Six years ago ago, Janice Rowe and her husband shopped around and spent about $250 on a high-tech, air-cushioned, Riddell Revolution football helmet. It was pricey for a helmet at that time, but she considered it a bargain if it helped protect her son.
She told Caleb Rowe — who is entering his sophomore season as a Maryland quarterback but was then beginning his South Carolina high school career — that she wanted him to have the best helmet available. "You get hit, you better jump up," she told him. "You lay there a minute, Momma's coming down on the field."
Janice Rowe, who helped Caleb through a torn left anterior cruciate ligament suffered in last season's eighth game, wasn't laughing as she recounted the story. A spate of high-profile injuries to quarterbacks and other key Maryland players last season — coupled with new medical evidence in recent years on the effect of football head injuries — have made this an anxious time to be a football mom.
If college football injuries are inevitable, so is the scene of players' mothers sitting in the stands behind the Maryland bench, clenching their hands until their knuckles turn white.
The latest research — studies have linked repetitive football head trauma to neurological issues later in life — has seeped into the national consciousness. About 57 percent of those surveyed last year by ESPN Research and the Global Strategy Group said that stories about football-related concussions made them less likely to enroll their sons in youth leagues.
None of the handful of Maryland moms interviewed by The Baltimore Sun said they would even consider asking their sons not to play. The mothers said almost universally that their sons love football and have worked hard at it for many years.
The recent medical evidence, the mothers said, has been coupled with advancements — such as helmet improvements and more vigilant training staffs — in mitigating the effect of head injuries.
But watching their sons play football can be taxing on mothers, particularly those accustomed to being the family's primary caregiver.
"Moms and dads approach it differently," said Scott Stinebaugh, father of Terps senior tight end Dave Stinebaugh (Perry Hall), who has missed multiple games with medial collateral ligament and shoulder injuries. "But we're all emotional about our kids. It's not easy being a parent of a Division I football player for sure, knowing the hard work and the disappointment and stress of injury. We all want to see our kids succeed, but I've absolutely left it up to him. At any point if he says, 'My body has had enough,' we support him either way.' "
Maryland's presumptive starting quarterback this season, C.J. Brown, has endured two season-ending injuries as he enters his fifth season at the school.
Brown suffered a season-ending ACL tear during last August's training camp.
In 2010, Brown broke his collarbone as a redshirt sophomore after playing one series against Morgan State. He sensed he was hurt but stayed in for three more plays. He had waited so long to play that he didn't want to leave the field.
"It is a tough sport," said Brown's mother, Kim, whose husband, Clark, was a Michigan State quarterback. "When they do go down, you feel it to the bottom of your toes. You watch with both eyes open but your whole body — shoulders all the way down — clenches up until somebody grabs your wrist and says, 'He's OK.'"
Beginning in 2010, Atlantic Coast Conference officials on the field were required to sideline players who appeared disoriented or displayed other worrisome signs. Other conferences, too, say they have taken heed of head-injury research.
"I think [the research] is a very positive thing," said Pamila J. Brown, a Howard County District Court Judge who is the mother of Maryland safety-turned-linebacker Matt Robinson (Atholton).
Her son is known as a tough-minded player. In 2011, Robinson sprinted from his safety position to behind the line of scrimmage, sidestepped a blocker and slammed his torso against the shoulder of Miami running back Mike James before tumbling to the ground. Robinson believes it was the play in which he tore his labrum and right biceps tendon, and chipped a bone. But he played the next two games — recording 13 tackles in each — until he was sidelined.
"I think the thought process for these athletes is that they can play through it," Brown said. "So no matter what the injury is, if they can play through it, they will. That's their modus operandi."
Maryland linebacker Kenneth Tate kept trying to play through knee injuries. One injury led to knee cartilage transplant surgery late in his college career in a Baltimore hospital. Tate is finishing up his academic requirements this summer and hoping for an NFL tryout.
His mother, Michelle, remembers the trying experience of accompanying her son to the hospital along with other family members.
"We said a prayer before he went under, and we said a prayer in the waiting room, and we said a prayer while he was still in surgery," she said. "We just kept praying."