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Knoxville News-Sentinel (Tennessee)
The death of Richard Pickens earlier this week is a tragic reminder of the human toll of football.
Richard made it to 67, but his mind betrayed him years earlier. He suffered from a variety of neurological disorders, not the least of which was "frontotemporal dementia."
The likely culprit, of course, was repeated concussions. At Richard's request, his brain was donated to Boston University for further research into the horrible aftereffect of this high-impact sport.
Why does it haunt some and not others? Perhaps the answers will eventually come. We can but pray.
Jim McDonald, a teammate at Young High School and the University of Tennessee, estimated Richard suffered 15-20 brain-jarring incidents during his career. In Richard's nursing home room was a display case with one of his Vol helmets, complete with the deep crease from a particularly violent collision at Neyland Stadium.
Richard and I grew up near each other in South Knoxville. We went through school together: Mooreland Heights Elementary, Young and Tennessee. He and I were Sigma Chi fraternity brothers at UT.
Technically, Jim (another Sigma Chi brother, btw), Richard and I played football together at YHS.
Technically, I reiterate; we belonged on the same team during the same era.
The truth of the matter is, they actually competed in real, live games. I was on the practice squad, riding the pine.
When Tom Mattingly called me for a quote to include in Richard's obituary, he said I gave him the same one Jim did. To wit:
"I can't ever recall bringing Richard Pickens down, one-on-one, during practice or a scrimmage."
No doubt many old high school and college opponents could say the same thing. While wincing.
He was that kind of a crushing, punishing runner. Even in full pads, full-speed contact with him felt like a double mule kick.
I used to tease Richard that all of us scrubs on the cannon fodder crew were responsible for turning him into an All-American. This we did by graciously allowing him to shred us with his cleats. On the rare occasion Richard didn't immediately flatten you like a beach towel, the best you could hope for was to hang on 'til the posse arrived - praying they came quickly.
One of my last, saddest memories of Richard occurred during a Young High Class of '65 reunion at Fox Den.
I was about to order a drink when I noticed the bartender was distracted. He was watching Richard as he struggled down a nearby hall on his walker.
"That guy you're looking at once led the SEC in rushing when he played at Tennessee," I said.
The stunned bartender slowly shook his head. Finally he spoke: "No way."