Certainly Steve Contini has a lot of fond memories of his football Fridays roaming the secondary for Lima Central Catholic Hall of Fame coach Paul Greene. The times when Contini delivered his type of justice to receivers and running backs alike in the late 1970s while earning a reputation as one Limaland’s fiercest hitters. Contini’s hits were violent enough that, even to this day, the 56-year-old is referred to by some who remember his aggressive style of play as “Pound for Pound.”
Of course, the significance of that epithet is rooted in boxing, where historians of the sweet science will accord, say, a Sugar Ray Robinson or a Sugar Ray Leonard that tag to identify them as, pound for pound, the best boxers of their time.
The pound-for-pound nod of recognition for Robinson and Leonard came despite the fact that neither was a heavyweight, and so it was with Contini, who packed just 160 pounds on his 5-9 frame during his varsity career, a career which included his starting every game from game three of his sophomore year through the final game of his senior season.
For Contini, his hits were delivered often by using one of football’s old-time truisms, by practicing one of the great equalizers in winning football’s one-on-one battles, as in going low. It was something Contini did so well that he led the T-Birds in tackles in both his junior year and senior year during a time when fans, coaches and opponents alike learned to look for his jersey number 49.
However, beneath the top layers of the pleasant reminders of those vibrant teenage times when he could run unimpeded by any physical limitations and throw his body with reckless abandon at opponents who trespassed on that patch of real estate he was entrusted to oversee and then pop up and do it again and again, there are other reminders that whisper to Contini on some days and shout at him on others, so much so that a round of golf is out of the question and even getting out of bed is difficult.
Fortunately, Contini has not exhibited any of the effects of CTE (chronic traumatic encephalopathy), the progressive degenerative brain disease found often in athletes in contact sports who suffered head trauma, concussions that went unrecognized by coaches who unwittingly trivialized the hits that caused head trauma by referring to a player’s wooziness as merely getting his bell rung or getting a stinger and then sending him back out onto the field a few plays later.
So far, for Contini, there has been no evidence of any cognitive decline, memory loss, inability to control emotions or, worst of all, suicidal thoughts, all symptoms of CTE and, sadly, all not associated with CTE until the brain is examined in the post-mortem stage.
In many ways, Contini’s painful reminders of the moments he enjoyed so much are the products of techniques overseen by well-intentioned but uninformed coaches who weren’t all that aware of the long-term effects of teaching blocking and tackling techniques where the head played such a prominent role in the techniques. It would be years before coaches would start using the Heads Up program and its drills to teach techniques that protect the head and neck far more than they used to be.
Recalls Contini, “We were taught to use the head as a primary first-contact point by going low and driving up into the jersey numbers. I still have a black-and-white photo from my senior year of me breaking down to make a tackle against an Allen East ball carrier that shows my helmet lowering to make the tackle. Coaches looking at it now would see it as being just about as far removed from the Heads Up method as you can get.”
As for Contini’s involvement in sports, and, particularly football, that all began with his father, Robert “Bo” Contini, a name well known to local golf enthusiasts who will remember the long-time teaching PGA professional at Hawthorne Hills Country Club.
Before the elder Contini’s athletic path turned to golf, at Dover, Ohio’s St. Joseph High School, he was a three-sport athlete and was especially noted as a lightning-quick running back in the early 1950s. A combination of Steve’s natural inclinations to emulate his father and Steve’s fascination with Dick Butkus, the legendary hard-hitting Hall of Fame linebacker for the Chicago Bears, initially attracted him to the sport.
As a 9-year-old, Steve joined the Steelers in the midget program, and remembers a particular hit that got people’s attention and provided some early foreshadowing as to the player he would become at LCC, a player long-time local broadcaster and area high school sports historian Mike Schepp still recalls as, historically, one of the school’s biggest hitters.
Recalls Contini about that midget football hit, one he delivered to a teammate in practice, “We used to run a drill called bull in the ring, where one player would be in the middle of a ring of players, and the coach would call out a player’s number to charge the one in the middle.
“In this instance my number got called to charge a 12-year old, three years older than I and a whole lot bigger, and I planted him right on his back, my first pancake hit where your target winds up on his back. I think that was the moment I really knew what I wanted to do and what I wanted to be on the football field.”
