GREEN BAY – By Sam Gash’s count, he’s had more surgeries than he played NFL seasons. And considering the two-time All-Pro fullback played 12 years in the NFL, that’s saying something.
Add to that the fact that he has seen friends and former teammates battle the debilitating effects of football, and there can’t be many folks more qualified to talk about the physical danger, sacrifice and risk that playing in the NFL requires than the Green Bay Packers new running backs coach.
“I’ve had about 18 surgeries … 16, 17, 18,” Gash said, losing count as he and the Packers’ other new assistants were introduced Monday. “Fingers, wrists, knees, ankles, toes … I used to take a lot of the pills – anti-inflammatories, Percocets. Vicodins, all of that. [I took] Toradol shots. They say now you can’t get Toradol shots – I used to get one a game, at least. One a game, sometimes two – for eight, nine, 10 years.”
Gash admitted that he wonders what impact his career has had on his brain – and how could he not?
His friend Steve Smith, who started at fullback at Penn State before him and played nine seasons in the NFL, was diagnosed with ALS – Lou Gehrig’s Disease – in 2002 and continues to battle the illness . His friend Kevin Turner, who was in the same New England draft class in 1992 and was his teammate for three seasons with the Patriots, played eight NFL seasons and was diagnosed with ALS in 2009. And in 2000, he was teammates with the Baltimore Ravens with O.J. Brigance, now the Ravens’ senior advisor to player development who was diagnosed with ALS in 2007.
“That’s a lot of people to know with that disease,” Gash said, shaking his head. “Some people go through their lives and not even know one person that has it. [And] I know five or six.”
Gash’s theory is that Smith, Turner and Brigance may have gotten ALS even had they not played football – but it would have happened later in their lives. At the very least, he believes football hastened the arrival of ALS. (As a coach, Gash has also seen players’ careers derailed by brain trauma. He was with Detroit when the Lions drafted California’s Jahvid Best, who recently sued the NFL and helmet-maker Riddell after his career was ended by concussions.)
And yet, when asked if he’s glad to see the NFL trending away from the violent, brain-rattling collisions that may have contributed to Smith, Turner and Brigance’s conditions, Gash paused. His career was defined by playing a position he calls “a high-impact, high-velocity position” where such collisions are a “natural occurrence,” and he understands why the traditional fullback is being phased out of the game.
And as a father of seven, including five boys ages 4 to 14, he has mixed feelings about the game itself, as much as he loves it..
He is concerned enough that he had Shockbox sensors installed in his football-playing sons’ helmets, allowing him to monitor via an iPhone app the severity of every collision. At the same time, he knows his boys want to be like their dad and play the game that he loves.
“Football is a gladiator sport. Not everyone can do it,” Gash said. “Sometimes people aren’t made to play. Sometimes the body – if a guy gets two, three concussions – the body isn’t made to handle it.
“That’s just the nature of the beast. Guys are going to run hard, going to hit hard. … [But] I am torn because I have five boys now that want to play football. If they get a hard hit, on my phone I see the impact (of a specific hit), how many impacts were recorded, things like that. Because I was a guy – it didn’t bother me. I didn’t care.
“People ask me all the time, ‘Did you ever have a concussion?’ Well, not officially, but would I sleep at night sweating, sometimes throwing up? Wake up in the morning and have a headache for two or three days? Have I had those? Of course.
“But I was an eighth-round draft pick. If I had them, it didn’t matter. That was the mentality that I had.”
Gash said he hasn’t experienced any significant cognitive problems himself since retiring from football in 2004, after the New Orleans Saints cut him just before training camp after he’d spent the offseason with the team. He started his coaching career as an assistant running backs coach and assistant special teams coach with the New York Jets in 2005 and 2006 before joining the Lions, who hired him as an assistant special teams coach in 2007 before making him the running backs coach in 2008. He spent five years in that role before then-head coach Jim Schwartz fired him following the 2012 season. In Green Bay, he’ll mentor NFL Offensive Rookie of the Year Eddie Lacy, who rushed for a franchise rookie record 1,178 yards and 11 touchdowns last season.
“I’ve always like Sam Gash,” said Packers coach Mike McCarthy, who was the Saints’ offensive coordinator in 2004 when Gash was there. “He’s an excellent fit for us. He’s played the position, he’s coached running backs. He did a very good job in the interview process.”
Gash played in Buffalo with Packers quarterbacks coach Alex Van Pelt, who coached the running backs the past two years. The two have been friends since their time as teammates, and Van Pelt’s memories of Gash as a player are vivid.
“Sam, he's always been blue-collar, hard-worker, tough guy. He carries himself with a lot of respect from the locker room,” Van Pelt said. “He's one of my favorite players in all my years playing football. One of the last, true fullbacks. He brought a toughness and grit every day to work. That's what stood out when I played with Sam."
Gash spent last year out of football, living in Detroit – he and his wife didn’t want to pull the boys, ages 14, 12, 8, 6 and 4, out of school – and simply enjoying his time with his family. He said Monday that they will move to Green Bay soon, likely during spring break.
Whether they’ll play football once they get here, well, that’s not yet decided.
“They want to play,” Gash said. “My oldest, he might not play, and I’m OK with that. But my 12 year old, he’s a little head-hunter. I’m like, ‘Oh God.’ He had like 50 high-impact hits (last season). I’m like, ‘Hey man, I don’t know if I want to let you play.’ But he’s like, ‘No, Dad, I’m fine.’ And I’m like, ‘We’ll see.’”
Listen to Jason Wilde every weekday from 9 a.m. to 10 a.m. on “Green & Gold Today” on 540 ESPN, and follow him on Twitter at twitter.com/jasonjwilde.