It was more of a visceral reaction than a conscious one. I was driving by the local high school athletic fields when I saw it was youth football practice.
Named after a legendary American Football coach from the turn of the last century, "Pop Warner" youth leagues are in ever town here in New England and since Fall is the season for football, you can see the kids out practicing, bless their rattled little heads.
So I had the strangest reaction when I saw a "Football Mom" helping her young son get into his uniform. I winced a little. For some reason it seemed like child abuse although I really do know better than that.
A child always wants to please their parents so there's no way of knowing if this kid really wanted to play football or if it was something imposed upon him by his parents, especially Dad who most likely played the game himself and as I looked upon he scene, I felt the boy wasn't old enough to make that decision for himself. Not this decision anyway.
Back when they had to literally flay your knee wide open in the operating room to repair injuries leaving Amazon River like scars on young knees, I saw a good portion of such work even at the high school level. I even played the game myself for a year and although it wasn't my first concussion since I lived in a tough neighborhood where we fought all the time, it was a good one.
I was playing right defensive tackle and one game when the play came my way, made the tackle with my head into the numbers like I was taught. But when I got up the field was sideways. To not help matters, we were playing a very successful team from a "blood and guts" program known for what we refer to as "smash-mouth" football. Their coach saw what my coach did not, namely me stumbling around on the field asking the right guard where I was supposed to be. They quickly ran the next play over my position again. The running back didn't even try to avoid me, he tried running right over me. But, I made the tackle again in the same fashion and that was it for me. I was out on my feet at that point and spent the remainder of the game sitting woozily on the bench. I just got my "bell rung" was all. The next day "I was fine" and back at practice.
I was never really a fan of the game but I played because adults came to me and asked me to play so I signed up. It's an interesting game in many respects but in others it is very destructive. So destructive that players spend a lot of time adding muscle to their frames so that they can take the physical abuse of the games. This time is not spent actually playing the game, it is spent so one CAN play the game. I look upon this as a fundamental flaw.
If you are on the Cross Country Track team, you run, you get better at running. Wrestling, the same thing, you wrestle. In most sports, time spent playing the game is it's most beneficial action and weight training augments the skill set. Football doesn't seem to fall into the same category. I never played beyond that one season as a high school freshman.
Over the years I've seen some good even great athletes destroyed by the game of football. Our star player in high school, a guy who had played since he was 6 years old, had to give it up due to chronic neck injury. He was 17. Another guy, one of the most decorated athletes to come out of my high school being an All-Scholastic in two sports two years in a row and a New England champion wrestler started to have black-outs his freshman year of college and had to stop playing football. He was 19. Yet another star player who was a standout Pop Warner star but who was short in stature and thus never could gain the weight was blind-sided during a game by a guy 100 lbs heavier. The hit smashed his wrist into his breastplate, breaking it and putting him out not only of football but the next sports season also. He was 17 and today his wrist does not turn. Nobody died but statistically across the nation more high school kids playing sports are killed playing football. In fact, football leads in all injury categories.
The people you see on television playing the pro game aren't necessarily the best players but the best players who managed to hold together long enough to reach the pro league. They can all read off a list of the major injuries they've incurred over time and have come back from. Who can imagine?
American Football is all about destruction. It's a game that destroys it's best athletes and according to Sports Illustrated the average player lasts 2.66 years.
I remember when I was a kid and there was this popular player, a lineman named Rosie Greer. He was a big guy and he became a minister when he had to stop playing football. I remember seeing him on television as a guest on some show and when he walked out, he had a very noticeable limb. His gate immediately gave you the impression that he was on very shaky pins.
In fact, many of these former pros from decades past are physical wrecks. What good is all that money and glory when you're a cripple? And these guys are cripples. Ask Ted Johnson, 3 time Super Bowl champion linebacker for the New England Patriots how he's enjoying all the money he made? The short story on that is: He's messed up!
"But Wal Man." you say, "The NFL is making safer helmets!"
By trying to make a safer helmet you are only giving false hope to the hopeless. The same helmet developed to reduce the impact of a hit for the player also allows the same player to just hit harder without knocking themselves out. It doesn't do anything to prevent your brain impacting the inside of your skull where all the real damage comes from. A hard shell helmet remains, and was since its invention, a head-delivered weapon and marked the beginning of the ultimate end of American pro football. The damage it's caused and continues to cause is a crime.
So many of these NFL guys are messed up it's hard to fathom anyone is still playing the game or that parents are still sending their kids to football practice. It boggles my mind.
Hence, knowing what I know and having seen what I've seen, when I drove by that kid and his mom my gut actually wrenched.
And now, since we are finally seeing pictures and hard evidence of what we all really already knew but could reasonably be in denial over, will this "game" ever be the same to you to watch? Now that we know, who still wants into this sport?
Which takes us back to the real reason many kids get involved with the game at an early age to begin with.
It's up to Mom and Dad.