Youth Football and Head Injuries

To play or not to play?

In 1958, football overtook baseball as America’s past-time, and we haven’t looked back. Today, HALF of the top 10 broadcasts are football-related.

But, trouble is brewing in pigskin-paradise.

High-profile suicides like legionary linebacker Junior Seau and season-ending injuries for marquee players like Aaron Rodgers put a massive spotlight on the risks of football. A recent report examining the brains of former NFL players found of 110 of 111 studied – 99% – had degenerative brain disease called CTE (chronic traumatic encephalopathy).

Parents have a tough choice: Should we let our kids suit-up and play this dangerous game we so revere?

It’s a crisis of conscience. The NFL is king in America, but repeated blows to the head are not good for the brain. My college roommate posed the question that many of us parents will soon face: “Would you let your son play tackle football?”

I paused as the question hung in the air, thick like pea soup. I answered yes, then began to qualify, defend, and dance. “I would never push him, but if football becomes his passion, I’ll make sure he knows how to hit, and how to take a hit, and let him play”.

Even as I write the words, my confidence wanes. Ashley calls them “idiotic”, given the information we have. Indulge me though as I piece together yet another case for derangement of duty (idiocy), like I’ve become famous for in our home.

Aside from playing smart (head up!), the keyword for me is “passion”.

A Boy’s Life

My memories of football – like BB guns, campfires, go-carts, capture-the-flag, fireflies, snowball fights, and dirt-bikes – are vivid and cherished.

Five nights per week, as the summer gave way to changing leaves, rustled by a cool wind through the Maples, dozens of us converged on bikes from all directions to Binney Park for practice. We ran, then stretched, and with the formalities behind us, we lined up and hit. Except for the QB (spared for game-day), every play was run at full speed, and full contact. The tackling drills were awesome; two boys, two sizes, firing off the line “on go” for a collision in space, encircled by the team, eyes glued to the action.

One boy – defense or offense, maybe the bigger though often the smaller – got the better of the other with each crack. It was a modern-day duel among boys, one as old as life on earth itself, like young bucks locking antlers in the wilderness.

Form tackles were praised by coaches while the glory from peers came from the hardest hits. Steam from the hoots, hollers and catching-of-breath in the cold air forming a smoke ring above us like an ancient Indian tribe, elbows on shoulder pads, white pants turned brown and green, grass and dirt chunks stuck in facemasks, and smiles wide.

Legends were born in Binney Park, and the lore only grew on game-day.

“Breakdown!” barked Coach Porter for the 100th time, his steely eyes glistening under the glow of a setting sun, passing the baton to the rising Harvest Moon.

As practice ended, pitch black by then in the November chill, we hung our helmets over the right handle bar to ride home unencumbered by safety devices for the head. Rarely did I feel more alive breathing in the fresh air, peddling up the steep hill to Riverside – a spiritual awareness, myself and the world in tune in the church of boyhood.

Football is a brutal, carnal sport, even in 6th grade. The most dangerous thing on the field is the helmet. Wrists often snap by kids “putting a head on the ball” to jar out a fumble. I remember wincing of pain, eyes closed tightly, when they carried TJ Ostruska off the field with a broken bone. Or the head-on collision of Carlos Alvarado in the championship game, our best and fastest player, with a gifted and rival opponent. It was the rare hit with an equal momentum from both sides. They bounced off each other like billiard balls, each landing flat and still for several long minutes on the field, coaches, players, and parents hovering nervously, mouths open, and eyes wide shut.

If any of them have CTE, dementia, or depression today, I don’t know. But at 39, it’s early for my generation, and may depend on how far their football careers went. Is it worth the risk? It’s a tough question for parents, easily put off with self-delusion.

We can start by trying to steer our children into safer sports; kids surely get some of the same benefits from baseball, basketball, soccer, or swimming. Having dabbled in those too though, it’s hard for me to overlook my personal experience and connection to football. It’s intangible, a coming-of-age story about self-awareness, comradery, tribalism, competition, teamwork, and masculinity. I lost more of those drills early than I won, but I watched, I worked, I grew, I dug deeper, and I learned a few things.

Some boys are drawn to the physicality, and love the game of football like no other. They excel at hitting, tackling, throwing, catching, juking, blocking, or running people over.

It’s a primal connection, not easily replicated. A rite of passage, like bighorn rams charging each other at full speed to knock horns deep in the high country.

And it’s healthy, for boys to organize and compete in this way.

To hell with any society so “evolved” — pacified, bland and impotent, severed in its connection to the natural world — to demand of them emasculation. Boys can and should learn to be strong, competitive, and masculine, without disrespect or encroachment. A gentleman warrior knows and cultivates the power he holds inside his heart, between his ears, and in his hands, learning when and how to use it honorably.

Conclusion

So, there you have it, my impassioned plea for a barbaric, violent, and beautiful game. It’s one of emotion, nostalgia, testosterone, and yes, perhaps a little idiocy.

But we’re lucky enough to live in the age of technology, wearable devices, and the Internet of things. A quick search turns up helmet monitors, which have now become a reality, measuring the impact and frequency of collisions to the head. For Ashley and other moms, let’s do some research together, decide how much is too much, set some guidelines, and ask our kids to play smart, or not at all. Take control.

Head up, and lead with your shoulder, son. And keep those feet moving!

Otherwise, let the boys be boys on the football field. They might learn a thing or two about themselves, and the world. “Hut-hike!”

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