In the Wake of the News
4:42 PM EDT, June 2, 2012
Next to my spikes on a football field in Wheatfield, Ind., back when nothing mattered to me more than Friday nights, my two front teeth just lay there in the grass.
I didn't pick them up and don't think anybody ever did. Too much chaos ensued after I had run over to the sideline between plays to get my broken helmet fixed. A well-intentioned assistant coach tossed a replacement helmet when I wasn't looking and, bam, it hit me squarely in the mouth.
What happened next still makes me chuckle and my mom cringe. The head coach called timeout so I wouldn't miss a play, handed me two pieces of bubble gum to chew and, after I followed his instructions, we stuck the wad into the part of the mouthpiece my teeth used to go.
And I played on.
No, four out of five dentists surveyed wouldn't dare recommend such behavior and, all these years later, neither do I. It was extreme and reckless and thankfully something that couldn't happen today because of the increasing awareness of injury and fear of liability.
But as football comes under siege at every level across America due to understandable concerns related to concussions, lately I think of that toothless experience as a personal reminder of the good that often outweighs the bad in a sport that changed my life.
Despite the gap in my gums, it never occurred to me to stop playing that night or let anything get in the way of the goal at hand. It never occurred to me to quit. At 16, football already had developed an instinct in me to keep going regardless of mental anguish or dental emergency, to take pride in persevering.
From sixth grade in North Judson, Ind., through a career at Ball State University during which I experienced at least two concussions, football taught me to be aggressive, take a hit, get up and don't back down. To respect all but fear nothing. Football taught me how to work harder than I thought possible, and with others. I saw football give countless lost teens direction by building self-confidence and turn hundreds of shy kids into bold ones. I was one of those kids.
Football helped raise a small-town boy into a man and often parented me while my own parents struggled to make ends meet. Football paid for the college education and created opportunities that made me who I am.
I feel confident my wife and I can teach those lessons to our 11-year-old son if he never plays football. I have little doubt he would learn them quicker if he does.
So far he prefers the kind of football the Fire play, and Messi and his idols on Man U play, not the Bears. My wife is relieved and I am happy if he is. But if his interests ever change and he asks dad about trying the sport he knows I appreciate, I would encourage him without hesitation.
Experiences inform all of our parenting decisions. Mine tell me that if my son wanted to play football, the potential rewards outnumber the risks. Perhaps yours compel you to say your son never will take those chances. Both of us are right. I won't tell you how to raise your kid if you won't tell me how to raise mine.
I do suspect, when debating the football question, more parents have begun letting a necessary and important focus on the exceptions — the catastrophic injuries — overlook the rule. The rule being that football offers kids the type of structure and discipline and camaraderie they often can't find anywhere else.
Hard as some try, no parents can protect their children from every potential danger. But as football at developmental levels continues to shape character and foster toughness in young men, those who care about protecting the sport wisely keep reining in the limits of how far to push players. As critics claim football has become too dangerous, I wonder if efforts to change rules, improve equipment and manage concussions have made it as safe as ever.
Illinois, for example, became the 28th state to enact a version of the Zackery Lystedt law last summer mandating local school boards adopt a policy on head injuries. When the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reports 55,000 cases of traumatic brain injury, is that because of increased violence or awareness of concussion symptoms?
Predictably, as reported injuries increase, participants decrease. The National Sporting Goods Association reported that the number of football players of all ages dropped 1.1 million from 2006 to 2011. According to the National Federation of State High School Associations, participation declined two straight years after 16 years of uninterrupted growth.
The voice inside my head keeps saying don't get discouraged. It belongs to my high school football coach.
Copyright © 2014 Chicago Tribune Company, LLC