For 15 seasons Jesse Sapolu was the man at the center of it all in San Francisco — the All-Pro Center for the 49ers and the man who handed the ball to Joe Montana and Steve Young. Sapolu won four rings with the 49ers and never wore another pro jersey, but through his entire storied career he played with a secret, a torn aortic valve that put his life in jeopardy on every down.
In our exclusive interview with Sapolu (the full audio can be heard below), I ask him about playing with that risk and how the deaths of players like Thomas Herrion and Kory Stringer effected him or made him realize the risks that he had taken for the game:
“At the time that I played there was not a lot of examples of things happening that would have scared me to the point where I would have to ask myself.”
Sapolu Later added: “I look back on it now and its crazy, but at the time I didn’t really know any better to be honest with you.”
Sapolu also talks about how the death of his son’s teammate from an irregular heartbeat and Junior Seau’s suicide effected him and the mentality that helps make players feel “bullet-proof”:
Your conditioned to overcome adversity as a player. There’s a difference between being hurt and being injured. I know my longtime offensive line coach Bobb McKittrick would say that “the doctors will tell you that you can’t play but a warriors heart and a warriors mentality is, you make the call if you want to play or not.” What he really meant was, you dictate if your’e going to play regardless of what the doctors say and that was the mentality back when I played.
On the issue of head injuries, Sapolu opened up about the difference between the way players are treated now versus how it was when he played:
I had four or five headaches through my career. I don’t know if those were concussions because we didn’t know all the details. Now it probably would be considered a mild concussion, but back then we always referred to it as a headache and once a headache disappears its time for you to step back on the field.
When the issue of the NFLPA and their ability or inability to help retirees is broached, Sapolu says that they are “doing much better, but not nearly enough” and then mentions that the benefits that retired NFL players receive isn’t in line with the benefits received by players from other sports.
Sapolu also talks about the glory days with the 49ers, the influence of Jim Harbaugh on today’s team, playing in Joe Montana’s last game as a Niner, and how Montana and Steve Young would do in the NFL now.
Below is audio from the entire half hour interview. I urge you to listen to it and share it. And if you want to buy Jesse Sapolu’s book: “I Gave My Heart to San Francisco” you can pick up a copy here.