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Ex-Eagle Irv Cross tormented by pain but not bitterness

The former Eagles cornerback and TV commentator, 79, is troubled by headaches and has been diagnosed with mild cognitive dementia.

(From left) Jimmy "The Greek" Snyder, Jack Whitaker, Brent Musburger, Jayne Kennedy and Irv Cross.
(From left) Jimmy "The Greek" Snyder, Jack Whitaker, Brent Musburger, Jayne Kennedy and Irv Cross.Read moreAP File

Irv Cross isn't the only player from his hard-knocks football generation with nonstop headaches.  At 79, he's also been diagnosed with mild cognitive dementia. He has stopped reading, avoids crowds and no longer drives, fearing he might not remember the way home.

But the gracious former Eagles cornerback, a two-time Pro Bowler who was among the first black athletes to transition successfully from the field to network television, refuses to be bitter. He is reluctant even to elaborate on the physical and mental problems he described in a new biography co-written with Clifton Brown, Bearing the Cross.

"I don't talk about how I feel," Cross said during a recent telephone interview. "I've got some damage, obviously. But unlike a lot of guys I played with in Philadelphia and Los Angeles, I'm still here. I'm very fortunate."

He thinks he knows what caused the headaches, the neck pain, the backaches. It's why he carries a card in his wallet instructing that, after his death, he wants Boston University to test his brain for chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE).

"That's affected a lot of players from my generation," he said. "We didn't think about things like safety."

Cross lives in Minneapolis, far removed from an era when he once was among the most familiar faces in Philadelphia sports. But while many Eagles — from his early 1960s teammates through those who thrilled him by winning last February's Super Bowl — are better-known and more honored, few had Cross' impact.

The Eagles' seventh-round pick out of Northwestern in 1961, he was among the franchise's first African American starters. He was the first black person to do TV sports reports in Philadelphia, the first to do color commentary on network games, and became a broadcast pioneer with CBS' groundbreaking pregame show, NFL Today.

One of 15 children of a Hammond, Ind., steelworker and his wife, Cross almost snubbed the Eagles to sign with the AFL's New York Titans. The AFL then played on Saturdays and Cross, a fervent Christian, preferred to keep Sundays holy. A year earlier, Ron Burton, a college teammate and close friend, had spurned the Eagles for the same reason and signed with the Boston Patriots.

"But Bucko Kilroy [an Eagles scout] mentioned that the team was starting a players chapel service on Sunday and wanted to know if that would work for me. I told him it would," Cross said.

Eight games into Cross' rookie season, he became the starting right cornerback when a broken leg ended Tom Brookshier's career. His most impressive stat that year might have been the number of concussions he suffered, so many that teammates called him "Paper Head."

The worst came on Dec. 3 in Pittsburgh. Knocked unconscious while blocking on a Timmy Brown punt return, Cross nearly swallowed his tongue, spent three nights in the hospital, and was warned that he could die if he returned too soon.

"Dr. [Mike] Manderino was our team doctor, and he told me any kind of substantial blow to the head might be fatal," Cross said. "So I had a helmet made with a little extra padding and played. I just tried to keep my head out of the way while making tackles. But that's just the way it was. Most of the time, they gave you some smelling salts and you went back in. We didn't know."

Early in his Philadelphia years, after hearing him speak at a banquet,  KYW-TV sports director Jim Leaming offered Cross a job.

"I think he was impressed that a football player could speak English," Cross said, laughing. "I began to do the sports reports on the weekends and, when Jim was on vacation, during the week.

"I got lucky," he said. "Nobody went into television in those days. The only black athlete who did that I knew of was Frank Clark of the Cowboys, who did some highlights and scores."

Joe Kuharich traded Cross to the Rams in 1966, but in 1969 he was back for a final Philadelphia season, this time as a player-coach.

"I think I made $75,000 that year, my top contract ever," he said.

In 1970, Cross, who also had worked as an Abington High teacher and a Campbell Soup Co. executive, was a licensed stock broker living in West Mount Airy when the Dallas Cowboys offered him a front-office job.

"There is no doubt in my mind Irv Cross would have become the NFL's first black general manager," ex-Cowboys executive Gil Brandt wrote in the book's foreword.

But he chose instead an offer from CBS to do color during its NFL broadcasts. Five years later, when the network decided to put together a pregame show, Cross, Phyllis George and Brent Musburger were its initial co-hosts.

Affable and always prepared, he kept that job for 15 years, though he almost turned it down when CBS wanted him to dress like the flashy black characters in Superfly.

"This guy took me to a department store and bought me a light-blue leisure suit, a loud, flowered shirt and a big gold chain," he recalled. "I told him, `I don't dress this way.' That wasn't my personality."

Cross, the wildly popular show's X's and O's expert, said he doesn't watch many pregame productions now.

"My wife keeps saying, `Times have changed, Irv. They don't do things the way you did.' But I don't want to hear some guy say, `This is what I'd do.' I don't care. Tell me what the quarterback's thinking."

He still watches the games, though, and he wonders how today's players can adapt to all the new rules aimed at saving them from the pain and confusion he and so many others have endured.

"I understand what they're trying to do," he said. "They say you've got to keep your head out of the vicinity of the play. But how do you that? I really don't know how you're supposed to make a tackle these days."