Marc Mazzeri played football at the University of Iowa in the 1980s and is now part of a lawsuit alleging that the NCAA failed to protect him from the consequences of head injuries. (Olena Korenchuk/Edelson PC law firm) Marc Mazzeri’s football career was brief but distinguished. Though he didn’t play until his junior year at Maine South High School in 1982, he was big, athletic and skillful enough to interest coaches at the University of Iowa, who offered him a spot as a walk-on.
There, he was a receiver who was used more as a blocker than a pass catcher, and a special teams “gunner” whose job was to bring down the opposing team’s punt returner. They were violent specialties in a violent sport, honed by countless collisions on the practice field.
“I don’t remember (the coaches) teaching us any form,” he recently recalled. “We all just kind of found our way to do it in practices and games. I liked to hit people, so I hit them any way I could.”
More than three decades have passed since Mazzeri, 52, played his final game, but he says he is still paying for his taste of gridiron glory. His brain, he says, no longer works as it should, and he holds the NCAA responsible.
Mazzeri is among more than 100 former players who are suing the NCAA and numerous athletic conferences, alleging that the organizations failed to protect them from the consequences of head injuries.
Many of those claims have been consolidated into a case that’s being litigated in a federal courtroom in Chicago. If it achieves class action status, one attorney said, billions of dollars could be at stake.
But the lawsuit’s possible impact on college football itself, which will crown a national champion Monday night, remains unclear. The NCAA has settled other concussion-related litigation, and attempts to establish its responsibility for the after-effects of brain trauma have yet to be tested before a jury.
Some legal experts say Mazzeri and his fellow plaintiffs must overcome numerous hurdles if they are to win. But the mere possibility has cast a shadow over the sport at the apex of American culture.
“You’ve got the potential of massive, massive liability,” said Paul Haagen, who co-directs the Center for Sports Law and Policy at Duke University. “That’s something that people throughout intercollegiate sports are aware of and concerned about.” Wounded walk-on
Mazzeri was born into an athletic family, albeit one that didn’t prize football. His mother, an accomplished volleyball player and coach, was hesitant to let him play when his buddies at Maine South in Park Ridge tried to coax him onto the team.
“I think she wanted me to be some graceful Olympic athlete or something, to keep me away from one of those crazy contact sports,” he said.
But when she finally signed the permission slip his junior year, he made an immediate impact, catching passes, playing defense and even punting. He caught the eye of then-Iowa coach Hayden Fry, who invited him to join the Big 10 powerhouse.
Mazzeri didn’t receive a scholarship but got plenty of playing time, and was often employed as a blocker. In a 1986 interview with the Tribune, Fry praised his receiver’s toughness following a blowout win over Iowa State.
“Marc is another in a long line of great walk-on players,” Fry said. “Last week he had more knockdowns than anyone on our team.”
Mazzeri said he and his teammates grew battle-hardened in practice. As a gunner, he repeatedly fought to get past two defenders at the line of scrimmage — “usually headfirst,” he said — before running downfield to tackle the punt receiver. As a blocking receiver, he said, he was advised to drive his helmet into his opponents’ legs to trip them up.
“I saw a lot of stars from situations like that,” he said.
He routinely got headaches during practice, he said, combating them with Tylenol and Advil. He wanted to stay on the field to keep his place in the squad, so he didn’t complain.
As ferocious as practices could be, games were even worse. Mazzeri said he blacked out several times after hard hits and couldn’t remember what happened later. After one game, he awoke with vertigo and was unable to look up; he was sent to a neurologist but still played the next week, he said.
He played his final season in 1988 before graduating with a communications studies degree, but never fully healed. He remained aggressive and irritable, he said, and felt near-constant pain in his head, neck and shoulders.
He kept the pain at bay with over-the-counter medications and bicycle riding, he said, and was able to pursue a demanding career in executive protection, essentially acting as a bodyguard for private clients.
Mary Beth Janke, a former Maine South classmate and Secret Service agent who got him into the business, said Mazzeri’s size, athleticism and no-nonsense demeanor were valuable in that line of work, but so was his brain.
“He had a ridiculously accurate memory,” she said. “He could put himself exactly where something happened and remember tiny details.”
But that ability faded over the last decade, Mazzeri said. A doctor noticed it when he was rehabbing a back injury and kept forgetting to do his exercises or pick up his medication. She advised him to see a panel of specialists, who found that some of his cognitive abilities lagged well behind his peers, he said.
His first neuropsychologist downplayed the results, he said, but a second tested him again two years ago and reached a different conclusion: His decline was consistent with chronic traumatic encephalopathy, or CTE, the dementia-like disease that has been found in the brains of hundreds of ex-football players. Cascading symptoms
Brad Cantwell, Mazzeri’s brother-in-law and longtime friend, said Mazzeri hasn’t just faced cognitive issues that could be chalked up to getting older. He has suffered emotionally too.
“He used to be the life of the party,” Cantwell said. “He’s steadily gotten to the point where he doesn’t want to go to the party, or if he goes, he won’t tell people his right name. He’s very suspicious now … very uncomfortable being around other people. That’s very different from the average aging process.”
Mazzeri’s case, like other suits that have been brought against the NCAA, alleges that the organization knew as far back as the 1930s that head injuries required special attention, but failed to require schools to have concussion policies until 2010. Since the NCAA is the governing body for college football, the lawsuits say, it bears responsibility for the players’ health.
Mazzeri also targeted the Big Ten athletic conference, but not Iowa. Eve-Lynn Rapp of the Chicago-based Edelson PC law firm, which is leading the lawsuit, said state schools haven’t been named as defendants because sovereign immunity makes them difficult to sue.
The NCAA and Big Ten did not respond to messages seeking comment. In court filings for a similar lawsuit, the organizations denied liability, saying the athletes played football voluntarily and assumed all the risks associated with the sport.
Some experts think Mazzeri and other plaintiffs will have trouble winning their cases. Matt Mitten, a Marquette University law professor and head of the National Sports Law Institute, said courts have been reluctant to hold governing bodies responsible for making a sport safer.
And even if that were to happen, he said, each former player would have to demonstrate that his problems were most likely due to his experiences in college football. That could be a tall order in the case of a complex brain disorder.
“I’d say it’s a fairly difficult case for the plaintiffs,” Mitten said. Unhappy future
Despite what Mazzeri describes as his increasing impairment, he said he still works in executive protection, though he’s now on office duty. He recently moved back to Chicago from Texas because familiar surroundings are easier to manage.
“Getting on the ‘L,’ you should be able to go someplace and not have to think where you’re going,” he said. “That’s what I need to have. I need to have that repetition. I’m a lot better with things that are known than unknown.”
He does not foresee a happy future. He said he has never married or had children, and is hesitant to pursue romantic relationships for fear of becoming a burden. He worries that he soon won’t be able to work, and will have to rely on family to take care of him.
He said, though, that he’s suing not just for himself, but for younger players who might see their lives and careers derailed from head trauma. Though the game has changed — Iowa, for example, now has a six-page concussion policy outlining how the injuries should be managed — Mazzeri said it likely is still exacting a toll.
“Some people don’t know what’s going on (with their brains),” he said. “I have to use my body and my cognitive ability on a daily basis, so I’m very aware of what’s there and what’s not there. So I figured if I put my voice into it, I can help out.”
Twitter @JohnKeilman MORE COVERAGE As football participation slips, high […]
Click here to view original web page at As college football prepares to crown latest champion, concussion lawsuits cloud the sport’s future