Wistert at other end of NFL spectrum

Junior Seau, of the New England Patriots, reacts during a game against the Arizona Cardinals at...

Junior Seau, of the New England Patriots, reacts during a game against the Arizona Cardinals at Gillette Stadium on December 21, 2008 in Foxboro, Massachusetts. (GETTY)

JOHN KRYK, QMI AGENCY

, Last Updated: 5:06 PM ET

Whenever a widely beloved person dies in some tragic circumstance, we tend to seek out other such extreme cases, and perhaps connect more dots than exist. It's human nature to do so.

That is not to belittle, denigrate, question, or in any way minimize the very real and heart-wrenching plights of Junior Seau last week, Dave Duerson last year, or thousands of former NFL players suffering long-term effects from the concussions they received during their playing days.

But at this rate, many casual observers might be left with the impression that every ex-NFLer suffers debilitating post-career traumas, either mental or physical -- or both.

Of course, that isn't true. Indeed, for every yin there is a yang. And at the other end of this post-career NFL spectrum are many former players who have lived long, prosperous, healthy lives with zero regrets about their football-playing pasts.

Players such as Al Wistert.

Albert "Ox" Wistert played nine years in the NFL at right tackle from 1943 to 1951, all in Philadelphia. He was the first Eagles player ever to have his jersey retired -- No. 70.

Wistert was a consensus all-pro for five consecutive seasons, from 1944-48, and he earned first-team all-league recognition more times (24) by the various selecting organizations than any other NFL tackle who played either in the '30s or the '40s, according to pro-football-reference.com.

On its 75th anniversary in 1994, the NFL named the Ox to its all-decade team of the 1940s. (Incredulously, however, Wistert has yet to be inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame, a glaring omission.)

At only 6-foot-1 and 214 pounds, Wistert was the smallest tackle in the league in his day. He made up for his size deficiency by being the NFL's swiftest tackle, and its craftiest and most effective blocker.

Total Football: The Official Encyclopedia of the National Football League says that "during the 1940s, the surest gain in the NFL was the Eagles' Steve Van Buren off right tackle. Van Buren was a phenomenal runner, but it was Wistert's key blocks at the line of scrimmage that sprang Van Buren into the opponent's secondary."

That was the day when starters were seldom substituted for, and most played on offence and defence. Wistert earned his "Ox" nickname not for his size, but because he almost never came out of a game.

Wistert is now 91 years old. Until just two years ago he was still living on his five-acre ranch in Grants Pass, Oregon. He now resides in an assisted-living facility in that city.

When I first spoke with Wistert in 2006, some 55 years after he'd played his last NFL game, and long after his successful post-NFL professional career of selling insurance, he was 85. The native Chicagoan was proud to tell me he was still beginning each day by doing 50 sit-ups and 50 jumping jacks before taking his dog on a hike into Rogue Valley.

Every day!

I remember thinking at the time, when I myself was badly out of shape, that doing that regimen once would just about kill me. And I was 41 at the time.

I caught up with Wistert by phone the other day. He is still sharper than most his age. And he said he still begins each day by exercising, although not anything like the 50-50 regimen anymore.

I asked Wistert why he has been so fortunate, all these decades later, after having slogged it out for nine years in the pits of leather-helmet-era pro football.

Wistert said he often did take a pounding; speed can help an undersized tackle avoid only so much contact.

"It was always a problem," he said of his size. "Each guy that I played against outweighed me by 40 or 50 pounds, and that was never easy.

"Playing nine years in the NFL would be a long time in any era. I didn't have a lot of injuries, though. I usually played 60 minutes and didn't come out of the game. But I managed to survive it. I guess I was pretty tough."

Wistert said he doesn't recall there being any protocols, or even concerns, back in the '40s about the effects of hits to the head. He doesn't recall having suffered a concussion, and said he doesn't know of any teammates who were ever kept out of a game for having had, in the parlance of the day, his "bell rung."

"No, I don't remember any serious precautions that they would make about that. So I guess there wasn't any concern about it."

Wistert said some of the worst injuries he ever suffered in football occurred on the one and only play on which he carried the ball. It was during his time at the University of Michigan, where he was the second of the three Wistert brothers to suit up for the Wolverines; each wore jersey No. 11, and each was named an All-American.

In 1941 Wistert's innovative head coach, Fritz Crisler, had a tackle-around play for him that his quarterback finally called against Northwestern. Wistert gained seven yards on it.

"There were about five Northwestern guys riding on me, trying to get me down," Wistert told me in 2006. "I broke my left wrist, which is still not right. It had to be operated on twice. And my nose was broken. I said, 'You guys carry the ball and get all the glory -- I'm gonna stick with blockin' for ya!'"

This week, Wistert said he is not a plaintiff -- nor does he intend ever to become one -- in any of the 70 concussion lawsuits filed against the NFL by more than 1,800 former players and family members.

Wistert said he was saddened by the news last week that Junior Seau had killed himself. He was hesitant to comment on it, but made the following points.

"Well, this is a very unusual thing that somebody would commit suicide. He's the only football player that has committed suicide that I know of. This is not something that happens every other day, ya know."

"Wisty," as his college teammates called him, cited the fact he always has been so active for his age as the key factor in his post-career health. He said it was the way he was raised in Chicago by his mother and father, the latter of whom was a policeman killed in the line of duty when Albert was a child.

"I still take good care of myself," he said. "I still do some exercise each day. I try to stay in shape, and I'm still going strong. I expect to live to age 100."

Maybe by then he'll be inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame.


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