The NFL: Then and Now

Legend. Pro Bowler. The best Philadelphia Eagle to ever wear number 16. Some groups even call him a Hall of Famer.

I just call him Popop Norm.

After being drafted by the Washington Redskins with the second overall pick of the 1961 NFL Draft, Norm Snead played 16 seasons for a combined five franchises. Although his playing days are long over, my Popop Norm still enjoys watching the games on TV. I enjoy talking to him and getting his unique perspective on the game and how it has changed.

The game back then was very different to what it is now.

Popop Norm was so skinny when he arrived at Wake Forest that after his first football practice when the team was heading for the showers, an equipment manager called out “Someone put a towel down over the drain, we don’t wanna lose our new QB!” By the time he got to the NFL he was 6’4”, weighed 215 pounds, and was considered one of the bigger guys in the league, especially for quarterback. In today’s NFL, that size is average for a player of his position. Players today are bigger, faster and stronger. During my grandad’s playing time, he described how there were only four to five players in the whole league who weighed 300+ pounds. Now, each team in the league has at least ten 300+ pound players. One anomaly my grandad told me about was Bob Brown, an offensive tackle who played with my grandad on the Eagles. Brown was 6’4”, weighed 300 pounds, and according to my grandad, he could run a 4.6 40 yard dash. Probably somewhat of an exaggeration, but in today’s game, it is not uncommon to see gigantic linemen running sub-5.0 times.

When I asked about other standout players, my grandad described Bart Starr and Johnny Unitas as “exceptional,” and said how dominant Alan Page was when they played together in Minnesota. Page, an imposing defensive tackle, became the first defensive player to be named league MVP since the award’s inception in 1957. Playing in four Pro Bowls throughout his career, Popop Norm certainly saw some of the very best. Described as more of a social gathering rather than a competitive game, the Pro Bowl seems to have changed very little over the years. One year Popop Norm had a locker next to Jim Brown for the game, and my grandad described him as “jacked to the point where he had muscles on his big toe.”  Today’s game features “exceptional” quarterbacks as well, such as Tom Brady and Drew Brees.  Players like JJ Watt and Adrian Peterson also stand out as a testament to how the league has evolved.

Although the physical size of the players does not affect the length of the game, an increase in player personalities has caused some changes. Games are longer nowadays thanks to TV timeouts and commercials, as well as instant replays and booth reviews for penalties. While the latter wasn’t an issue for Popop Norm’s games, he did tell me a funny story about an offensive lineman in Washington. According to my grandad and other sources, Fran O’Brien would illegally hold on every play and only get flagged twice a game. He explained to my grandad that the referees couldn’t call it every play, or they would never finish the game. An interesting strategy that I’m not sure would work in today’s game. Rule changes have led to more penalties, as well as coach challenges and requests for reviews. As for TV time not showing the game, players were involved in endorsements, but it was nowhere near the extent that it is now. Popop Norm told me about making money off commercials for Vitalis Hair Tonic and Miller Lite. He also would do appearances to meet fans and sign autographs. He charged $150 per appearance during his time in Washington and Philadelphia, but once he got to New York with the Giants, he couldn’t keep up with the growing number of appearances in addition to his practice schedule. New York Jets quarterback Joe Namath, told him he could just simply start charging more money per appearance. After going from $150 to $200, then $200 to $500 and even $500 to $1000, the number of appearances didn’t falter. I think that was part of the reason why Popop Norm told me New York was his favorite place to play. The influence players have off the field has grown with their increased involvement in endorsements.

Just because the players were smaller and the games were shorter, doesn’t mean the physical toll on players was any less back then. My grandad suffered his fair share of injuries in his career, including a separated shoulder, torn ligaments in his knees, and a broken leg. During his time with the Eagles, the NFL instituted the “Two Step Rule,” allowing pass rushers to take only two steps before hitting the quarterback after the ball had been thrown. My grandad laughed as he told me how he remembers Pittsburgh Steelers linebacker Jack Lambert commenting on the rule by saying, “Why don’t you put skirts on them?

I was surprised when my grandad told me he would rather be hit up high than low, because of how much wear and tear he had on his knees. Nowadays there is so much talk about concussion prevention and helmet to helmet hits. Although Popop Norm said he believes he only had three concussions during his entire career, I’m not so sure I believe him based on the lack of caution and understanding related to head injuries back then. Popop Norm described the concussion protocol on the sideline of a game beginning with a doctor checking to see if a player could stand independently and didn’t appear dizzy and disoriented. Then the doctor would say under his breath, “I’m holding up two fingers,” then raise two fingers on his hand and ask, “How many fingers am I holding up?” After correctly answering the question, the player was good to get back on the field. Popop Norm told me about his worst concussion where he blacked out after the hit, was taken off the field and didn’t play the remainder of the game. He then said that he only remembered the game from watching film days later. Increases in helmet technology, injury prevention techniques, and general caution have improved player safety and helped extend careers.

16 seasons in the NFL is a long career, for any time period. Popop Norm told me that he was able to play for so long because he truly enjoyed his time working out, practicing and playing. He said that when he first got into the league, a veteran told him there were three ways to get himself out of the league: he could drink or drug his way out, he could eat his way out, or he could lose his strength and injure his way out. Popop Norm took good care of his body and worked out a lot, but in the end injuries got to him. His knees were the worst and he had seven operations after he retired. Six of them were performed by UVA’s Frank McCue, who my grandad spoke very highly of. During one of his knee operations with Dr. McCue, the doctor noticed some nerve damage in a toe that had experienced frostbite during a freezing game with the 49ers in Cleveland. Popop Norm described the incident from 10 years prior, that the team showed up in Cleveland and had a Saturday morning practice in 77 degree weather. Then after a surprise snowstorm Saturday night and a tarp malfunction on Sunday, the field was wet and he thought his feet were going to freeze off. Dr. McCue decided to amputate part of one toe during that knee operation and didn’t think anything of it. Of course, when the grandkids visited Popop Norm in retirement in Naples, Florida, he told the youngsters that the toe had been bitten off by an alligator!

The last of his knee operations was a titanium double knee replacement. It originally helped him, but now in his 81st year, he struggles to walk and falls a lot. He no longer drives since he has little feeling in his legs. His calendar is filled with doctors’ appointments and medication refills. And yet, Popop Norm is my last living grandparent. My mother’s parents were slightly older, but neither experienced the same physical toll of 16 years in the NFL. My paternal grandmother was a year younger than her ex-husband and lived an active, healthy life. Our family was shocked when she suddenly passed away this past summer. Sad to say, but most of my family would not have bet on Popop Norm to be the last one standing. Even Grama Susie said to my aunts, “I can’t believe Norman is going to outlive me.”

The experiences my grandad had in the NFL are quite different than those of the players today. After the physicality of what he went through in his career, I’m glad he’s still around to share his stories. I feel honored to relay those stories and will cherish everything he has taught me.

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