Carson’s teammate at outside linebacker, was the more exciting, talented player and got more accolades. But Carson was the rock, both on the field and in the locker room.
But he never relished the physicality of the sport. Rather, what appealed to him about the game was the sense of order and camaraderie. Carson had family members who were in the military, and was a proud member of ROTC in high school. Amid the poverty of Florence, the idea of putting on a uniform carried with it an automatic dignity. It made you someone.
This created one of the many paradoxes that define Carson: A man who claims to detest the violence of the sport grew up wanting to be a soldier, and then became a Hall of Fame inside linebacker.
“I was never one of those roughhouse guys,” he told me. “Even though, physically, I have the size, internally, I’m not built that way. I’m more of a gentle, tender, nurturing person—my wife will tell you.”
He added, “I never really enjoyed hitting anybody. What I loved was, in the course of playing with those ten other guys, me doing my job. From a leadership standpoint, from a teammate standpoint, I was able to contribute. But from a personal standpoint? No, it was never fun for me.”
Referring a famous clip of Lawrence Taylor, his fellow linebacker, whose gleeful lust for the violent part the game was a central part of his and the team's public persona, Carson said, “Everyone sees Lawrence, and Lawrence goes, “Let’s go out there like a bunch of crazed dogs! And I’m like, ‘No.'"
“I went out there with a kind of matter-of-fact attitude of, ‘OK, we have a mission to accomplish. And let’s go out there and achieve that mission.”
It’s tempting to characterize Carson’s attitude toward his football career as regretful, but it's probably more accurate to call it ambivalent.
On a wall of his den is an oversize poster of Carson pictured straight-on in a menacing pose, in full inside-linebacker regalia. In his living room are various mementos from his career, including a helmet from the 1986 season. On the mantle of the fireplace is his Hall of Fame bust.
The story of Carson’s 2006 selection to the Hall of Fame is illustrative of his pride, sensitivity, and resentment of the idea that football alone can define him. He had been rejected by the voters for years, which became a flashpoint for indignation from Giants fans and turned Carson, to his great dismay, into a pitiable figure. The yearly ritual of getting rejected, of seeing people around him get their hopes up only to see them dashed, became too much for him to bear. In 2004, he wrote a letter to the Hall of Fame asking for his name to be removed from the ballot. He begged Record sports columnist Vinny DiTrani, who for years had lobbied his fellow Hall of Fame voters on behalf of Carson, to drop it. Two years later, he was elected.
I asked him about the bust. How could he be so proud of an honor he had previously written off in his mind?
“When I look at that bust, I don’t look at me,” he said. “I look at all the guys I played with who inspired me, and who made me the best player I could be.”
During the season, Carson appeared regularly as a commenter on an MSG Network show about the Giants. Since he retired, he has been an honorary captain at Giants games several times. A few days before we spoke, he had been honored at midfield by Giants fans along with the rest of the ’86 championship team. For a man who resents being defined by football, he sure spends a lot of time around the game.
Making things somewhat more complicated is a revelation from his book about having failed a drug test for cocaine during his final season. Carson insists he never used any drug, and harbors bitterness that so few people in the organization believed him at the time. He remains suspicious that someone in the organization might have gone so far as to engineer the whole thing.
“I think they were afraid I was gonna go into broadcasting, because there were [networks] seeking me out once they found out it was my last year," he told me. "They knew I was gonna speak my mind, and sometimes, I don’t have a filter in terms of speaking my mind. And I felt that they were deathly afraid that I was gonna say something disparaging about the team—sort of like what Tiki Barber did after he left."
He then paraphrased a conversation he had with George Martin, his longtime fellow co-captain of the Giants, in which Martin said he had heard from someone else in the organization along the lines of, “The Giants are gonna fuck you before you have the opportunity to fuck them."
Yet Carson remains close, in many ways, with the game and the organization. Carson clarified that “it wasn’t the New York Giants organization” he suspected had been out to get him, but just a person or two in it. And he said that for the most part, the organization—especially late, longtime owner Wellington Mara—had been good to him.
“Yeah, I feel conflicted," he told me. "And it is what it is. I did what I did. I played, and I can’t take it back. But if I had to do it over again, I wouldn’t. But those guys that I played with, they’re my brothers. Those coaches—we’re all part of the same bond. But I’m glad you asked the question because nobody ever thinks about that.”
THERE ARE CERTAIN FOOTBALL-PLAYER HABITS Carson can’t shake. He’ll get to a restaurant with his wife, he says, and will switch into inside-linebacker mode, surveying the scene to see where people are sitting, and where the gaps are. A couple weeks before I spoke with him, he told me, some loud kids sitting nearby at the local Chili’s had nearly triggered a migraine before he and his wife moved to another table.
His point was that football is in him, in ways that are sometimes deeply problematic.
He told me that his first marriage deteriorated in part because his ex-wife felt he wouldn’t remember things she’d tell him. Was that because Carson wasn’t listening? Or was this related to deficiencies wrought by football?
“In times of frustration, she’d say, ‘You don’t listen to me,’" he said. "And I’d be like, ‘I do listen. But I don’t hear it. Or I’m not taking what you’re saying or analyzing it or storing it.’"
“It causes me to think a little deeper about the cause and effect of certain things. You look at some of the relationships that people who I know have had, and reasons why these relationships have failed. Now, it could be just guys being guys. Or it could be guys that truly don’t understand that they’re having some neurological things.”
“One of my childhood friends passed away this morning. And my sister called shortly before you got here. And one of the things that bothers me is, I’m sort of at a point where I don’t feel emotion about certain things, like when people die. I feel very sympathetic, but I don’t get emotional.
“And I don’t know if it’s just a fact of life of being where I am. This age where you’ve seen so many people pass away. Or if it’s a neurological deal where you’re unable to feel certain emotions. And so I get back to thinking about the brain: the brain controls everything.”
He elaborated: “I always have to monitor myself, on a regular basis, my state of being, what I’m thinking. And it’s a lot of work. Even as I set here and talk to you, I have to visually see every word that I’m going to say to you before I allow it to leave.
“And I go into these periods where I have problems looking for the words I want to use to convey a point, an I get into those ‘umms,’ ‘you knows,’ and all that stuff. So sometimes when I speak to some people, I may not be as sharp. And there are some times when I don’t want to engage in conversation with anyone.
“There are certain things that people will never understand. It’s very hard to put into words.”