Death of a teammate strikes home again

One of biggest regrets I have as a sportswriter was never answering Art Shell’s question: “Have you ever played the game?”

Shell used it as leverage whenever we dared question his decision-making as coach of the Los Angeles Raiders.

Shell was an otherwise decent man, a Hall of Fame offensive tackle, but he worked for Al Davis and that meant treating (most of) the media as the enemy.[membership level="0"] The rest of this article is available to subscribers only - to become a subscriber click here.[/membership] [membership]

That was certainly the case of Davis v. L.A. Times, for whom I worked for more than three decades. Davis was a conspiracy theorist who thought the Times was out to get him and generally treated us like a disease he couldn’t cure.

Davis tended to turn on any local paper, or newspaper man, he couldn’t influence with Christmas gifts, inside information, or complimentary travel on the team plane.

Shell was a nice guy, but also a loyal foot soldier for Davis’ paranoia and disdain for the “hometown” newspaper he inherited after moving to L.A. from Oakland.

I covered the Raiders in 1990 and 1991 and was treated well, at first, if only because I was replacing Mark Heisler. It was no secret Davis truly despised Heisler and repeatedly tried to get removed from the beat.

Davis was relatively nice to me until he realized I was going to cover his team honestly, which is not what he wanted at all.

The owner’s disgust got passed down the chain of command to Shell, who liked to stare me in the eye whenever I asked a penetrating question.

“Have you ever played the game?”

I can’t tell you how many times after I left the Raiders beat I answered Shell’s question, by myself, sometimes in the middle of the night.

I look Shell square in the eye, point my finger to his face and say, “No, you son of a bitch, but have you ever had a teammate die next to you at practice? Because I have.”

I’d say to him, “does ‘playing the game’ not count unless it is in the NFL? Is death via brain hemorrhage less important if it is suffered in Pop Warner?”

I regret never having the courage to tell Art Shell off to his face, yet think about him every time a team loses a teammate.

It happens too often and happened again Monday, when news broke out of Tucson that Arizona offensive lineman Zach Hammila had died in his sleep.


The players were informed after Monday’s practice.

And, once again, the memories came rushing back to me, like it was yesterday, and not 1971, on a Pop Warner field in my hometown.

My story is a little different, but the feelings must be similar. My teammate did not die in his sleep, or in a car crash, the way Nebraska and Michigan State recently lost punters Sam Foltz and Mike Sadler.

My teammate died from injuries suffered in a tackling drill, about 10 feet in front of me. Two players met helmet-to-helmet and only one of them got up.

The eyes of the player on the ground, Harold, rolled back in his head. It was a horrifying thing for eight-graders to see.

We ran laps around the field while the ambulance took Harold away. He died Sept. 3, 1971. The next time we saw him was in a casket.

The La Habra Raiders, like players from Nebraska, Michigan State and Arizona will do, played on and finished the season. Healing words were said and we honored Harold the best way we knew how. But nothing was ever “the same.” My mother wanted me to quit and, when I didn’t, she refused to attend my games.

As a parent, I am certainly NOW on her side on that one.

These teammate deaths hit everyone tragically, yet I feel it in a slightly different way. I find it physically hard to even re-tweet the news on social media. I probably, in these intervening 45 years, could have used some counseling.

Instead, I close my eyes, pray to whatever is out there that may be listening, think of families, players and coaches involved and wish time could fast-forward to happier times.

Art Shell was certainly right: there are a lot of things a sportswriter can’t understand about football unless he “played the game.”

I wish I would have had the guts to tell him, at least in my case, there is one thing about football I do understand. I do know what it means to be a teammate of a fallen teammate.

In that sense, what's the difference between an Oakland, L.A., or a La Habra Raider?

Condolences are now pouring in on Twitter for Arizona football, and the fallen Zach Hemmila.

I am reading all of these messages, as I did for those written about Sam Foltz and Mike Sadler, but responding to few.

It doesn’t mean I don’t care. It’s just my way of dealing with it.[/membership]