Movie Review – Disposable Heroes: The Blood, Guts, and Tears Side of Football
Rating – 9/10
Release Date – listed as both 1984 and 1985 by different sources
Running Time – 50 minutes, 58 seconds
Summary – this documentary showed the price paid for gridiron glory – long before it became a hot topic.
Review – Way back in 1984-5, I was a football-obsessed 13-year-old when I watched an HBO documentary titled Disposable Heroes. I never looked at football the same way again. All those years ago, few were reporting on the problems experienced by retired NFL players.
The documentary primarily focuses on two ex-players: Jim Otto and Roger Stillwell. Otto was a star center for the Oakland Raiders during the 1960s and 1970s. On the surface, his story seems to represent all that is right about pro football; after a long career he was elected to the NFL’s Hall of Fame and then enjoyed great business success as a restaurant franchise owner. Viewers learn, however, that Otto’s health is terrible, though was just 46 at the time of filming. Even more alarming is the fact that Otto’s son, Jim Jr. is shown beginning his football career at Utah State University. (In 2007, Otto had his right leg amputated, as a result of his many injuries; ever loyal to his team, Otto has the Raiders logo on his prosthesis).
The most-moving story in Disposable Heroes belongs to Roger Stillwell, a 6-foot-6 defensive lineman from Stanford University, who achieved a brief moment in the sun with the Chicago Bears. Stillwell’s career ended in an instant during a 1977 game against the Minnesota Vikings. He describes the play that ended his dream –
“When the ball was hiked, I was running up. . . . I’ve got this running back here, to take him down. And these guys all crashed into my left side here. They had my foot pinned to the ground, and that kind of started the process.
I could feel my knee starting to give. I could feel the bands and ligaments starting to quiver. It’s like taking a rubber band and pulling it until it can’t go anymore, and that same feeling I had the first time I heard a chicken bone just going . . . crrrrrack.
I ended up on the bottom of the pile with 11 people piled on top of me, the left foot close by my ear here, and just the most hideous, awful feeling of my leg, just feeling like it’s exploding. . . . I could feel the muscles tear, you know, snap and pop, and, of course, the ligaments had already gone.
And I could feel then the bones crunching together. And I’m laying on the bottom of the pile, and we’re laying there and we’re laying there, and I can’t get anybody off of me. And as we got up, they got up one by one, and I pulled my leg back. It started to go into shock…”.
At the time of filming, Stillwell was a young man, but he was unable to work – or even tie his shoes. You see Stillwell’s agony and hear it in his voice as he explains how painful it is to be ruined by – and separated from – the game that gave him his identity. After watching Disposable Heroes, you won’t forget Roger Stillwell. (Stillwell died in February 2006).
I really like Disposable Heroes, but – inevitably – all of the publicity about the health problems of ex-players makes the film less shocking today. Also, filmmaker Bob Moore – who played 8 years as a tight end in the NFL – misses an opportunity by not discussing his own story. In 1989, The Philadelphia Inquirer reported:
“Late in his own career, Moore was in agony over a knee injury, but did not want to leave an important game. He knew the end was near for him and wanted to preserve every moment he had left as an athlete. So he went to the team doctor during halftime and asked for a shot to kill the pain.
‘He said he wouldn’t do it,’ Moore recalled. ‘I got mad. I said, ‘Look, I want a shot!’ Then I grabbed him by the shoulders and told him he wouldn’t be going out for the second half until he shot me up. I forced the guy to do what he didn’t want to do.
‘Now I consider myself a fairly intelligent person. If I was capable of doing something like that, you can imagine what other players are capable of doing. The truth is, in the middle of a football game – in the heat of battle – how many people are really thinking clearly?’
Though dated, Disposable Heroes is a graphic picture of the price that players pay for NFL glory. Perhaps the best part is that the film is available for free online viewing at: http://vimeo.com/4683642. I highly recommend it.