Badger the Witness — Requiem for a Running Back

by Dan T. Badger

After over a dozen reviews on the FirstAndMonday, the film making community finally recognized me for my many contributions to the field of serious film criticism.  I was invited to a screening based on the deep respect the film-makers had for my skills in assessing and critiquing film.  Or so I thought.  It turns out a friend of mine, who is very concerned with the subject of the documentary, asked me to go to the screening because he thinks I am a good guy or something.  He had no idea I did movie reviews.  So with the full disclosure that I went in sympathetic to the creators and fully expecting to be bored to drowsiness by a documentary, I am here to report on Requiem for a Running Back.

It was the perfect time for me to see this.  By some weird serendipity I had listened to Rogan’s Podcast about mushrooms earlier in the day when he mentioned using mushrooms to treat Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy (CTE).  I have been reading about Rome’s gladiator revolt in Howard Fast’s Spartacus and the documentary itself mentions that football is the most violent sport since the gladiators.  Finally, I picked up a graphic novel of the Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, which had a succinct and probably accurate view on corporations.

We have been conditioned to treat the players like gladiators.  A star is expected to sacrifice his body and soul for those extra inches that mean the difference between victory and agony.  Movies play an enormous role in shaping our views on almost everything.  The images they have presented of football players is that they are  violent and out of control warriors who will do or die for our amusement.  Any Given Sunday, North Dallas Forty, and The Longest Yard all tell us that the glory of winning is worth any risk.   Death, paralysis, and even imprisonment are small prices for the football warrior to pay if it ends in victory.

Players are given Achilles’ Choice.  The decision must be made to embrace an ordinary, unremarkable, and lengthy life or a fleeting life but lasting glory.  Requiem explores the choice that 3 time champion Lew Carpenter made.  It shows the effects his decision had on him and his family.  It is told by his daughter and it is hard to watch at times.  At the same time it delves into the medical discoveries of CTE and its subsequent denial by the National Football League.

The film uses contrast and comparison throughout in a powerful manner.  Players are shown at the height of their skills and athleticism.  Then the cost of that success is shown.  The juxtaposition is often cringe worthy.  Watching former great John Hilton struggle on film will drive home the severity of the problem and serves to quickly replace admiration with pity.

Mortalizing heroes and role models is something of a national past time.  In many cases it is overstuffed with snark and jealousy.  It can reek of schadenfreude  when someone is taken down a peg or two to the level of mere humans.  This film avoids that for the most part.  The director’s pain at the memory of her father’s actions is clear.  Equally obvious is her quest to try and understand and even forgive him for what must have been a terrible childhood.

She casts a pretty wide net to give context to what she saw and lived through.  The evolution of professional football from the 1950’s to modern times is outlined.  Essentially, the league learned that violence made the game more exciting and appealing.  That is what they marketed.  Football became a weekly war for people who weren’t playing to safely enjoy.  It wasn’t lost on players like Dave Meggysey (featured in the movie) or the best comedian to offer insight on sports (not in the movie).   The old NFL Films music causes goose bumps.  The slow motion capture of hits that sent helmets flying elicits the rush of being a part of something great.

The players on the field had to have felt that same thing magnified beyond counting.  The use of motivational speeches from Vince Lombardi – who coached Carpenter – shows one of the reasons why the players made the choice they did to compete at the highest level for often mediocre (by today’s standards) financial rewards.  The real rationale was the glory, the accolades, and the admiration from screaming fans.  Hearing thousands of people screaming for something you did must be amazing.

Leaving that under the best of circumstances would be excruciating.  Exiting football with the long term effects explored in Requiem was absolutely toxic to the player and those around him.  The documentary explores the most obvious causes of CTE and also focuses on the effects.

The scientists and doctors make a clear case for the genesis and progression of the condition.  It is interesting and gut wrenching.  That feeling goes into over drive when the film looks at the worst cases of CTE.  Family members, friends, and colleagues recount episodes of what can only be called psychotic behavior.  Sometimes the players themselves are interviewed in the grip of the condition.

And the hits keep coming.  The NFL takes a few shots.  Unlike the ones the players took, these seem to have no crippling effect.  Evidence is shown that the league knew about the problems with these injuries.  They knew the cause and they knew the effects.  Which brings us back to the earlier quote on corporations.  From what is presented, it was impossible for a player to knowingly make Achilles’ Choice.  Moreover, not everyone who suffered got to be heroic or even remembered.  To allow that to happen is horrible.  To profit from it while doing everything in its corporate power to avoid responsibility is greedy and amoral.

This film is made by a plaintiff who sued the NFL.  There is an obvious ax to grind.  Moreover, her father, her hero, and her role model, was damaged by his virtues of dedication, discipline and perseverance.  A bigger than life man who was admired by almost all who knew him had psychotic episodes that damaged her and her family.  There is a natural instinct to seek excuses for the bad acts of the ones we love.  In this case it wasn’t an excuse, but a diagnosis.  Hopefully that made it easier for her to reconcile with her dad.

I can’t call this enjoyable, but it is definitely worth seeing.  There were a few things I thought the film should included or expanded on.  The sections of the film on Dave Duerson and Junior Seau  needed a little fleshing out.  Things like steroids, alcohol and drug abuse needed to be addressed as either contributing factors or non factors.  Finally, the film needed to address the players who have CTE but have not manifested the extreme symptoms of the main subjects.  It would be interesting to see if they escaped those effects from early intervention, treatment or by winning the genetic lottery.

If you are a parent thinking about putting your kid in a helmet and pads, go see it.  If you love the game of football, go see it.  If you haven’t wept in a football movie since Brian’s Song, go see it.