"Harry Carson was a leader on the football field, but his passion and devotion for the game of football and those who played it clearly represents the life of Walter Camp and makes him a worthy recipient of the Man of the Year Award." - John Marks, President of the Walter Camp Foundation
For a brief moment, Harry Carson found something humorous about his latest honor.
Since retiring from the NFL, the former South Carolina State defensive lineman and Pro Football Hall of Fame linebacker has been outspoken about the dangers of the game. His recent book "Captain for Life" details the daily struggles of managing side effects from concussions sustained during his 13-year career with the New York Giants and points a critical eye toward the owners and league officials in regard to the players' well-being.
Given Carson's stance, he had no expectations of receiving the "Man of the Year Award" from an organization which shines a positive light on football like the Walter Camp Foundation.
"I didn't campaign for this award," he said in a telephone interview. "They called me. They asked me to allow them to honor me. I'm pretty sure that there're other guys they could have reached out to and actually, they first reached out to me. I was hesitant about accepting the award, but they wanted to honor me in this way."
The Florence native will receive the honor with some ambivalence during the Walter Camp Foundation's Jan. 14 national awards banquet at the Yale University Commons in New Haven, Conn.
"To me, honors really don't mean a whole lot now," he said. "I'm in about just about every Hall of Fame you can mention and my life hasn't changed. It's a nice honor, but there are certain things that are more important now than being honored. So I'm not trying to make little of this honor by the Walter Camp Foundation, but honors do not define me. Like the Pro Football Hall of Fame doesn't define me. I'm still the person that I was. I haven't changed in any way. It's a nice honor to have, but those things don't define me."
Among the criteria for the Walter Camp "Man of the Year Award" is serving as a leader in his profession, public service contributions and an impeccable reputation for integrity. Those are qualities Carson displayed prominently with the Giants and has continued to do so through his volunteer work in the New Jersey area and his advocacy for retired players both as a speaker and a board member of the Gridiron Greats Assistance Fund.
"I'm sort of like Oprah in that there're certain things that I know and the things that I know I know for sure," he said. "I'm not looking to get any kind of credit from it. Far from it, I just want to share with others the experiences that I've gone through and I think that's part of being a leader, being willing to assume any kind of backlash that might come your way from fans who might look at you as someone who wants to change the game from something that might be completely different from what it is now and some people feel threatened. I've even talked about the issue of concussions and trying to make changes in the game to make it safer."
Changing NFL attitudes on the treatment of concussions and bringing attention to the long-term trauma retired players experience post-football in the form of brain ailments like dementia, ALS (Lou Gehrig's disease) and Alzheimer's disease has more meaning for Carson than any individual honor.
"I think for years, there were doctors in place who told the NFL what they thought the NFL wanted to hear and I think the NFL did not have the information that they needed," Carson said. "I think because of (Commissioner) Roger Goodell, now the NFL is hearing information that needs to be heard because there's so many players who have had all kinds of neurological problems, but the NFL, because of the information that they had, blew it off as something that was not attributable to having played football. So now the NFL is much more aware and they understand that there is a price that you pay from a neurological standpoint when you play the game."
Carson sees progress inside NFL locker rooms, where posters are now displayed prominently warning about head injuries. There's also the new collective bargaining agreement which increases benefits for the NFL Player Care Foundation's Mackey 88 Plan, named after the late Pro Football Hall of Fame tight end John Mackey, who battled dementia following his career.
While acknowledging his criticism has ruffled some league feathers, Carson has no regrets about taking a stand.
"I say some things that people may take issue with, but so be it," he said. "I can't undo anything that I've done, but I just have to go on and live my life the best that I can and hopefully, I would have had a very positive impact or influence on those who have supported me over the years."