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Cleveland: On the Movie “Concussion”

Far be it from me to become involved in the Academy Awards controversy about the lack of nominations for African American actors. I hope the people voting know more about it than I do.

Fact is, I only know what I like and what touches me. And one of the 2015 movies that touched me most was “Concussion” – a film starring the immensely talented Will Smith, which dealt with the catastrophic effects of repeated concussions for professional football players.

Smith played the role of Dr. Bennet Omalu, a Nigerian pathologist who fought mightily against the NFL, which tried to suppress his research on chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE), brain damage suffered by professional football players.

Understand, I have been around football all my life. And, because of my job, I deal every week with aging football stars, practically all who suffer, to some degree, the effects of injuries suffered long ago playing football.

Most limp. Some have chronic headaches, others bad backs. And some can’t remember things they should remember.

Nothing in “Concussion” really surprised me. Still, watching it in well-acted, well-reported story form like that was emotionally wrenching. I did not move until long after the credits rolled.

Neither did Wesley Walls, the Pontotoc native and former Ole Miss great, who played in the NFL from 1989 until 2003, making the Pro Bowl five times in the process and earning one Super Bowl Ring.

“I am not going to lie to you, I watched that movie with my family and I got emotional,” Walls said. “I just sat there when it was over. I couldn’t move. It got me on so many levels.”

Walls’ range of emotions included sadness, anger and, yes, fear.

Sadness? “You see what men like Mike Webster and Dave Duerson went through,” Walls said. “They were great players, warriors, and football injuries ruined their lives.”

Anger? “The NFL tried to deny it all,” Walls said. “They had evidence and they didn’t act on it.”

Fear? Walls played tight end. Part of his job was catching passes over the middle and taking hit after hit from linebackers and safeties. Before he became an All-Pro tight end, he was a special teams standout. Part of his job was that of wedge-buster on kickoff coverage, that is, to run as fast as he could down the field and throw himself into huge, fast, strong blockers.

“I worry, man, I worry,” Walls said. “It’s the biggest worry of my life because I see what it has done to other guys, guys I played with and against. I was taken off the field three times for concussions. I probably had at least four more.”

So far, so good for Walls, who will turn 50 on March 26. Walls caught 450 NFL passes, including 54 touchdowns, despite missing two full seasons with shoulder injuries.

“I’ve got aches and pains,” he says. “Hey, you play football, you’re going to get hurt. I’ve been lucky so far. I am enjoying football retirement more than I thought I would. I’m enjoying my family and I am enjoying getting older. Maybe, something bad looms out there in the future. I don’t know. I do know I loved playing the game. I have no regrets.”

But he also had no regrets when his son, Colton, a hard-hitting linebacker who signed a football scholarship with Clemson in 2010, decided to give up the game.

“He just said he didn’t want to play any more,” Wesley Walls said. “At first I was disappointed but in the end I was proud of him for making a tough, mature decision.”

Walls, now a successful businessman in Charlotte, will be inducted into the Mississippi Sports Hall of Fame this July.  He remains a big football fan, of Ole Miss and the NFL.

“I don’t know the answer,” Walls said. “The new rules and the way they are enforcing them will help. Still, if you play football, you are going to get hit and you’re going to get hit in the head. The league has to do everything it can to improve the equipment and enforce the new rules. And it has to take care of its people.”

Rick Cleveland is historian of the Mississippi Sports Hall of Fame and Museum and a syndicated columnist. His email address is rcleveland@msfame.com.

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Adam Brown
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