Crespino donated brain, spine to science

I am no doctor. I certainly have no substantiated statistical data on the long-time effects of football on a human being’s health. I do know that virtually every man I know, who played football into their 30s, suffers high moderate to mostly severe health problems of some sort. And I know a lot of them. The game takes a toll.


Billy Watkins and I did a series of stories about that subject in 2008. This is the piece I did on my good friend, Bobby Crespino. Bobby, who died Monday at the age of 75, was reluctant to participate in the 2008 interviews because of his love of the game, but he also thought it important that the general public understand the situation many less fortunate ex-players face. True to his nature, Bobby donated his brain and spinal chord for the important research being conducted in hopes that the game of football, which provided him with so many opportunities, can be made safer for future generations.

Memorials can be made either to St. Vincent de Paul Society at St. Richard Church, Jackson, or to the Center for the Study of Traumatic Encephalopathy at Boston University (http://www.bu.edu/cste/), which is conducting state-of-the-art research on football and head injuries. What follows is the story I did on Bobby.

As an NFL wide receiver and tight end in the 1960s, Bobby Crespino’s specialty was crossing the middle of the field to catch passes.

It was an occupational hazard in every sense of the term.

In 1965, playing for the New York Giants against his old teammates on the Cleveland Browns, Crespino ran a crossing pattern. Just as the football arrived, so did Vince Costello, the Browns’ bruising middle linebacker and a good friend of Crespino’s. Costello hit Crespino, helmet-to-helmet, just as the ball got there. The result: a violent, full-speed collision leaving Crespino unconscious. He remembers nothing of the plane ride back to New York from Cleveland. He spent the night in a New York emergency room. He played the next week.

That wasn’t the worst injury he ever suffered in the NFL.

Today, Bobby and wife Barbara Crespino live in northeast Jackson. Barbara Crespino is battling cancer. Bobby Crespino, who just turned 70, faces numerous neurological issues and walks with a cane.

Bobby Crespino receives a modest pension for his eight-year NFL career (1961-68). The NFL has turned him down for any assistance with his myriad medical expenses, many to treat injuries he believes stem from football.
Crespino, selected to the Ole Miss Team of the Century, is a proud man, reluctant at first to participate in this story. He says he didn’t want to appear to be begging for help.

“I did well after football,” Crespino says. “I’m able to handle my medical bills. The thing is, there are a lot of guys who I played with – a lot of guys before me and a lot of guys after me – who are not. The NFL is a multi-billion-dollar business and should do more to help the guys who helped it become that.”

Crespino played long before the NFL became by far the world’s most successful sports industry. A first-round draft pick of the Browns in 1961, he signed for a $6,500 bonus and a $12,500-a-year salary.

That bonus and salary together would not pay for the operation Crespino underwent in 1998 to repair spinal stenosis, a narrowing of the spinal column. Vince Costello’s lick could have contributed to Crespino’s condition. But then, so could the injury he incurred in a preseason practice in 1966. Crespino was crossing the middle of the field again when he received a blow to his lower back. A defensive back hit him, helmet first, and cracked three vertebrae.

Team doctors didn’t operate at the time, Crespino says.

“They told me the best thing to do was let the vertebrae heal on their own,” he says. “Heck, they didn’t want to operate; they wanted me back as soon as possible.”

Six weeks later, he was back in the Browns lineup. Forty years later, in 2006, Crespino underwent lower back surgery to repair vertebrae and a ruptured disc.

Crespino applied, once, to the NFL for help with his medical bills. He was denied.

Neurosurgeon Philip Azordegan, who performed both surgeries on Crespino’s spine, says he cannot for certain say both surgeries were 100 percent the result of the football injuries four decades ago.

“But I can tell you that trauma from football collisions was a contributing factor,” Azordegan said. “Football is a game of extreme collisions, and each one of those violent collisions has to cause some degeneration to cartilage all through the body.”

Crespino chose not to appeal the NFL’s decision. He was a successful businessman in Macon, where he started a cable company and a retail appliance store and where Barbara Crespino operated a women’s clothing store.

“I have my own insurance; I just didn’t want to go through all that rigmarole of getting their doctors to agree with my doctors,” Crespino says.

That doesn’t mean he thinks the NFL was right.

Says Crespino: “The bottom line is that the NFL is the most successful profession sport there is, and yet professional baseball and basketball both treat their former players better than the NFL does. It’s a shame.”

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