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Thursday, February 4, 2016

Football - The Game I Loved

Do I have brain damage?  Did playing football damage my brain?  Am I going to end up with dementia or sitting around in a catatonic state?   These questions, along with many others, enter my mind as I read and study the current hot topic related to the National Football League.  I watched the documentary "League of Denial" produced by Frontline and PBS.  I have also read the book with the same title, authored by Mark Fainaru-Wada and Steve Fainaru.  Since the documentary and the book were both produced in 2013, they are a bit dated. 

"CTE" Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy is now a household term.  It seems like every day there is something in the news about CTE.  Yesterday, Kenny "the snake" Stabler was found to have CTE.  Today, CTE in the NFL:  the tragedy of Fred McNeill.  The story continues to grow and grow.  Each man documented in the stories had a sad, tragic twist to the last days or months or years of his life.  I must say that I am fascinated by the subject, but at the same time, I feel sadness for the once proud "gridiron heroes", whose lives took a plunge downward after playing in the NFL.

The CTE story started following the death of Mike Webster, his brain was found to be riddled with CTE.  I remember Webster playing for the Pittsburg Steelers in their glory days.  Webster finished his career as a Kansas City Chief.  I am not going to retell the whole CTE story here.  If interested, google "Mike Webster CTE" or go to your library and see if they have the League of Denial book or video and check it out. 

As I educate myself about the subject, I do have concerns for my own brain and the brains of my former teammates.  I never played football in the National Football League.  I never played professional football at any level.  However, I did play football as a younger man.

As a very young boy, I was taught to love the Kansas City Chiefs.  My dad was a huge fan of the Chiefs.  As a good son, I also loved the Chiefs.  I have vague memories of listening to games on the radio in our basement family room on the radio.  Len Dawson to Otis Taylor.  Ed Podolak rumbling for yards.  Buck Buchanan and Willie Lanier on the defensive side of the line of scrimmage.  I went to games at old Municipal Stadium in Kansas City.  I went to the first ever game (pre-season game against the Cardinals) at Arrowhead Stadium.  I remember a parade when the Chiefs won Super Bowl 4 in 1970.  As a five or six year old kid, my parents gave me a full Chief's uniform.  It was complete with shoulder pads and a helmet.  I wore them all the time.  The number on the jersey was 77.  I remember asking my dad who wore number 77.  Of course in the 1960's and early 1970's the number was on the jersey of Jim Tyrer.  He was a huge offensive tackle for the Chiefs and was a member of the Super Bowl 4 team.  Tyrer was a multiple year AFL all-star player and anchored his side of the line with Ed Budde.  Dad showed me a picture of him from a game program.  He had red hair like me.  I became Jim Tyrer in my pretend world.  Ironically, Tyrer murdered his wife and committed suicide in 1980.  In the present day NFL CTE environment, they probably would have examined his brain, had the murder suicide occurred today.  In 1980 no one had discovered football related CTE so one can only speculate as to whether it played a part in his actions.

When in elementary school, I didn't have the opportunity to play organized football.  My football experience involved playing tackle or "touch" football with the neighborhood kids in the empty lot down the street or in our front yard.

My parents decided to move from the city to the country a few years after the Chiefs won Super Bowl 4.  We moved to a rural area 40 miles north of Kansas City.  We lived in the Lathrop school district in the town of Lathrop, Missouri.  The town was not unlike many other small towns in the U.S.  The population of Lathrop was less than 2,000 people.  In small-town America high school sports are very visible and very important.  A high school football game on a Friday night was the most important event in town.  It seemed like every person from the town was in the bleachers for home and away games.  I distinctly remember going to a game in the mid 1970's where a Lathrop player was hit in the head and ended up going to the opponents huddle instead of his own team's.  He was then led off the field to his team's sideline.  I was close to the bench and I recall that he was clueless regarding where he was or why he was there.  People actually joked about it and thought it was funny!

As I entered 7th grade a few years later I was excited that I would be able to play organized football.  We were the junior high version of the Lathrop Mules.  At 6' 1" and 170 pounds, guess where I played?  Yes, I was an offensive and defensive tackle.  The big boys always get put on the line.  I felt like I had skills as a pass receiver and wanted to play tight end, but the coaches had other ideas. 

