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Letter to the Editor: A new beginning for football

The sport for men by men, played by men that proclaim to be going to war each Sunday, as they fight to protect this house and come out the victor. This very sport has gone from the barnstorming days of meat heads that cared more about the beer at the end of the game than the game itself to a billion dollar game that is known the world over and rivals the World Cup in terms of ratings. But today it faces its toughest battle yet safety.
The problem isn't the NFL; they have the money to settle any lawsuit that comes across the table. Their fans will always return and scream from the stands for each big hit. The issues that our "new" America's Past Time faces are at the lower levels - at the collegiate, high school and pop warner levels. How much longer will parents continue to sign their young boys up for football?
The more we continue to learn more about the short and ultimately longer term effects of concussions, the less and less parents will be signing the permission slips. This is a big problem that both college football and the NFL will face over the next 20 years.
My concern in the mean-time is the boys/men who have already paid the price with their heads and bodies for the game that we all love. A young boy will start playing tackle football at 10 or even earlier. At this time he thinks he is cool. Like the pros, he straps his pads on each Saturday morning, colors in his eye black, like a Navy Seal preparing for mission. This 10 year old boy was told by his coach and father to be tough, make the big hit and don't be scared.
His brain is still developing as he makes helmet to helmet hits that may not seem violent. But again, what are the long term effects?
As he grew older, he moved on to high school with a coach who has a program that rivals most D-III schools (depending on the state). At this level , he has a head coach and a coordinator that is yelling at him to be tough and hit hard, make that kid afraid of you. For a long time when you went to the sideline after being knocked out, your coach(es) would approach you and say, "Don't worry son, you got your bell rung, and we'll get you back out there. Hell of a hit."
A close personal friend of mine played high school ball in western PA, where football players are God. When these kids return to their hometown at 25, hell even 45 and walk into a local bar, they are still recognized. My friend tells me that when he was only 16 he would go out to a fancy restaurant in town with his teammates on a Saturday after a win on Friday night, and receive food and beers for free (remember I said he was 16).
During his high school career, he suffered 13 concussions. His last one was so bad that he was air-lifted off the field and did not wake up until he got to the hospital. It was only this concussion, his final concussion, which ended his football career. But after the previous 12, he returned to practice the next week and you bet your butt he was starting on Friday night. Yes, his parents could have and probably should have stepped in earlier. But again, none of us really knew the longer term effects.
He didn't go on to play in college because his doctor demanded that he never play contact sports again. But many of his teammates did (One even went pro and currently plays for the Dallas Cowboys).
Now in college. they were exposed to a pro-style system (especially at the Division-1A level). They now played and practiced under several coaches - a head coach, a coordinator and position coaches. But for most of them, this was the first time that they had exposure to an extensive medical staff that would treat all sorts of injuries, from minor cuts to season/career ending injuries. But again, when it came to head injuries they were often given the same old song and dance, "Hey, don't worry son. You got your bell rung and we'll get you back in soon."
Then even fewer, and I mean even fewer, of these guys will ever go pro and the ones that do will have a career that lasts less than three years and then they are out on their butt and their career is over.
This football lesson isn't new to most of you. Some of you may have played or follow the sport closely behind the scene and know most everything that I just mentioned above. My purpose wasn't to give you a history lesson. It was to ask the questions about what to do about these unsung heroes? The names that we never heard about, the kids who protected Peyton Manning in high school, the guys like my friend, who was All-State and helped his school make it to states. What do we do for these guys? How do we protect the next generation?
I go back to my friend who played ball in PA. He is now 27 years old and is already beginning to feel the effects from his 13 concussions. His short-term memory is very poor. We can go to the store together and by the time we get home he forgets to grab the bags from the car. I don't know about you, but at 27, this is scary.
I know that the NFL just recently settled a liability suit from former players for $765 million (It should be more and needs to be more, but that is not the point of this article). I'm not asking the NFL to pay former college and high school players who wake up in pain each morning, but I do feel that we need to change this sport quick and drastically.
My first proposal is to lighten the pads at all levels. Have less of a shoulder pad, have less pads in helmets. Make each hit hurt. Hurt the tackler, not the person being tackled. Your body is only going to allow you to hit so hard. Imagine punching a brick-wall with your bare knuckle. You may wind up for the big hit. But just before you make contact, your mind will slow your fist down (Unless you're drunk and trying to impress a girl, who won't be impressed by the way). This same theory holds true for a football tackle. Once a guy or kid realizes that their big hit is going to hurt them just as bad or worse than the guy they are tackling, they will slow down and be forced to wrap tackle, rather than launch tackle. (Cornerbacks are famous for what I call a launch tackle, a tackle in which the tackler leaves his feet and throws himself at the ball carrier like a wrecking ball and doesn't even attempt to wrap).
Now I also mentioned that we should lessen the pads in helmets. This may sound ridiculous, but it serves the same purpose again it will make the tackler feel the hit more. But you ask why not keep the pads and try to protect the head as much as possible? Well the reason is that you will never truly be able to protect the head. Imagine your head as an egg and your brain is the yolk. Now put the egg in a plastic travel mug and protect it with as many paper towels, styrofoam and padding as you can. Now drop this mug out of a second story window. You will discover that the egg is perfectly intact, but I will guarantee that the yolk inside the egg is damaged from hitting the side of the eggshell. This is the same thing that happens to your brain during a hard football tackle. Your skull is protected from the hit, but nothing is stopping your brain from hitting the side of your head thus resulting in a concussion. Lessening the pads in these two areas will help slow-down the game and soften the hits, as the players will feel less invisible once they start to feel each hit.
My next proposal would be eliminate pop warner football. No kid will be allowed to play contact football until age 13 (just before freshman year of high school). They instead learn how to play rugby, yes, the full contact sport with no pads because, believe it or not, this sport has less head injuries then football. From ages 6-10, kids will play flag rugby and then begin tackling at 11-12, just before they get into contact football. Both flag and tackle rugby will teach kids how to properly break down and tackle their opponent in front of them. Then once they begin tackle rugby they learn how to properly wrap tackle. to keep their head up, look at their opponent, get low and place their head on one side of their opponent's ribs and then bring them to the ground. And because they are not wearing pads, they will hit softer.
Yes, head injuries will still occur because, let's face it, you are playing a contact sport, but they will be less because you will now know how to properly tackle. This will limit the number of blindside tackles in football because you would have learned from a young age that you need to keep you opponent in front of you. Also, once you begin wearing pads (the lessened pads) you remember that a big hit usually results in the tackler getting hurt not the tacklee.
These are drastic proposals that will take decades to put in place and will be a harder sell in our football power states; where football is God. But, if we want to see our "new" America's Past Time continue far into the next century, we need to start taking action and this is where we need to start.
Matt Finnell
Mount Airy

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