Steve Preece on the dangers of football
By any measure, Steve Preece is a mentally alert, active septuagenarian.
The former quarterback of Oregon State's "Giant Killers" is a commercial real estate broker and developer in Portland. He serves as a member of the Beavers' broadcasting crew, working alongside Mike Parker, Jim Wilson and Ron Callan.
Preece, 70, spent nine years as a defensive back in the NFL from 1969-77 with New Orleans, Philadelphia, Denver, Seattle and the Los Angeles Rams, retiring at age 30.
When the NFL finally reached a $1 billion settlement in a class-action lawsuit filed on behalf off more than 20,000 retired players over concussion mismanagement, Preece was more than an interested party.
Shortly after the lawsuit was filed in 2011, Preece was advised by attorney Bob Stein — a former teammate with the Rams — to check medical records to determine how many concussions he sustained during his NFL career.
Records were sketchy, but as best he could tell, Preece came up with a number.
"I believe I had 23," he says.
Keep in mind, what medical experts determine as concussions today differs greatly from the standards in place more than four decades ago.
"The word concussion today means you're feeling dizzy or you have a headache, and you go through the concussion protocol," Preece says. "In my day, it was, 'You got your bell rung.' You got hit, you got woozy and if they thought you were OK, they stuck some ammonia under your nose and sent you back in the game.
"Honestly, I think of a concussion as when you're knocked cold."
Preece figures by today's standards he also suffered about five concussions at Borah High in Boise, Idaho, and another five or so during his four years playing at Oregon State.
Five years ago, Preece consulted a neurologist who put him through a battery of mental tests to determine whether brain damage had occurred. The doctor set Preece's baseline. Earlier this year, Preece took another test to update his condition. His baseline was determined to be roughly the same.
"I've taken all the neurological studies, and essentially they say I'm a 70-year-old man with a little bit of short-term memory loss," Preece says. "But other than that, I'm normal. I don't think I'm much different than any 70-year old I know. I know a lot of 60-year-olds who have a lot more problems, and I have close friends and teammates who are suffering."
Preece has had other medical issues in recent years, however. Six years ago, he underwent double bypass surgery and had a valve repair.
"I've always had a heart murmur, and I was diagnosed with congenital heart disease at age 30," Preece says. "My dad died at 53 of a heart condition. My mom had a stroke in her 50s and passed away at 61. I know I have to stay in shape."
More than a year ago, Preece was treated for hyponatremia, a shortage of sodium caused by drinking excessive water. In February, he was hospitalized and underwent unexpected surgery for a cardiac ablation.
"I spent my 70th birthday in the hospital," he says.
But despite all the blows to the noggin through nearly two decades of tackle football, Preece's mind remains sharp. He knows he is one of the lucky ones.
"I'm blessed," he says. "My whole life has been blessed."
But his brain absorbed a lot of blows.
"I got knocked cold three or four times in the NFL," he says. "In high school, I got knocked out when I took a big hit. I missed one series, came back and played the rest of the game."
Preece's first serious concussion in the NFL came in the preseason before his rookie year with New Orleans.
"I got knocked cold in a brawl during a scrimmage," he said. "I was on the sidelines and ran out onto the field with my helmet off and got sucker-punched. Rookie mistake. Always keep your helmet on."
Another bad one came while with Philadelphia during the preseason of his second year in the league.
"Opening kickoff, my first play as a Philadelphia Eagle, I got knocked cold making the tackle," Preece says. "I don't remember anything until that night in the hotel."
Midway through the 1971 season, Preece was seriously injured on a kickoff.
"(Cincinnati's) Jess Phillips' knee came up and hit my helmet and split it down the middle," Preece says. "I was knocked unconscious. I had a skull fracture, a hairline fracture in the back of my skull and a partial eye socket fracture.
"For the rest of the season and the first couple of weeks of the offseason, I was out of it. I would slur words. I couldn't remember things. They told me I had to pass an EEG to begin workouts (for the following season). I took one about every two weeks and finally passed it."
Preece returned to action the next season with more protection.
"After my skull fracture, they put me in a helmet that had padding on the outside," he says. "(Kansas City linebacker) Willie Lanier also wore one. It was heavy, but it really did give me protection, and when you hit somebody it didn't reverberate like the helmet I was used to. It was a weapon in its own right."
By that time, Preece's teammates had a nickname for him — "Punchy," as in punch-drunk.
