Dan Bunz suffered his first concussion when he was 11 years old. He fell off a willow tree in the family yard and rolled around aimlessly for a moment.
Bunz sustained more "bell ringers" when he crashed into ballcarriers as a prolific tackler for Oakmont High School. He suffered many more concussions during an eight-year NFL career that included two Super Bowl triumphs with the 49ers as a linebacker and special-teams player.
Some head injuries were so severe, Bunz said in a phone conversation Sunday night, he couldn't remember which sideline was his or what happened in the first half. The headaches, the violent vomiting on the team flight home, the instruction to use smelling salts to immediately return to practice or a game, the dozens of cortisone shots for his shoulder. It all stirs up bad memories of a sport that rewarded Bunz with a degree of fame but also left him like so many of his contemporaries from his era: battered and increasingly bitter.
"You played because you loved the game, and because the coaches and trainers told you to get back out there, or you might get cut," said Bunz, who has taught at Sutter Middle School for 18 years. "I feel like I've had hundreds of concussions, or stingers where you hit a nerve and your arm is numb and there's blinking lights. Once against the Rams, it felt like the whole field was moving around. I'm dizzy, about to fall over, then the snap comes and they're attacking you with blocks, and you play. You look back and wonder, what the ?"
Even Bunz's greatest moment, the goal-line stand in Super Bowl XVI to hold off the Cincinnati Bengals and help start a dynasty, left him woozy. The series left Bunz with a split chin strap, a cracked nose and a staggering return to the sideline. It wasn't until several moments later on the sideline that Bunz finally recalled where he was, yelling, "Detroit! Detroit!"
Bunz laughs at that story, but mostly, there is concern and sadness in his voice. Bunz talked about Junior Seau and his suicide last week. He spoke about one-time Chicago Bears safety Dave Duerson, who shot himself in the chest last year to preserve his brain for medical research. He discussed how studies reveal that concussions are linked to depression and dementia.
And he talked about how the girlfriend of 1980s Bears quarterback Jim McMahon programs his GPS with their home address, in case he forgets.
Yes, Bunz worries about his own plight. He endures constant pain in his hips and shoulder. He fears memory loss the most.
"Sometimes I forget things and wonder if it's because of football or because I'm in my 50s," said Bunz, 56. "I told my wife and daughters that if I start acting strange, then you know why: football. I worry about them more than me. If I ever start to really deteriorate, they shouldn't have to pay those bills. The NFL should. We gave our lives and bodies to the NFL, but what do they give back? Once you're done as a player, they're finished with you. When you're cut, you're done. No (immediate) benefits. No health care. Nothing."
Bunz looks fit. He exercises, reads and works with puzzles to keep mentally sharp. He said he enjoys working with middle-school students because, "They keep me young."
But Bunz wonders what condition he will be in at age 65, when the NFL's pension begins for retired players.
"The average life for a lot of NFL players is 51 or 52, so what good is a pension at 65 if you're dead?" Bunz said. "Football is a hard life, an abusive life. It's like war. How many people have to die before something's done about it?"
Bunz paused and continued.
"You hear stories about retired NFL players losing it, and what makes me so angry is people say, 'He's just an idiot.' No, he was a man crying out for help. That was Duerson and Seau. How many more?"
Bunz said the NFL could heal a lot of wounds by testing retired players of all eras from head to toe and paying for their medical costs.
"It's like the tobacco companies for years saying tobacco isn't linked to cancer," Bunz said. "What's happened to so many ex-players is linked to football. It's scary, and it's sad. So many ex-players, they're all dying. It kills me that the NFL won't do the right thing help these people. It's criminal what's happened."