Fred Dickey's Island of Human Drama
Tackling Topics with Former Chargers Great
Tackling Topics with Former Chargers Great
Ron Mix knows what it's like on and off the field
By Fred Dickey Dec. 9, 2013
He is clear-headed, showing that after a long-ago decade of having brutes bang his head, he actually knows what’s in the foot-high stacks of legal papers piled along the wall of his Mission Valley law office.
Any bells he hears will have to peal from some nearby church, not his head.
If there were a football league for old jocks, Ron Mix would still be a beast. The Chargers’ star tackle no longer has the chiseled body of the guy who kept Deacon Jones out of the backfield, but he’s still a bear. A small person who put a hand in his huge one might wonder where it disappeared to.
The floor of his office looks like my closet would if my wife relaxed her guard. Instead of scattered shoes, he has depositions, medical reports and pleadings arranged in stacks, with probably a few stray cable TV circulars mixed in. As another attorney said, “Those stacks sound like a litigator.”
Which is exactly what Mix is. The heart of his workers-compensation practice is representing ex-athletes against former employers for injuries sustained on the job. His clients represent all sports with a ball, a base or a goal.
Now 75, Mix lives in Point Loma with Patti, his wife of 48 years. They have three daughters, one of whom, an ex-police detective, is a lawyer in his firm.
Mix was raised in near-poverty by a Jewish immigrant mother who never let him forget he was going to college. That path was made smooth by the University of Southern California, which gave him a football scholarship to play tackle. The Trojans were rewarded when he was named All-American in 1959.
He was a prize in the pro football draft of 1960. The NFL Colts offered him an $8,500 package. The AFL Chargers countered with $12,000 per year (about $100,000 today) and a $5,000 bonus. The Colts declined to increase their offer, saying he would then be earning as much as star quarterback Johnny Unitas. They told him the AFL was going to fold anyway, and he’d sign with the Colts the next year.
The AFL didn’t fold, of course, and Mix became a nine-time all-pro offensive tackle for the Chargers from ’60 through ’69, and then finished with two years on the hated Raiders. He also completed law school at the University of San Diego while playing. Later, he was named to the NFL Hall of Fame and several all-time teams.
Today, Mix watches the debate over football injuries to bone and brain with the empathy of an ex-player, but also a lawyerly interest: “I’ve never met a (retired) athlete who did not have a case for orthopedic problems, no matter what sport.”
He also says all sports that involve head-banging are also likely to involve some level of neurological problems. The worst brain damage he’s seen was of a soccer player. “Heading” a fast-moving soccer ball apparently can have a lasting jolt.
Referring to a recent medical study of football players, he says the positions with the highest level of brain damage were on the offensive line.
Which leads to the obvious question: How’s your head, Ron?
He smiles. “I’m fortunate in only having arthritic joints. The last thing I would admit is having neurological problems, because I can’t imagine a client saying, ‘I would like to be represented by Ron Mix even though he has brain damage.’”
Ron, all athletes know the risks when they sign up.
“That’s absolutely true. However, workers comp is a no-fault system. If you are injured on the job, that’s all you have to prove.”
I’ve heard it said, tongue in cheek, that if we went back to leather helmets with no face masks, we’d have fewer injuries because tacklers would be protective of their own heads.
“I don’t believe that.”
You’d have fewer teeth.
“You’d have fewer teeth and fewer women.”
I see those players who weigh 340 to 350 pounds, and I see those jiggling bellies, and I think, good grief, what must their doctors think?
Mix says players have no choice; obesity can be a job requirement. Linemen pretty much have to stay fat if they want to keep getting a paycheck. He represented the lawsuit of Nate Newton, a retired lineman for the Dallas Cowboys. Mix says Newton testified that he weighed 265 coming out of college, but the Cowboys gave him a reporting weight of 325, thus he established that being overweight was a condition of employment. At the time the case was filed, Newton weighed 425 and had diabetes.
“His job requirement was to be overweight. Of course, once you stop playing, your appetite doesn’t change. You can’t exercise because you are a physical mess.”