In that era, players were taught to tackle and block with the head up and in the numbers of the opponent. By the time he was traded to Denver in 1972, Preece was gun-shy.
"There's no question the head thing affected me," he says. "I'd get ready to hit somebody and I'd turn my head every time. I'd dip the shoulder down and try to avoid taking on somebody with my head."
With the Broncos, coaches tried to correct Preece's "mistake."
"Every Tuesday and Wednesday at practice, I'd hit a sliding dummy that weighed about 300 pounds," he says. "The idea was for me to get used to putting my head into it. If you didn't do it in my situation, you were done."
On the last play of his career — in the final game for the Seahawks in 1977 — Preece suffered his final concussion.
"I got absolutely cold-cocked by (Cleveland fullback) Mike Pruitt," he says. "I was out for almost 15 minutes on the field."
Other than 1971, Preece never missed a game in his nine NFL seasons. His career ended because of knee problems. He persevered in an era in which little was said about concussions.
"It was not a big deal," he says. "Nobody knew it was a problem with the brain. We were told to be tough. The first year in the NFL when we were allowed a water break during practice was my last year with the Seahawks. That's just the way it was."
Everything is different now. Neurological studies have determined that blows to the head can help create chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE), which may cause dementia, ALS, Parkinson's disease or Alzheimer's.
Preece says it began to sink in when he watched the film "Concussion" in 2015.
"I played against Mike Webster and the other Pittsburgh guys (depicted) in the movie," Preece says. "After that, I was stumbling around the house the next few days thinking, 'Could I get what Mike had?' It scared me to death."
Preece and his wife, Karen, have agreed to donate his brain to the NFL study at death.
Some former players — including Preece — opted out of the lawsuit against the NFL, figuring the settlement would be too small or not cover all the problems. Later, on his attorney's advice, Preece re-entered the settlement, but has received no payout yet because of his "normal" diagnosis.
Those with "qualifying diagnosis" are eligible for cash awards ranging from the low six figures to $6 million, depending on the ex-player's age and level of dementia.
"The big-money deals are based on guys in their 40s," Preece says. "But there aren't many of those million-dollar settlements. If you're 70 (with dementia), it's about $120,000. I didn't qualify for anything.
"With that big a settlement, I presumed everyone injured would get something. It would have been like a nice addition to my pension. But fair is fair. I'm still working full-time, still working football on weekends. I have a great family, an incredible wife, three kids nearby and four grandkids in the Portland area. I'm doing fine."
Like most of the former players involved, Preece is resentful of the huge percentage attorneys in the lawsuit reaped from the settlement — as high as 40 percent by one estimate.
"The biggest winner in the whole thing was the legal profession," Preece says. "It's disgusting."
Is he disgusted with the NFL, too?
"Yeah, because they made it so hard for players to know what to do, and to know what they were really getting or not getting," Preece says. "There were guys who signed up for the lawsuit presuming they had a huge settlement coming, or at least enough to live on, and they find they're not really getting anything. It's devastating to those families.
"I was aggravated with the NFL for giving so much to the attorneys, and that players were getting email from different (law practices) lobbying for their business."
Preece says the game is more dangerous now than ever before because of the size of the players and lack of control by NFL management.
"I was a big safety at 6-1 and about 195," he says. "There was a time when they pumped me full of Dianabol (a steroid) my rookie year and I got up to 216. But everybody now is a bigger-sized athlete who has a personal trainer and is doing workouts we never did, or could do. Even the college players my height have biceps that look about five inches bigger than mine were."
Even so, Preece is glad measures have been taken to try to make the game safer. Helmets provide better protection than ever before. Players are being taught to lead with their shoulder, not their head.
"Rules need to be enforced, and stiffened in some cases," Preece says. "If a guy leads with his head and/or hits somebody who is defenseless, don't penalize him, throw him out of the game, and fine him.
"In my day, what would happen if somebody did that? There'd be somebody to take him out later in the game, and the officials would look the other way. You could throw a forearm in the guy's face and say, 'You hit me like that again and I'll take out your knee.' "
Preece says despite his recent problems, his current health is good.
"I feel great," he says. "I'm better now than I've been in some time."
Preece's knees are shot, though, after 11 knee surgeries and two replacements. If he had it to do over, would he play again?
"Yes," he says. "But I'm not 40 with Alzheimer's, either."