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Hamilton: Promoting safety is former football player’s new passion
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Hamilton: Promoting safety is former football player’s new passion

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By his own admission, Buddy Curry looks good. There are none of the visible scars, obvious limps or other ill effects often associated with playing eight years as an NFL linebacker.

Curry, 55 and retired since 1987, can also still move and was hard to keep up with Tuesday after a luncheon at Wake Forest’s Deacon Tower. Curry slipped through a crowd like he was avoiding blockers before hitting a seam to the rental car that would carry him home to Georgia and the volleyball match his daughter had later that evening.

“To look at me, you wouldn’t think anything was wrong,” Curry said, his 6-4 frame exhibiting proper posture. “I look perfectly fine.”

Curry looked at his shoes for a moment before continuing. He rolled off a list of head-to-toe ailments he deals with on a regular — if not daily — basis. Football did indeed take a toll on him, just as it has so many others who played the game for a living.

His quality of life hasn’t been hindered too badly — and he knows he’s fortunate. Curry named a handful of teammates who are suffering ailments such as restricted mobility and severely limited memories.

Those guys were fine when they were in uniform and huddled together. We all age, but many former players will finish their lives in a physical state that’s a far cry from that of non-players who are the same age. Not enough people saw this coming 30 years ago.

With that in mind, Curry said his mission is to promote education to prevent long-term damage from playing football. That’s what brought him to Winston-Salem on Tuesday.

The luncheon was to kick off the 15th NewBridge Bank Football Jamboree, a 24-team event to be held Friday at three area high schools. It was sponsored by the Matthew Gfeller Foundation, a non-profit organization that seeks to prevent, recognize and treat youth sports head injuries. The foundation’s namesake was a 15-year-old Reynolds High School sophomore who died in 2008, two days after suffering a traumatic brain injury in the fourth quarter of his first varsity game.

Spreading the word

Bob Gfeller, Matthew’s father, said the foundation and his family have distributed or donated nearly $500,000 to various initiatives over the past five years. That includes UNC Chapel Hill’s Department of Exercise and Sports Science, a recipient of foundation funding that sponsors the Matthew Gfeller Center. The Gfeller Center is part of a nationwide network of sports-medicine professionals and trainers seeking to help with recovery from — and prevention of — sports-related traumatic brain injuries.

It was through the foundation that the Gfeller family befriended Curry, a UNC alum who spent his entire NFL career with the Atlanta Falcons. But while some of the foundation’s initiatives are directed toward research, Curry is focused on prevention. That means teaching proper techniques during their formative football years.

Curry and Bobby Butler, another former Falcon, created Kids and Pros in 2002, a series of camps throughout the Southeast featuring non-contact instruction for children ages 7 to 13. Curry is also a master trainer in USA Football’s Heads Up program, a series endowed by the NFL that offers coaches nationally accredited courses regarding proper fundamentals and techniques. He went over a few of the points Tuesday to an audience of coaches, athletics directors and other personnel representing the schools participating in the jamboree.

“Our opportunity to sponsor the lunch and bring in the guest speaker was our opportunity to bridge knowledge to the coaches,” Bob Gfeller said. “Because Buddy is so invested in proper technique and concussions awareness, it just seemed like he would be a great representative of our foundation and what we’re trying to do with our audience.”

Curry’s primary goal is to remove the head from tackling. That makes obvious sense, but it’s very different from anything he was taught coming up through the ranks.

Changing the culture

The culture of the sports in his day was consistent with football’s mythology — players were gridiron warriors who sacrificed their bodies for the team and used every weapon at their disposal in order to win. That often meant hitting an opponent helmet-first.

“I’ve had to unlearn to do most of the things I learned when I played that were wrong,” Curry said. “We’ve got to change the culture, have to change how we do things and how we look at things.”

That can take time.

Curry gave a brief history of football’s evolutionary process, from it being banned and reinstated during the Theodore Roosevelt administration to advances in helmet design during the 1960s and 1970s. And most of the changes introduced during the past century, such as the advent of the forward pass to the creation of the no-huddle offense, shared a common thread: The innovator had a heartfelt belief in what he was doing.

Curry is no different.

Keys firmly clinched in his right hand, he continued his brisk walk toward that rental car. Curry needed no time to respond to the question of if his techniques — which on the surface may not seem to be as aggressive as some methods players use — would have hindered his career.

“Yeah, I think I could have been just as good,” Curry said, “and maybe even better.”

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