DeMarcus Ware is a god-fearing family man. DeMarcus Ware is a ruthless football player. As the NFL starts its season of reckoning, the game’s best linebacker reflects on faith, violence, and football’s long-term future.
DeMarcus Ware is sitting in the old Dallas Cowboys locker room at the Cotton Bowl. It’s been four decades since the Cowboys played in this stadium – now a relic adjacent to the Texas State Fairgrounds, something out of a Ray Bradbury story –but the blue of the original tile in the bathrooms still matches the star on the side of Ware’s helmet.
Ware is starting his eighth year in the NFL in the loftier surroundings of Cowboys Stadium in nearby Arlington, Texas, a glossy thunderdome for 110,000 fans and the triple-digit decibels they emit for the team’s star linebacker. “When you’re right there in the centre of everything,” Ware says, “it’s like, ‘Yeah, I’m a gladiator.’”
Besides the outsize environs they now play in, Ware’s Cowboys are very much the same as when they occupied this tatty locker room. The team has never suffered the soft contempt of ambiguity among fans: you either love to love America’s Team or love to hate them. Ware’s daughter, Marley, dresses up in her Cowboys jersey every Sunday, just like Dallas kids have done for generations.
But while the Cowboys have stayed true to their roots, Ware’s NFL is very different from what it was just a year ago. Since August 2011, hundreds of retired football players and their families have filed class action lawsuits claiming the league concealed information about the damage caused by repeated concussions.
Football kills, they say. Slowly and surely, the body gives up after years in NFL, and then, terrifyingly, as the years pass in retirement, the brain does too. The lawsuits cite dementia, depression, and Alzheimer’s disease as attributable to repeated concussions on the field. It seems as though tragedy is stalking the NFL – in the past year and a half, three retired players have taken their own lives. In May, former San Diego Chargers Pro Bowl linebacker Junior Seau committed suicide after reportedly suffering from depression. He was 43. Seau’s memorial service in San Diego was open to the public; 20,000 people paid their respects at Qualcomm Stadium, where he played for more than a decade.
When football stadiums double as funeral parlours for the game’s most revered athletes, there is no doubt that America’s game is in the midst of crisis. As the 2012 season starts, players like Ware – those sparkling with the cutthroat charisma that causes fans to swoon – are taking a field that’s haunted with the ghosts of an uncertain future.
Read the full story in August's issue of The Red Bulletin.