Tomorrow, the first rituals of fall and a new school year will be renewed as boys (and some girls) across Virginia strap chinstraps to their helmets, dig their cleats into the turf and start a new football season at the high school.
For me, the nostalgia gets so thick I could smack it with a butter knife. Football was all I wanted to do when I was the age of those kids who will take to the pitch for the opening games of 2022 on Friday night.
I’ve been lucky enough to make it longer than many and play the game at a respectable level – Ole Miss of the Southeastern Conference. I got a university degree from it. Just as I once dreamed of playing the game on Sundays, my skills weren’t NFL caliber, and I realized that in time to get serious about academics and a future as a journalist.
So forgive me while I bite the hand that fed me: football has to change drastically to survive.
If you follow sports at all — or, perhaps more specifically, if you follow neuroscience — you’re familiar with “chronic traumatic encephalopathy,” an insidious, irreversible degenerative condition linked to brain trauma of the same type of blows to the head that are inherent in American football and boxing, to name just two obvious causes from sport.
stories like this one about the late Ray Perkins – one of Johnny Unitas’ favorite receivers as a Baltimore Colt and later head coach of the NFL’s New York Giants, Tampa Bay Buccaneers and his alma mater, Alabama Crimson Tide – tend to make history real for football fans.
But when you learn that a former teammate and old friend is in the same twilight struggle that contributed to Perkins’ demise and that of many other former football players of various ages, it gets personal.
If I knew then – the 1970s – what I know today about the CTE, which essentially digs out vast swaths of the brains of its victims over time, I strength not having risked playing the game that I loved and that I still follow devoutly in spite of myself. If I could, the 66-year-old me writing these words would step back half a century in time and tell the 16-year-old me, about to start my senior season in high school, that the game isn’t worth the risk.
My answer is equivocal because I doubt my younger self would have listened to the creaky, cautious gray old man offering him decades of hard-learned insight. Such warnings are uncommon among testosterone-fed boys this age who believe they can walk through a brick wall unscathed.
That feeling of being 10 feet tall and bulletproof is why we played the game as recklessly as we did – with much taller, faster, stronger and more violent players. than our fathers, in more primitive and less protective equipment. This sense of invincibility was reinforced by advances in headgear and gear design, particularly shatterproof fiberglass helmets with shatterproof, steel-reinforced face masks that allowed players to use their faces. like rams, not caring about the devastating consequences that the shock of such accidents causes within. skull. Such blows would have been unfathomable a generation earlier for gamers who wore leather helmets. without face masks and were taught to block and tackle with their shoulders.
My freshman season in college, we were explicitly told to aim for the middle of our face masks like guided missiles between the numbers on the ball carrier’s jersey (the only part of his body he can’t juke) and blast through the target with full body strength. There was a phrase for it: “Tilt your neck and stick your nose in there.”
The results, even in practice, were predictable. Some guys were cold. Others saw stars and were disoriented. We laughed when a defensive player who “ringed the bell” fell into the offensive team’s practice squad.
My worst bell moment came in a 1977 game against Alabama in Birmingham. I was a center, the guy who had to get the ball to a punter about 13 yards behind me in eight tenths of a second or less, then run down and try to tackle the world class sprinter who was catching the kick clearance. On that hot night in early September, Ole Miss punter Jim Miller threw a high, dangling kick late in the game, and I had zeroed my mask on Tide All-American and eventual All- Pro Tony Nathan, convinced he’d either stoop out of bounds or run… straight at me and my oncoming face mask.
What I didn’t know was that another Bama All-American and future All-Pro, Barry Krauss, was sprinting down to block Nathan and had me in his sights.
By the time I woke up face down on Legion Field Astroturf, Nathan had run the ball about 60 yards the other way. The stadium lights were spinning like a merry-go-round. The roar of the huge Alabama crowd sounded thin and distant, as if heard over a car radio. I couldn’t get the air back into my lungs. The rest of our searing loss was a blur.
Would I be more mentally agile now if it hadn’t been for all those successes? I would never know. CTE can only be definitively diagnosed by an autopsy.
In the movie review the following afternoon where the trainers dissected our beating, I saw the shot from a press view and thought I looked like a dog that had goofed on a freeway in front of a 18-wheelers. From the contact point to where I stopped, I traveled about 12 feet, most of it in the air.
“Shit, Lewis,” said an assistant coach, who replayed the film back and forth repeatedly, “I’ve never seen anyone fly this far without a boarding pass.”
I think of that and the lesser blows I absorbed and inflicted in my dozen or so youthful seasons playing various levels of organized tackling football. It bothers me when I can’t remember a name on the tip of my tongue, when I walk into a room and momentarily forget why I went there, or when I’m writing and a word or fact does not fall into place as quickly as before.
Is this a normal part of aging? Would I be more mentally agile now if it hadn’t been for all those successes? I would never know. CTE can only be definitively diagnosed by an autopsy.
What I do know is this: I recently posted the link to the aforementioned Perkins article on social media and one of the comments came from a beloved colleague in my junior high soccer class. year of 1973 in Mississippi. It was a devastating honest and plaintive revelation that he is struggling with some of the symptoms that plagued Perkins: depression, anxiety, broken relationships, to name a few. To numb the brain, he wrote, he used alcohol.
It broke my heart.
There have been rule changes at all levels of the sport to prohibit the use of helmets as weapons, to penalize blows to the head and eject players from the game who commit them, and to require players medically diagnosed with concussions are prohibited from contact until the brain injury has healed, even if this takes weeks. Football has made reluctant and gradual progress, but brain injuries are still far too common in sport. The Virginia High School League has its own direction for concussion protocols.
My heart would mourn the loss of the unmistakable fall magic that for me has always been football, especially at the high school and college levels.
But my advice to the kids in Virginia on the eve of tomorrow’s season kickoff: until the game drastically reduces or eliminates the devastating blows to the head that are commonplace among ever taller, more faster and stronger, it’s not worth the risk.
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