Years later, at LCC, Contini also remembers another practice hit that earned him the first of his 28 straight varsity starts.
“Tony Lester, who was one of the best Division II big backs in the state and who, along with our speed back Nick Nance, would go on to play Division I college football at Murray State, was coming through the middle one day on a 6-0 trap, and I got low and used my helmet to get a direct hit on Tony’s thigh and flipped him. That got Coach Greene’s attention, and I was a starter from that moment.”
Long-time LCC coach both in football and basketball, where he crafted his own Hall of Fame career, Bob Seggerson, remembers Contini well, having been his JV coach.
“Steve was a gifted athlete and really put together despite not weighing a whole lot. While he was on my first varsity basketball team and brought competitiveness and terrific work ethic, football was really his calling card. Simply put, he was one of the best cornerbacks ever to play at LCC. I’ve watched a lot of LCC football, really almost all of it from the school’s beginning, and I can’t recall anyone who had more highlight hits than Steve.
“His calling card was the high-impact hit, and let me tell you, there were a lot of opponents who went into games knowing who No. 49 was and tip-toed when they came through his area.”
Among the hundreds of hits in both practices and games, for Contini, some stand out more than others. There was that midget-football hit that broke future Major League Baseball player Brad Komminsk’s ankle. And, there were also some high-impact collisions with St. Marys running back and future Ohio State Buckeye Jeff Cisco, the hardest ball carrier Contini ever remembers trying to get to the ground. Then there was that hit against Shawnee’s M1 Abrams tank of a fullback, Rod Apfelbeck, a hit so fierce that it shattered Contini’s facemask, forcing him to wear a JV player’s helmet the rest of the game.
Many hits were delivered along with teammate and future Ohio State Buckeye Steve Corbin on special teams on kickoff teams where, Contini recalls, the goal was to “knock someone out.”
As for the post-career effects, one story tells it all to underscore the damage that multiple collisions can do to the neck and spine.
Remembers Contini, “In my late twenties I really began to notice a lot of severe back pain, as in more that I would have expected, especially at the end of a sporting goods show day when I spent a lot of time on concrete floor while I was working as a sales rep for Baden Sports. A short while after, I was fishing in a tournament with John Gilles, the local chiropractor, and told him about the pain I was having.
“He told me to come in for X-rays, so I did. Once he examined the X-rays, he came back in and asked me a question I’d have never expected. He asked me if I’d ever been in a severe traffic accident. When I said no, he said that my vertebrae was curled and chipped in places and I had bone spurs pretty much up and down my spine, the kind of damage he would associate with bad car wrecks.”
Recently, some two decades-plus later, Contini again had his fellow fishing enthusiast Gilles X-ray his back, and the results, as one would expect, had worsened.
Says Contini, “Three cartilages were no longer even there in my neck, just worn away, and arthritis is pretty much rampant throughout both my neck and spine. I also have chips in the lumbar area of the spine. In effect, although I’m 56, I have the back of someone twenty or so years older, someone whose back had been damaged by a lot of physical labor.”
As a married man and father to his middle-school-aged son Sebastian, Contini had to make the decision last year whether to allow the boy he affectionately calls Sea Bass to play football or not.”
“After talking it over some with my wife Tina and checking out personally the tackling and blocking techniques coached and making sure the coaches were on board with the Heads Up program and drills, we allowed Sebastian to play. Whether he plays in high school will be up to him, but as long as the Heads Up techniques are taught, I’m comfortable with him playing.
“Despite the long-term effects I deal with, I will never bash football. I loved my time playing, and there was for me, and there remains, so many wonderful lessons that football teaches, lessons I just don’t think you can get in the classroom.”
As for the former number 49, whose passion for lowering the boom on ball carriers and receivers alike is undeniable, unfortunately, there are also the residual effects almost four decades later. An MRI is in his immediate future as a starting point to some possible corrective surgery. While once upon a time, there was a game show that dates all the way back to its radio version in 1940 called “Truth or Consequences,” a more apt title for Contini’s post-football-playing days just might be “Truth and Consequences.”
John Grindrod is a regular contributor to The Lima News and Our Generation’s Magazine, a freelance writer and editor and author of two books. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.