The current phenomenon known as pro football was introduced to Minnesota and its tributaries more than 50 years ago.   The audience for the first game in 1961, played not far from the cornfields of south Bloomington, was a modest 32,236, and the indisputable star was a rookie quarterback and now lively septuagenarian named Francis Tarkenton.

I can tell you all of this because I wrote about football then for the Minneapolis Star Tribune and also wrote a book about Francis well before his elevation to the National Football League Hall of Fame. We retain a friendship that cheerfully spans the decades.

He was on the phone a few days ago, the same old effervescent Francis.  “Klobey,” he said, “I’m 73 and never felt better, my business [advising startup corporations] is thriving but the old pro football I knew and played looks to be gone forever.”

He meant what pro football, in its unprecedented wealth and prosperity, is inflicting on itself—aided, he is convinced, by a runaway use of performance enhancing drugs.

Add the life-threatening injuries that are multiplying each year because of the increased size of the players, the speed of the game and its furies. Add the non-stop mayhem of it and the big money incentives that with each new season bring the game a little closer to the martial arts ferocities that turn competition into mayhem.

Add the growing evidence that football at all levels can be potentially life-threatening. If not life-threatening then damaging via concussions in a way that that might last a lifetime.  It’s a reason why many parents of today are looking for other less dangerous sports.

“People are getting hurt in ways they didn’t before,” he said. “The incentives to make it in pro football are huge. I loved the game — still do. But its very success is making it a more dangerous game than when we played it 30 and 40 years ago. And now it spills into the college game. Bigger players.  If it takes drugs to make them bigger, that too.”

How big? Grotesque big in some cases. Defensive linemen weighing 340 pounds, seemingly impossible to move out of the way.

But they CAN be moved because the large people facing them on the other side of the line of scrimmage are about as big.

Are they all taking drugs? Of course not. Are the drugs available if they want?  They are.

So the pro football league walks a tightrope. Its popularity has turned the enjoyment of sports into a caricature in ways large and small. Once there were pro football games on Sunday afternoons.  The TV ratings, meek in the years of black and white television, began to expand with color TV. Then there were pro football games on Monday night. That became so popular that they added pro football games on Sunday night.  That became so popular that the league itself produced a football game on Thursday night on its own network. But for all of its TV popularity, for all of the billions of dollars in profits that it produces, pro football is walking a razor’s edge in some places by charging its season ticket buyers a license fee to retain permanent ownership of the seats that they pay thousands of dollars a year to buy.

Some people call that an inducement. Another word is flat-out coercion.  Yet the game’s popularity has become almost mythic. Otherwise normal human beings invest money in fantasy football leagues. Their fantasy team’s performance is based on what happens in the actual games being played out on television. That now means they have a stake in what happens Sunday afternoon, Monday night, Sunday night and Thursday night.  Millions of otherwise normal men (and now normal women) have begun using the same language in routine conversation that the football scouts and the analysts use during the games: pistol formation, back shoulder pass, read option, nickel (defense), bubble screen and more (offense).

So pro football and televised football in general have become a national mania, easily surpassing the popularity of all other sports. It’s evidenced in the current hysteria over college football in the American South, in the jockeying for post-season riches and acclaim. But the increased exposure to injury and stories of former players now battling the results of concussions has led to legal action and serious questions raised increasingly by worried parents.

“There’s no question,” Francis Tarkenton said, “that pro football, any football, has to be concerned about the fallout from those big bodies hitting each other in today’s game.”

Billions of dollars are at stake here. There’s some evidence that the public is going to start demanding some rationality about how far football should go at the amateur level. 

All of that is exciting, Tarkenton conceded. “But certainly in pro football we’re being carried to excess here. Would you believe that football once was actually fun?”