This is a post I’ve thought about writing for awhile. This past Sunday, I exchanged tweets with former NFL player, Tony Boselli, about the topic of football, sons and concussions. That was the catalyst to finally write this post. I appreciate Tony taking the time to message me.
During 2009, I wondered about my approach to being a football fan. I wondered about my boys, specifically Liam, playing the sport one day and whether or not I was comfortable with that. As more information comes to light about head injuries with playing football, I wondered about the glory people ascribe to someone else who takes years off of their life for our entertainment.
And then I read this Malcolm Gladwell article. It coalesced a number of thoughts I had about the issue.
This year, I’ve wrestled with being a football fan. My favorite team in all of sports? The Nebraska Cornhuskers. In the past, I have cheered on the Husker players and expect (hopefully not demand) them to give everything they have for my enjoyment and entertainment. If someone isn’t doing their job, I want someone else in there to do it. I want them to win. And while most fans say they want teams to do it the right way, most fans will accept winning at all costs. Oh, us fans don’t like it when other teams do it at all costs, but we don’t mind when it is our own team. We can always find a convenient excuse.
The players graduate, and then new players come in. (As Jerry Seinfeld joked, I cheer for laundry.) New players to satiate our hunger, my hunger, for entertainment, for glory, for victory. The modern day gladiators. We want them to vanquish their opponents, and if they cannot do the job then we want to be rid of them.
It’s not only the fans, but also the coaches, the organizations, the universities that go through players quickly and dismiss the ones that aren’t playing up to the expected level.
The after effects? Many of those “gladiators” die young. Their quality of life is horrible. They leave behind wives and kids at an early age. They suffer dementia. Life and family are a casualty of being there for “the team”. For years, practically no one had any idea the repercussions of playing football.
I first started having a change in perspective toward football in 2001. That was when Sports Illustrated did a cover story on the quality of life of ex-NFL players. It was a stark look at what ex-NFL players go through in retirement. I know some people didn’t want to know the reality of someone like Earl Campbell’s life now. They wanted to remember him running over people on his way to scoring a touchdown. I was glad to know the reality of his life now, along with others. It put into perspective what they sacrificed for playing football. For the first time, I started to think I was glad I never played football.*
*In high school I did not play football out of respect to my mom who didn’t want me to play. She was afraid I’d get injured. I didn’t concern myself about that. I was trying to think how best to honor my mom, since my parents were divorced and I didn’t live with her. Thus, I didn’t play football. After I graduated from high school, I sometimes wondered what might have been had I played. I don’t think about that anymore.
That Sports Illustrated story came out in 2001. What took so long for me to really evaluate my fanaticism with football? I’m not sure. Maybe that article signaled a shift in thinking for me that would take time. Or, maybe it took having kids and wondering if I wanted them to play football.
Yes, my oldest son Liam. He loves football. He turns four in November. Still loves the game. At one point, he’d go to sleep with a football. He loves the Huskers as much as any four-year old can. He knows most of the lyrics to Hail Varsity, the Huskers fight song. His favorite player is Ndamukong Suh, and he knows that Suh plays for the Detroit Lions. He knows that Taylor Martinez is T-Magic and wears number three. He likes to play “tackle”, a favorite game of his where one of us has a football and we tackle each other.
Liam loves football. As a die-hard football fan in Nebraska, I have had (along with countless other fathers in this state) the fleeting thought of what it might be like for my son to play football for the Huskers someday. But then I hear another story about concussions and it tempers those thoughts.* I think of people I went to school with who now have various physical ailments because they only played high school football. The size and speed of the game has only intensified since I was in high school fifteen years ago.
*I try to be aware of those players now that can’t play anymore due to concussions. This came to light when I read about Blake Lawrence. He’s now a former Husker football player. He left the team earlier in the year due to concussions. I remember it was a big deal when he committed to the program. I don’t want to forget players like him. When I heard about him leaving the team due to concussions, I found myself praying for him. Why? Not sure. It takes all the players to make the Huskers program what it is, and for many of the Husker players they won’t play again once their collegiate days are done.
I understand that accidents and injuries can happen at any given time. One year ago, my wife Jana fractured her leg playing sand volleyball at a friend’s house. She planted her leg in the sand and it fractured. There was no contact with anyone when her leg fractured.
With football, though, the odds increase. A hit on the football field has been compared to an auto accident. So, your body is going through an auto accident every time it gets blocked, hit, or tackled. The wear and tear adds up over a game, a season, a career. It leads to joint replacements, arthritis, back trouble and of course varying head injuries.
Can injuries happen in other sports? Of course. Severe injuries can happen in basketball, baseball, soccer and more, but it is safe to say the percentages increase with football. As a dad, what is my role in raising and protecting Liam and Duncan as it relates to this? I’m trying to figure that out. I want them to be able to pursue activities that they enjoy, but also are relatively safe.*
*It’s one reason why if Jana and I have a daughter I’m a bit hesitant with her trying out for cheerleading. Two-thirds of all catastrophic injuries in women’s high school sports happen in cheerleading.
I’m glad I have a few years before I have to really deal with this with my sons. Right now, if they wanted to play tackle football I would probably allow it. I would go over with them the risks, though. I would talk to their coaches to make sure they take head injuries seriously. (This recent article about TCU’s head coach admonishing the team doctor for not allowing a player back in a game who had a concussion is disturbing.) Granted, most students have a hard time grasping the idea that youth is fleeting. Still, if my boys play football in high school I’m sure it will be an on-going discussion we’ll have. I’ll cheer heartily for them to do well when they are playing on the football field. Perhaps I’ll still have the fleeting thought of them running into Memorial Stadium on a Saturday afternoon. I do know I will be praying for their, and everyone else’s, safety.