Leroy Kelley, far left, Bobby Mitchell and Jim Brown stand behind Gene Hickerson at the Pro Football Hall of Fame, Saturday, Aug. 4, 2007, in Canton, Ohio.

On a warm night in Canton, Ohio, 10 years ago this month, Ole Miss football great Gene Hickerson was inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame. There was no indication Hickerson knew where he was. He might not have known who he was.

Hickerson was pushed in a wheelchair across the stage by three running backs, for whom he helped pave the way into the Hall of Fame: Jim Brown, Leroy Kelly and Bobby Mitchell. Kelly, once asked by a reporter what he learned from years of playing behind Brown, answered: “I learned to follow Gene Hickerson’s big butt any chance I got.”

Hickerson was a pulling guard in the Browns’ productive running game. He was nearly as fast as the backs who followed his lead. He led with his head for 16 years, making the NFL’s 1960s All Decade Team and making All Pro five times. He was a force.

Rick Cleveland

That night in Canton, 14 months before his death, Hickerson stared vacantly as his best friend, Bobby Ray Franklin, presented him and his son, Bob, accepted for him. It was a touching scene that brought tears to the eyes of men who rarely cry.

At the time, Hickerson had been diagnosed with Alzheimer’s. Now, knowing what we know, we must wonder if one of the greatest offensive linemen in the history of the sport was stricken by CTE (chronic traumatic encephalopathy) before the disease and its effects were widely known.

CTE is a disease caused by repeated blows to the head that results in myriad problems, including memory loss, confusion, depression and dementia. The New York Times recently published a Boston University CTE Center report of a study of the brains of 111 NFL players, and 110 showed significant evidence of CTE.

Hickerson’s brain was not a part of that study, but his Cleveland Browns teammate Bobby Crespino’s brain was. Two other Mississippians, Doug Elmore and Willie Daniel, also were part of the study. All three had stage 4 (of four stages) CTE.

Hickerson played his entire career before head slapping was made illegal in 1977. Before then, pass rushing defensive linemen often slapped the helmets of the offensive linemen trying to block them, in theory causing a concussion nearly every instance. No telling how many hundreds of times Gene Hickerson had his head slapped by huge muscular men trying to blow by him in order to slam into a quarterback or running back.

Bob Hickerson, Gene’s son, said there was much speculation – within the football community and in the media – that his father’s dementia issues were caused by football.

“It could have contributed and we’ll never know,” Bob Hickerson said. “But I will say that others in his family suffered from dementia near the end and they didn’t play football, so heredity probably had something to do with it. Head trauma from football certainly could have contributed. Gene told me that the head slapping was the worst thing he had to endure as a football player.

“I believe this: My father was a football player. That’s what he was, who he was. I don’t think he would have blamed the NFL for anything that happened to him. I think he would have done it all over again even if he thought it caused his problems. I really do.”

• • •

So here we are at the dawn of another Mississippi football season. High school football stadiums soon will be filled. So will college stadiums. Football is a huge part of our culture. And football, even with head slapping and spearing with the helmet as a weapon outlawed, remains a violent sport.

The obvious question: What can be done to make an inherently violent game more safe?

Before you say: “Improve the helmets,” know this: Protecting the outside of a person’s skull does little to protect the brain from the rotational impact inside the skull. Some helmets are better than others, and certainly modern helmets are better than those worn by Hickerson, Crespino and others of that era. But the fact remains, helmets do little, if anything, to protect the brain from banging around inside the skull.

So what can be done? I am no expert, but common sense should cause football rules makers at all levels to consider:

• Make penalties even more harsh for players who lead with their helmet. Multi-game suspensions should be considered. It must stop.

• At every level, including middle school and below, concussion protocol must be followed.

• Education. Most importantly: Make the players, at every level, aware of the damage that repetitive blows to the head can cause in their futures. Most will still play, I suspect, but maybe they’ll think twice before they lead with their heads.

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Rick Cleveland, a native of Hattiesburg and resident of Jackson, has been Mississippi Today’s sports columnist since 2016. A graduate of the University of Southern Mississippi with a bachelor’s in journalism, Rick has worked for the Monroe (La.) News Star World, Jackson Daily News and Clarion Ledger. He was sports editor of Hattiesburg American, executive director of the Mississippi Sports Hall of Fame. His work as a syndicated columnist and celebrated sports writer has appeared in numerous magazines, periodicals and newspapers.
Rick has been recognized 13 times as Mississippi Sports Writer of the Year, and is recipient of multiple awards and honors for his reporting and writing.