Mix says when he played, team doctors sometimes precipitously rushed players back into action, but often with the complicity of players anxious to play.
“I remember having a lame Achilles and the team doctor told me that the only quick fix would be a cortisone steroid injection. He asked if I had ever had such an injection there before, and when I told him I had, he strongly advised me not to do it again. He told me to just be inactive for three to four weeks. I told him I needed to play that week and wanted the shot. He reluctantly gave it to me, muttering, ‘And you’re supposed to be a smart guy.’”
In the current Miami Dolphins dispute involving accusations that bullying and racism were used to victimize one player, Jonathan Martin, Mix is unwilling to form a judgment.
“When all the evidence comes out, it’ll be far more complicated. I suspect there was a lot of playful talking going back and forth where one would use racial epithets. You have a common experience playing professional football. It breaks down all sorts of barriers. You are talking among yourselves. When viewed from the outside, people think, ‘How could they talk that way?’ Well, that’s just the culture.”
Would you encourage kids to play football?
“Below high school, tackle football shouldn’t exist. The proof is solid enough now that it’s just too dangerous for young boys.”
In 1963, the Chargers won the AFL championship and the Chicago Bears won the rival NFL title. Mix ponders who would have won had the two champions played.
“I can’t say with certainty we would have beaten them, of course, but it would have been a close game.”
The obvious follow-up hypothetical is: Could the ’63 Chargers beat today’s team?
He points out that the ’63 players were much lighter, especially in the offensive line, but says if they were allowed to bulk up, his team would beat today’s Chargers.
“There are players on that ’63 team that would be great even today, and I’m thinking of Paul Lowe, Keith Lincoln, Lance Alworth, Ernie Ladd and John Hadl.”
Three players, especially, from those Charger days enter his thoughts. Tight end Jacques MacKinnon was his best friend on the team. “He died young (at age 36 in 1975). He was in a car accident and apparently had been drinking. He ran from the scene and jumped a fence. He didn’t realize the fence bordered a 30-foot excavation, and he was killed in the fall.”
He calls Frank Buncom, an all-pro linebacker for the team in the ’60s, the most admirable person he met in football. “He died at age 29 (in 1969). He had a knee injury that caused a blood clot to go to his lung. He was just a special guy: very bright, very personable, very funny. He just would extend himself to everyone. He was the most thoroughly decent person I’ve ever met.”
He fondly remembers his ex-roomie, the late quarterback-politician Jack Kemp, who was immersed in conservative politics. Mix was of the opposite persuasion at the time and they often argued. Finally, in a pro-and-con discussion of Social Security, Mix used his mom to make his case. “I told him she had a fifth-grade education, and always had the lowest-paying jobs you could imagine. I said, ‘Do you really think that she would take even a dime away from her family and put it away for her retirement, even if she had the chance?’
“Now, we go forward and we’re playing the Houston Oilers in a close game, and it’s halftime. We’re walking to the locker room. I hear, ‘Ron, Ron.’ It’s Jack. ‘Wait up.’ I wait, and he says, ‘You know, I’ve been thinking about what you said about Social Security, and I agree with you.’ I say, ‘What are you talking about? We’re in the middle of a game, and you’re thinking about Social Security?’”
Pro football is a Godzilla-size success, which means the goddess Nemesis will try to humble it, as she does anything she considers too big for its britches. What would bring football down?
“The thing that could (diminish) football is if medical evidence that it causes permanent damage in most participants is proven. However, pro football just has everything. It has skill, it has speed, it has courage, it has drama. It’s never going to be brought down. It’s just too enjoyable.”
Why is it that so many players lose their money when they retire?
“Most athletes come from a poor background where there is no business sophistication in the family. But they know what it’s like to be poor. They are overly generous to family and friends when they do get money. People just automatically think, ‘Oh yeah, (those are) African-Americans. But it really goes beyond race.”
What is it about professional football players that the public might have difficulty understanding?
“I think they’d be surprised at how decent and honorable the vast majority of players are.”
Fred Dickey’s home page is freddickey.net. He believes every life is an adventure and welcomes your thoughts and ideas at [email protected]
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