As a child, one of my favorite football players was John Mackey, a Baltimore Colts player who helped revolutionize the position of tight end. Mackey was a tough guy who was fast. And if he couldn't run around you, he ran over you. His 75-yard catch from another childhood favorite, Johnny Unitas, off of a deflected pass during Super Bowl V still stands as one of the most exciting and controversial in any National Football League championship game.
Mackey comes to mind for a number of reasons this week, not the least of which being that football made its official return here in Carroll. Eight local high school games were on tap though lightning and rain that played havoc with fans. Local colleges, including McDaniel and Maryland, kicked off Saturday, and the pros — well, if you discount those dull preseason games — won't start up until this Thursday night. The sight takes me back to those days of playing touch football in the alley behind my home until it was too dark to see the ball anymore.
But back to Mackey. After 10 seasons in the NFL, he was elected to the Pro Football Hall of Fame and later he took over as the president of the players union, a role in which he fought for player free agency and improved pension benefits. But it was in his later years that Mackey fought his greatest opponent when he was diagnosed with frontotemporal dementia, a disease he contracted from too taking too many hits to the head while playing football. It was for this later reason that Mackey, who died at age 69, came to mind.
Earlier this week, Sony Pictures released its trailer for the movie, "Concussion," the story of Pittsburgh doctor Bennet Omalu, who discovered the first case of chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE), or repeated brain trauma, and then helped to connect the disease to conditions suffered by several former football players. CTE is the result of repeated brain trauma over time and causes depression, dementia, and other behavioral changes. The movie, which stars Will Smith and hits theaters Christmas Day, is reported to show how Omalu was harassed by the NFL as it attempted to discredit his findings. According to various online accounts, emails made public in November's Sony hacks showed that Sony even edited the script so as not to anger the powerful NFL. Still, it didn't stop a federal judge in April from giving his approval to a potential $1 billion concussion settlement between the NFL and its players.
Regardless of the fame he'll likely find with the release of the movie, Omalu is often credited with being the reason why some question whether football can ever be a truly safe sport to play. And, perhaps by extension, his and subsequent research should be credited with pushing technology forward to make football helmets better constructed. More importantly, this science has coaches, players and parents talking about concussions in serious medical terms — not just that the player "got their bell rung," as they euphemistically would once say.
Today, leagues from the pros down to peewee teams have concussion protocols in place. And not just for football. We're learning every day that athletes in soccer, lacrosse and just about any sport are prone to head injuries that can't be dismissed lightly. Athletes and parents of younger athletes need to learn the risks and symptoms. Some might go away but worsening headaches, slurred speech or confusion are reasons to get the athlete to the emergency room right away. I know plenty of parents who have pulled their kids out of sports because of their worry about concussions. As much as I love sports, I can't say that they're wrong. And if John Mackey were alive today, I don't think he would question them either.
Paul Milton is the editor of the Times. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.