Cory Schlesinger with one of his game-day beaten, bent and mutilated helmets in 2003. (Daniel Mears / Detroit News)
Allen Park — Cory Schlesinger’s nickname when he played for the Lions was Sledge — as in Sledgehammer. There may not be a more fitting moniker in professional sports. He was a battering-ram fullback who estimates he broke his face mask 200 times in head-on collisions over the course of his 12-year career.
Because it was legal and taught as the proper way — see what you hit — he often led with his head when he crashed into another player.
He was paid to hit and he loved to hit. He once went out of his way to pancake defensive back Deion Sanders after the whistle. He recounted the story to former News Lions writer Mike O’Hara on the Lions website.
“I ran a play, and I kind of had a late hit on him,” Schlesinger said. “He said, ‘What are you doing?’ I told him, ‘That’s the only time I get a chance to hit you. So I did.’ He said, ‘All right. That’s cool.’
“I never touched him again.”
He laughed when he was asked if he knows how many concussions he might have sustained.
“Oh, my goodness,” he said. “Who knows? You go to training camp and it’s like a headache the whole time you are there. But, it’s been like that for a long time and you didn’t think twice about it. Just, all right, that is part of the game.
“After a while it kind of goes away and you just keep on playing.”
Schlesinger is 41 now. He teaches in the industrial tech department at Allen Park High. He doesn’t want to talk much about the residual effects of all those head hits, but his memory does occasionally fail him. He’ll see a student in the hallway, one he clearly knows, and he won’t always be able to recall the kid’s name.
“What I have going on I don’t want to make public,” he said. “Everybody says, ‘Well, I can’t do that (remember names) either.’ But it’s like my memory deserts me sometimes. ... I don’t know if it’s age, if it’s football or if it’s too many isolation blocks.”
Schlesinger, though, isn’t complaining. He isn’t seeking any kind of platform to denounce the NFL. In fact, he said he has no regrets, and if he had the chance to do it all over again, he wouldn’t change a thing.
All he wants is for the NFL and the Lions to continue their efforts toward research and treatment of traumatic head injuries and to be there for him if and when he needs medical assistance.
“My body was used and abused playing in the NFL,” he said. “I would like a little help later on if I need some major reconstructive surgery or something like that. That would be nice, also for what I did for that organization and all the money we did produce for them.”
Schlesinger was on three playoff teams with the Lions and blocked for Barry Sanders during his 2,053-yard season in 1997.
“It was a fun time I played in,” he said. “I love the game and hopefully I played it well, too. But I think they are doing a good job of coming back and trying to help out former players. They aren’t dropping us like flies and forgetting about us. Maybe some of the players are saying they are but so far so good for me.”
Schlesinger said he was encouraged with the early results of the league’s $765 million concussion settlement last year.
“Because I am a former player, I believe I would be part of that,” he said. “I think it’s about giving help if something does go wrong to these players. That’s what I want. I don’t want anything else except if something does happen in 20 years or so, I want them to help cover the cost for the hospitalization or whatever I need. Right now I don’t need it; 20 years from now, maybe yeah.”
The money earmarked for research is just as important to Schlesinger. If what his and all the previous generations of players went through can be the impetus to a higher understanding of brain injuries and treatments, then their suffering wasn’t for naught.
“People have really started to look into this stuff more and it’s part of the learning curve of it,” he said. “Like back in the day when guys tore their ACL they took the whole thing out instead of just fixing the ligament (like they do now). We are learning and that’s kind of the nice thing.”
Schlesinger mentioned the new, $55 million research center at the University of Nebraska called CB3 — Center for Brain, Biology and Behavior — where they are not only exploring causes and preventative methods, but also ways of reversing the damage the brain has already incurred.
“People in car accidents, people who play football, ice skaters, roller skaters, anybody who hits their head, hopefully they can do some research that can help them recover a lot of what they might have lost,” he said.
Schlesinger has two daughters, so he doesn’t have to worry about whether or not he would prevent them from playing football. But, pressed to answer the hypothetical question — would you let you son play football? — he said he would.
“We take risks in everything we do in life,” he said. “You ride a bike without a helmet, it’s a risk. You drive a car, it’s a risk every single day. People are going to parties and drinking and they are taking risks, not only on their lives but mine.
“So I can’t sit here and say I would never make him play football. Other players may feel differently. Other players have had way more surgeries than I had. Other players might be hurting more than I am.”
Schlesinger paused and then chuckled.
“Yeah, I probably would encourage him to play,” he said. “I would encourage him to be a kicker or a punter or a long-snapper. Anything but a fullback or a linebacker.”