Football and foolishness
The Kansas City Star
I ran from the sideline with my teammates at the beginning of the second half of the ninth grade football game. Our kicker teed up the ball as the rest of us spread out from sideline to sideline. My job as the right end was to force the runner into the center of the field where more of our guys would have a shot at tackling him.
Evidently I got down field before anyone from the opposing team corralled the ball. I don’t remember. They told me I dove for the loose ball. So did a kid from the other team. The game stopped just as the second half was getting started as we both lay on the field. He spent three days in the hospital. The next week I discovered his school colors smeared on my helmet. I don’t know who got possession of the ball as the game eventually continued without us.
On January 10, researchers from the National Institutes of Health reported that football standout Junior Seau’s brain showed evidence of chronic traumatic encephalopathy, a brain malady associated with repeated blows to the head. After Seau’s self-inflicted death last year, his family allowed the NIH to examine his brain. This report is just the latest to call into question the wisdom of continued participation when violent blows to the body are part of the game.
Robert Cantu, MD, an expert on sports concussions, suggested that no one younger than 14 play football. I was 14 when I lay immobile on the grass. Sportswriter Patrick Hruby decided to stop watching football. He said he can no longer support a sport in which spectators expect to see trainers run on the field to care for players with body parts strained, torn, and broken. I’m beginning to understand his point.
I went to junior high in a small town on the southern Oregon coast. If you didn’t play football, you would find little else to do in town after school. Besides, the whole community supported football; Friday nights in the fall always included many of the citizens gathered at the high school field. Our ninth grade team was good, too, so good that it took the state championship when these players were juniors. On the day of my injury, someone chartered a bus for the team—the newspaper said it was A. Nony Moose—so we didn’t have to ride in a school bus to the Saturday game 100 miles away. Those boys who played football had value in this community.
I could not have articulated it at the time, but the social pressure to participate kept me on the field. I missed one game—doctor’s orders—then jumped right back into the fray. My saving grace may have been our family’s move five months later. We went from a small town to the largest metropolitan area in the state. To the dismay of the football coach at my new high school, I chose the performing arts over the gridiron. I spent afternoons in a practice room in the music wing or rehearsing a play in the auditorium instead of pounding heads and bruising bodies on the football field. As I look back on it, I’m extremely grateful for the options I had in high school.
I find encouragement in the increased attention head injuries receive these days. We must continue to support the research, even if the results challenge entrenched social systems such as Friday night lights. We must provide viable alternatives to teenagers looking for something to do after school and affirm more than athletic ability. I would not have imagined saying that kind of thing 45 years ago, but the pain in my lower back and right hip as I roll out of bed each morning reminds me of my youthful foolishness.