Though I was never big enough nor rough enough to play it, I’ve always enjoyed watching football. Apparently, this is true of most Americans. The popularity of the game clearly indicates that football has begun to rival baseball as our “national pastime.”
Football is a brutish and brutal game. Players get severely injured in ways that can’t be completely repaired, leaving them crippled for life. This is true at all levels of the sport, whether high school, college or professional. It’s simply the nature of the game. There are those who argue that the sport’s popularity stems directly from its violence; that spectators watch such savage mayhem owing to a national bloodlust that celebrates violence much like the Romans celebrated the gladiators. I’m not convinced of this.
In any case, injuries result not solely from the sport’s rules and design, but from the savagery of the players themselves, especially at the pro level. Sam Huff, a former linebacker for the New York Giants, has flatly stated, “We try to hurt everyone. That’s the object.” James Harrison, one-time pro defensive player of the year, has said the same thing: “I try to hurt people.” I recall an interview from several years ago with a lineman from the Chicago Bears (I’ve forgotten his name) who rather sheepishly admitted that, while buried beneath a pile of players scrambling for a fumbled ball, he intentionally broke two fingers of an opposing player. Fortunately, there’s no evidence that high school and college athletes are quite that ruthless.
Traditionally, football injuries have involved joints and spinal columns – bones, ligaments, cartilage in the knees, hips, and back – that result in mangled tissue connections, useless fingers and back braces. Retired professional players often have a difficult time walking without the help of canes or braces. More than a few are flatout paralyzed from the chest down, like Detroit Lions offensive lineman Mike Utley. Dave Pear, a retired Tampa Bay Buccaneer, has spent more than $600,000 for surgeries on his knees, an artificial hip and fused disks in his back.
However, in the past decade, neurological findings have uncovered injuries even more insidious than any of these: namely, the long-term consequences of concussions. Nearly every weekend we watch one or two players stumble off the field, being half-carried by teammates after a horrendous collision that causes the injured player to temporarily lapse into something resembling a epileptic seizure. They say, “He had his bell rung.”
The cumulative effects of these “head bangers” are just now becoming clear. By some estimates, retired NFL players are up to 19 times as likely as the general population to have dementia-related problems later in life. Andre Waters, former Philadelphia Eagles safety, committed suicide when he was 44 years old, at which time his brain tissue resembled that of an 85-year-old with Alzheimer’s. Justin Strzelczyk’s brain was found to be similarly damaged after he killed himself in a car crash while driving the wrong way on a New York freeway.
There are many more such cases. I could go on, but there wouldn’t be much point to that.
Anyway, heart-wrenching as NFL injuries can be, they seem even more tragic when they happen to college or high school kids. Between 1982 and 2009, nearly 300 fatalities can be directly traced to high school football. Granted, given the tens of thousands of boys playing the game during those years, the fatality figure isn’t particularly large, so, to reduce the subject to a more personal level, I can relate a tragic tale that’s probably familiar to many of you around my age. We’ll call the fellow Bob, though that wasn’t his real name. Bob and I were close friends and spent considerable time together in elementary and middle school. He was a gifted athlete who moved away while we were in the ninth grade. A few years later, while playing football in his senior year at a California school, Bob received an intense concussion; it was so severe he couldn’t finish the game that evening. Then, alas, 15 or 20 years later, he died of an inoperable brain tumor, which his doctor and his family always felt was directly tied to that concussion.
I could relate other stories of high school football injuries that permanently scarred friends of mine, but column space is limited. It’s a sobering thought if your son is out there butting heads for the White River or Enumclaw Hornets.