Q&A: Former NFL player Dwight Hicks talks about acting in 'X's and O's,' changing football, and more

As a football player, Dwight Hicks had an eight-year pro career that included two Super Bowl championships and four consecutive selections to the Pro Bowl. As an actor, he's landed small parts in the shows "Cold Case," "How I Met Your Mother," and "The X-Files" and films "Armageddon" and "The Rock."

His two jobs merge in "X's and O's," the football-centric play opening at Center Stage on Friday. Drawing on anonymous interviews with former players, their families, and fans, "X's and O's" examines America's love for football at a time when the long-lasting effects of repeated blows to the head are becoming widely known and the NFL's complicity is the subject of a forthcoming Will Smith movie, "Concussion."

In the play, Hicks stars in multiple roles drawn from the interview answers. City Paper caught up with Hicks in the theater's lobby to talk about his career in acting, the changes he'd like to see in football, and art as catalyst for social change.

City Paper: First of all, how did you get into acting?

Dwight Hicks: Well, I was over at the Pro Bowl one year and they asked some guys to do a PSA for selective service. And there was a camera and script alongside the camera, and I read the script. And the director said, "You've done this before." And I said, "No." And he said, "Nah, you've done this before." And I said, "No." He says, "You read that very well." I said, "Well I can read." He said, "You can make a lot of money reading script like that."

I really didn't pay much attention to it until after I retired. It was probably about six years later, and I started playing golf. [I was] walking down the fairway one time, thinking about my transition and what I was going to do, and his voice came into my head clear as a bell. So I went and got an agent in San Francisco and that's how I started.

CP: With this play, it ties your two careers together. It's examining football and why people love it, and this moment we're having with head trauma in the sport. Is the game still something you love?

DH: [Pause] Yes, I still have a love for the game. Football has given me a lot. I didn't know what the ramifications were as far as the head trauma, but there are a lot of great life lessons I've learned from playing football. So yes, I still have a love for the game, and it is a great team sport. It's the best team sport there is because everyone doesn't get to touch the ball, but the people who don't touch the ball, their role is just as important as the guys that do. It's a very unselfish game in that way. Even though you may not see it by some of the spectacles on the field and how guys are singling themselves out, when you look at the game itself, it's a great team sport, the ultimate team sport.

CP: One of the big things going on with the league is former players such as yourself are advocating for more benefits. Is that something you've fought for?

DH: Yeah. I think if you play a down of football, you shouldn't have to pay for health care for life, because the risk of injury is 100 percent, it's just a matter of to what degree. I feel that the NFL is a very lucrative business for the owners, and I don't think that would be asking too much. Because I remember, maybe the third year of my career, I looked around and saw some of the alumni, and it hit me like a ton of bricks. They're limping and laboring. And I said, "Wow, that's me in 20 years."

So I went to [player and union leader] Gene Upshaw and talked to him about it during the 1982 strike, but my voice was to closed ears. That wasn't on his agenda, unfortunately. But I thought we definitely should have struck for it as well, better pension and better health care.

CP: I was talking with a friend of mine recently—we both love the Ravens, of course, everyone in town loves the Ravens—and we agreed it's becoming harder to watch the NFL, because of all the injuries and what we now know. Has it become harder for you to watch too?

DH: No, but I am recognizing more and more injuries. I don't know if it's because the guys are bigger and faster. I don't know if it's because their bodies are not prepared because they're not doing as much hitting in training camp. I think it could be all of the above. I know that you really have to prepare you body for what it's going to take on during the season, and you have to do that in camp—and even before, with the rigorous training. But as far as the hitting, there's no way to disguise that or to imitate that unless you're actually doing it. And I think the league is trying to cut down the hitting as far as the head trauma, but the body isn't ready to take on that arduous task of the hitting. And I think that could be one of the reasons why we're seeing more injuries as well.

CP: Now you did this play in Berkeley, California. It's a natural fit obviously, but was there any hesitation on your part to take on the role?

DH: Well, I thought about it for a few seconds. But I remember when I started out in my [acting] career that there were goals I wanted to attain, and one of the goals was doing projects that are not only entertaining but have significant social value. Because when you have an audience, whether it's a movie theater for a couple hours, onstage in a theater for an hour and a half, or in television, you have their undivided attention. And I think it's a venue where you can really make social change, you can give people something to consider that maybe they hadn't considered. We as artists, whether it's directing, screenplays, playwrights, I think that if you're going to be in the business—or any business—I feel that you have a responsibility to not only put your best foot forward but do something that will enhance our society. I felt doing this play, you know, we will bring up questions, it will make people question themselves about what's really going on. Hopefully there's not only dialogue but action to try to make the game safer, really safer, or see where it's going to go.

CP: "See where it’s going to go." How do you mean?

DH: It's a multi-billion-dollar business. A lot of people don't want it to go anywhere. And the competition level, I mean, people love to see it. I love to compete, that was a reason I started out as a youngster, at 12. I learned how to compete at an early age, working toward goals, things like that. But are there other ways to do that besides destroying your body? And the answer to that is yes. So you have to ask the question: If we're not really going to try to make the game safer through helmet technology and other safety issues, will the game continue?

CP: What would you like to see happen?

DH: I'd like to see a real, honest, concerted effort from the NFL to really look for viable ways to make the game safer, equipment-wise. I know some things are out there. My friend has a helmet patent that really attends to the root cause of CTE. I'm in the process of trying to raise money to get a prototype to show that this helmet can do what it can do.

CP: Is there anything about the game? Because there's the story of Teddy Roosevelt convening the coaches of top college teams to change the rules. Are there any changes you would make to the technical aspect of football?

DH: I don't know. It's hard to say. You could take away the kickoffs, the wide-open impacts from the kickoffs and punt returns. That changes the game. What will it look like in doing so? That's part of the excitement of the game as well, a returner showing his skills to elude people and run the ball back for a touchdown. That's an aspect of the game that's really exciting. But could we eliminate that and still have the game be exciting? Yeah. So those are some ways.

But, then again, you have 11 guys on the field at the same time, going in different directions. These linemen are behemoths now, falling all over the place. And things are going to happen. Someone can just fall on somebody's leg that's planted, and boom, another player's knee is gone—could be his career, maybe not. That's why I said the risk of injury is 100 percent, it's just a matter to what degree. So there are some things that probably could help the game be a little safer, and there's some unforeseen things that are gonna happen.

CP: So if given a chance to go back and do it all again, you would?

DH: [Laughs] Well, it's easy to sit here and say, "Yes, I would" or "No, I wouldn't." But honestly, given what football has given to me and the type of person I've grown to be—because it helped me become a man, it taught me some great life lessons. But now we're finding out that it can also destroy your brain. So I can't say. I really can't, honestly. Is your brain more important than a game? One would think, yes [laughs]. But like I said, I had a love for the game and still do have a love for the game, of honest competition, that it has taught me and helped me throughout my life. So the answer to that: I don't know. That's the most honest answer I can give you.

People say, "Oh, no, I wouldn't play anymore." There's some guys like Chris Borland, from the 49ers. After a year, he quit. He's like, "I can't do this" knowing the information that he knows now. I don't know. There's still a lot of people out there playing, and they know, so it's really hard to say. I think you'd have to go to each individual, and unless they are presented with that choice at that time, you really don't know. You really don't know.

"X's and O's" is at Center Stage through Dec. 20.

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