After junior high I graduated into high school.  My freshman year I played on the freshman football team.  As a sophomore I had grown to 6' 3" and 215 pounds.  Not huge, but heredity provided me with a pretty powerful body and very strong legs and lower body.  Of course, the varsity coaches had no idea who I was.  I wasn't on their radar.  This changed the first day of practice.  The first drill of practice was a drill we called "man in the box".  The coaches put 2 blocking dummies parallel to each other about 5 or 6 feet apart.  Similar to the famed Oklahoma drill, this drill was simpler.  It was 1 v. 1.  We lined up nose to nose and the object was to drive the opponent out of "the box".  Whoever won the one on one contest stayed in the box for the next in line.  Eager to make an impression, I blasted each opponent out of the box, one by one.  Every one on the team had their turn and I had won every challenge.  One of my team mates even wanted a second chance, so I gave it to him.  His second chance result was no better than the first.  I ended that day as a starting varsity lineman for the Lathrop Mules.

I was a 3 sport athlete in high school, participated in FFA and band.  I LOVED the game of football.  It was macho.  It was fun to hit the opposition.  As a lineman, I pretty much banged heads with the opposition on every play.  "You hit hard" was praise that I loved to hear. 

Lathrop Mules - 1981 - I am #71 in front row, third from the left.

As a decent high school player that had grown to 6' 4" and 250 pounds, several small colleges starting calling to recruit me to play football.  I signed with a college in Topeka Kansas known for its law school, Washburn University.  As I reported to summer camp I have one vivid memory that is still burned in the mind to this day.  I remember looking around and there was a group of 7 or 8 players off to the side on crutches.  Every single one of them was recovering from ACL surgery.

After one season of college football, I "wimped" out and decided that college football was too much like a job.  Even in a very small college.  I decided I had enough and 1981 was the last year I played football.

Washburn Ichabod - 1981

After my football "career" I always reflected back and felt fortunate that I had not had any serious injuries.  Looking back, I recall numerous times where I banged helmet to helmet with a running back or an opposing lineman.  I liked using my head and helmet on occasion because it was quite effective.  Sometimes I saw stars and felt woozy.  But I never had a serious knee injury and never had a serious (diagnosed) concussion. 

I am now 54 years of age.  I wonder what all the head banging in "the trenches" might have done to my brain.  I have some forgetfulness, but who doesn't in their fifties?  Nothing serious.  I feel very fortunate and blessed.  If there was a brain scan available to check for CTE, I would probably get checked out.  At this time, CTE is only diagnosed by dissecting the brain on autopsy.  Since I am obviously not dead, this isn't currently an option.  I suspect that in the near future, diagnosis of CTE will be possible via a scan that can be performed on a live person.

I see football in a different light these days.  I can only hope that my few years of football don't render me a zombie or catatonic down the road.  I will continue to read and educate myself about CTE and the dangers of football.  I do this with an open mind, since I still have a mind that functions.

It pains me to say it, but I now know that football is not a safe sport.  The constant repetitive collisions can cause incredible damage to the brain and cause multiple problems later in life.  I also believe that anyone who truly examines the sport (and scientific findings) objectively will come to have the same conclusion.  No matter what helmet is touted as the latest greatest concussion preventer.  No matter what tackling technique is taught.  A football player is still going to have head trauma.  That is a fact proven by people a lot smarter than me.

There are many, many other sports available in today's world.  Perhaps it is time to choose one of them and not football.  Playing football is not worth losing your quality of life later.  There will be those that disagree with me.  There are those dads that like to live through their son or sons and nothing is more manly and macho that American football. 

People are free to believe what they want to believe.

If an American believes the earth is flat, they are free to have that belief.
If an American believes that smoking doesn't ever lead to lung disease or cancer, they are free to have that belief.
If an American believes that playing football is totally safe and will never lead to brain related issues, they are free to have that belief. 
Of course, I would say that they are wrong on all three points.  I am free to have those beliefs..

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