Life Out Here: Seeing a love differently

I’m beginning to look with trepidation at one of the loves of my life.

I love football. I grew up with it. My dad played high school and college football and became a high school coach. I was the only of his sons who fully pursued the sport, playing organized football from age 10 through one year of small college ball. In recent years I officiated football, calling games involving everyone from the tiniest Pop Warner players to hulking varsity high school players.

I love every aspect of the sport: playing it, watching it, officiating it. I love the smell of freshly-cut grass, the sound of cracking pads, the strategies and counter-strategies. Each year, as summer advances toward fall, I have the urge to somehow be involved in football.

Now, though, I’m worried about what the sport I love is doing to the young men who play it. On a recent “Real Sports with Bryant Gumbel” episode, the HBO series chronicled the physical deterioration from ALS of Steve Gleason, the former New Orleans Saints defensive back/special teams maniac. Researchers believe Gleason and other former NFL players may have predisposed themselves to ALS, also known as Lou Gehrig’s disease, from head trauma during their careers. Researchers have made similar links of head trauma in former players to early-onset dementia and Parkinson’s disease.

This year, as I’ve watched preseason NFL games, I’ve seen broken bones, spinal injuries and concussions, all coming in games that didn’t even count. Advances in equipment and rules designed to better protect players are being outrun by bigger and faster athletes.

Something more has to be done to protect the young men in the sport I love. The mayhem is more than the body and brain can take.

I take this stance as someone who was a particularly pernicious perpetrator of violence when I played. Neither terribly large nor terribly talented, I knew I had to earn playing time by being tough. So I was the guy who ran head first into the wedge on kickoff coverage, was part of the wedge on kickoff returns, covered punts, went into the game as wide receiver (a position I generally didn’t play) to blindside bigger linebackers or defensive ends on reverses and counters.

I loved it. I loved the physical contact. I loved taking down another player. I loved knocking him out of a game. There was a sense of triumph there. For a kid with a propensity toward violent outbursts, football and its inherent violence were cathartic.

The result was some playing time and much fun. The result also was a minimum of five severe concussions while playing football. Those, combined with the five or so other concussions I’ve received in life (roughhousing, boxing, car accident, basketball, another car accident), leave me wondering if I too am predisposed to ALS, Parkinson’s or dementia.

That said, if I could do it again, I would play with the same gusto and disregard for my safety, because that’s the only way to play football (unless you’re a quarterback). But it would have been good if someone or something would have protected me from my younger, more reckless self.

The argument often is made that the young men who play the sport know the risks they are taking with both their short-term and long-term health.

I hope so. I didn’t. Back in my day, if you got “dinged” you went back into the game as soon as you could see straight. We thought getting our bells rung was part of the game.

Broken men with broken brains are showing it can’t be that way anymore if football is to survive.

Bret Kofford teaches writing at San Diego State University, Imperial Valley campus. His opinions don’t necessarily reflect those of SDSU or its employees. Bret Kofford can be reached at

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