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6 JANUARY 2016
Copyright 2016 by
The New Yorker Magazine

Games, bouts, matches and more



John Huarte, Bill Mathis and Joe Namath at the Jets' 1965 training camp in Peekskill
Photo by Gerald Smith

On Christmas night, one of the fifty greatest New York Jets of all time arrived at our house in Atlanta for dinner. We’d already begun eating, unsure if he’d show up at all. But here Bill Mathis was, smiling as we helped him out of the car. He and his wife, Burnsie, are old friends of my stepmother, who invited them to join us for our holiday meal. I’d never met Bill before, but soon found myself—being the youngest and presumably strongest of the group—in an intimate embrace with him, lifting him out of the car. I put my hands under his huge arms and tried to pull his thick, two-hundred-and-seventy-pound trunk, clothed in an N.F.L.-labeled fleece jacket, from the passenger seat and into a wheelchair that Burnsie had removed from the back.

It took twenty minutes to maneuver Bill—through tight doorways, around heavy furniture and sniffing dogs—to the head of our dinner table, some sixty feet away. The whole journey there, he didn’t say a word. Though he just turned seventy-seven years old, Bill has the surprisingly smooth face and thick hair of a much younger man. He played for the New York Jets—and their predecessor, the Titans—back in the sixties, when they were part of the since discontinued American Football League. Hall of Famer Joe Namath roomed with him on the road: their coach instructed Bill to keep the charismatic young quarterback out of trouble. (“Tough,” Mathis told me.) In 1969 Mathis won a Super Bowl with Namath, and tonight, as usual, he had the massive ring on his finger, which he let me hold: it had the startling heft of a lead bullet. Namath had just called Bill a few hours earlier, to wish his old running back a merry Christmas and ask Burnsie how her husband of almost forty years was doing. The answer, Namath must have known: not so well.

Mathis, like a disturbing number of former N.F.L. and A.F.L. players—perhaps a third of them, according to recent actuarial data—has significant cognitive problems, including Alzheimer’s disease, dementia, and symptoms consistent with chronic traumatic encephalopathy. (He also suffers from peripheral neuropathy, a nerve condition that contributes to his lack of mobility.) In 1961, his second year in the A.F.L., Bill was the league’s second-leading rusher, carrying the ball more than anyone else. He did this after breaking his collarbone in the season’s third game. He probably played football as hard as anyone during his decade in the league—“Was I tough?” he said to me. “I hope so”—and took plenty of concussive hits to the head, though no one talked about brain trauma or long-term cognitive problems back then.

“They used to call it ‘getting your bell rung,’ ” Bill’s son, Billy Mathis, told me a few days later. “You know, ‘You got your bell rung, get back out there!’ It’s that mentality that got him where he is right now. He did everything he was told and now he’s paying the price for it.” Bill is glad that his son didn’t play football beyond high school, not that Billy was getting offers. “We’re not the Mannings,” Billy told me, laughing. “I think talent skipped a generation, which is for the best.”

At dinner, when I asked about playing in Super Bowl III, Bill couldn’t recall the name of the team that the Jets beat to win the game (the Baltimore Colts), but he remembered the hits he endured to help get them there. “I was known for blocking,” he told me. “Sometimes I used my helmet to block, which was common then. No one talked about being careful, or about … concussions.” Did he recall any particular hits? “I took so many of them. I remember getting dizzy, especially when they hit you from both sides. That was about the toughest.” He trailed off for a minute before adding that he “never missed a game.”

In 2012 Bill joined the
class-action lawsuit brought by more than four thousand former players against the N.F.L. for willfully deceiving them about the effects of concussions and collisions endured on the field and promoting, as
the complaint put it, a “culture in which playing hurt or with an injury is both expected and acclaimed in a mythical gladiator world.” The suit was settled in April of that year. As he waits for the settlement to be finalized, he continues to collect the roughly three thousand dollars in pension money that the N.F.L. sends him each month for, in his words, “just being here.”

After a few hours with us on Christmas night, it was time for Burnsie to take Bill back to his assisted-living home. So we repeated the three-person process of heaving his body up and into the chair, out the door and into the car. He said that he could walk, but it was obvious that he couldn’t. He said it was only a mile from our house to his home, too. But that wasn’t the case, either. I asked him what he was going to do that weekend: “Watch some football,” he said. “I look at as many Clemson and Jets games as I can. I like a couple of their players.”

Charles Bethea is based in Atlanta. He is a regular contributor to Sporting Scene.



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RealPatch10Year.gif (2119 bytes)An original Titan and one of four Titans who remained with the Jets to win a World Championship, Clemson's  Hall of Fame halfback Bill Mathis led the American Football League in carries in 1961.  He was an AFL  All-Star in 1961 and 1963.   Mathis had a collarbone broken in the third game of 1961, against the Boston Patriots.  He played in the next game, and in fact in all the remaining games of the season.  That persistence allowed him to gain a roster spot year after year, and end his career in 1969 as a member of the World Champion New York Jets.   One of only 20 players who were in the AFL for its entire 10-year existence, and only 7 players who played their entire AFL careers in one city.

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