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Having a Son Has Ruined Football for Me

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YOUTH FOOTBALL
R. Nelson via Getty Images

I grew up just outside of Philadelphia; my formative years coincided with a time in Philadelphia Eagles football that is known simply as 'The Buddy Ryan Era.' The defense and mindset that Coach Ryan brought to the Eagles formed how I think about football and my opinion of how it should be played. The 'defense first, hit harder then them' edict that Ryan put into practice was so exhilarating to watch that I could spend an entire Sunday preparing for and watching an Eagles game and not care if they lost 10 to 7.

I never once thought of those games as boring, and it never occurred to me that my team should focus more on the offensive side of the ball. Even though those Eagles had one of the most electrifying quarterbacks that I had ever seen in Randall Cunningham, I just didn't care if they scored. The offense would go three and out more times in a season than I could count, they couldn't win very much and I am hard-pressed to remember many names that played on that side of the ball, with the exception of Cunningham. The Eagle's defense, in contrast, punished opposing players. Men like Wes Hopkins and Andre Waters patrolled as safeties in a way that made the players on the other team quake. Entire games would go by without a pass attempt over the middle of the field, because no one wanted to get hit by Wes and Andre. At the risk of sounding like an old man, I want people who grew up watching football over the last decade or so to know they aren't watching football -- at least not the football I grew up with. You are watching millionaires play catch.

If you don't believe me, ask Troy Aikman how his shoulder feels, mention the name 'Clyde Simmons' to him as you do and see if he doesn't look just a bit scared, still, to this day. I witnessed Clyde chase poor Troy, flushing him out to his right, Clyde hit Troy in his left side, wrapped him up and drove his body into the hard surface with the full force of his massive frame following right behind. If I remember correctly, Troy separated his shoulder that day and if my memory serves further, Clyde didn't check to see if Aikman was okay or offer him a hand-up -- Clyde screamed at Troy, pointed and walked away pleased that he had done his job. It was like watching a war; there was no mercy and no regard for anyone who wasn't on your side. Ask Ernest Givens how he got his nose broken, ask every offensive lineman that Reggie White literally lifted, one-armed, and threw aside like a paper doll on his way to the then NFL sack record. My point is, I grew up watching violent, punishing football, and I loved it.

That is why I was surprised to hear the following words come out of my mouth when my 7-year-old son Cole was invited to play on a football team: "That's very nice of you to ask, thank you for thinking of him... but Cole isn't allowed to play football." When the father who coached the team asked why I refused, I, only partially joking, asked him if he would be comfortable with his son coming to my house to play if I said that the boys were going to go into our backyard, get a running start and run as fast as they can into my house. "Don't worry," I told him, "I'll give them a plastic helmet to wear."

Before that moment, I never once considered if I would be comfortable with my son playing football. He was -- and still is -- a committed baseball player, and I never imagined I would need to have an opinion. It just never came up. The boy in me who was raised on Buddy Ryan football was shocked to hear himself not just say no, but to have such a protective and visceral response. It was a confusing moment; my ego and pride were alive with the notion that someone thought my son would be a good football player, but the idea of him banging his head into other people terrified me. That was many years ago, before I had ever heard the words 'chronic traumatic encephalopathy' (CTE). To be perfectly honest, at that time, I'd never heard of an NFL player taking their own life and never once did I wonder about what happens to the men who play football, after they leave my television screen.

As Cole has grown, I have gotten more inquiries. One very kind man approaches me twice a year to ask if Cole will come play Quarterback for his rather competitive team. I wish that I could say yes. The kid in me who watched the Eagles growing up wants Cole to play and the part of me that is proud of my son hates holding him back, but the father in me wins this argument every time with one simple thought, "My kid need his brain, I can't take that risk."

Andre Waters took his own life in 2006, only four months after the first time someone asked me if my son wanted to play football. I loved watching that man play football, and now he is dead. Pathology reports indicated that Water's brain tissue was that of what would be expected in an "85-year-old man" and that it had characteristics of a person in the early stages of Alzheimer's Disease. Waters was 44 years old when he died of a self-inflicted gunshot wound. Dr. Bennet Omalu said at the time of his death that if Andre had lived for another 10 to 15 years, he would have been, "fully incapacitated." That news when I read it on ESPN, made me sad for every time that I cheered him on. I felt complicit in his death and my love for football has been waning ever since.

I didn't watch one game last season after I listened to Malcolm Gladwell deliver a speech to the University of Pennsylvania about CTE. Mr. Gladwell showed a great resolve when he brought his feelings about CTE directly to a school that lost a player, Owen Thomas, to an allegedly CTE-related suicide. I walked away from that speech knowing that I shouldn't be part of anyone else getting hurt, even if I was just watching.

I can't imagine that I would have experienced such a moving response to the news of these men and their deaths if I were not a parent. I began periodically watching NFL football again this year after deciding that my opinion, no matter how well-intended, cannot and should not interfere with the will of another person. The men that play professional football are adults and they can decide how much risk they are willing to absorb in an effort to experience the rewards of playing. I would be lying if I didn't admit to being greatly conflicted on this issue. I do love watching football, but I don't respect myself as I sit down to take in a game.

What I can do with a clear conscience is stop supporting with my dollar or my backing any form of football that is played by a child or young adult who can't cognitively process the danger they incur with thoughtfulness to the long-term risk possibilities. Children can't and shouldn't be expected to have foresight on topics such as this, especially when the allure is so grand -- hell, I can't even stop watching on Sunday. I'm quite certain that my little stand isn't going to make a dent in the popularity of American football, and it isn't my intention to talk you out of watching or in any way infer that parents who let their children play are wrong to do so.

I am completely aware that football has helped instill lessons about teamwork and perseverance in millions of young people, most of whom will not develop CTE. This article is not a judgment or condemnation of any parent's decision; I only wanted to share how being a parent has changed the way that I look at this game, a game that I loved with all of my heart for most of life.

The memory of the men whose lives have been altered by football-related injuries haunt me as I watch. I'm genuinely interested in seeing where the future takes me. I wonder if I'll be able to break free of the amazing memories that I have of the warriors that played defense in Philadelphia when I was a boy, to follow my conscience and stop watching football. At the moment, the exhilaration of the game is winning out, a fact that I am not proud to admit and will think about as I watch the big game on Sunday.