In 1905, under the threat of outlawing the game of football, president Theodore Roosevelt brought together the top football coaches in the country to try to find a way to make the game safer. Roosevelt was a fan and reportedly didn’t really want to shut down the game, but the number of deaths attributed to the game led to the forward pass, established the neutral zone and made a first down 10 yards instead of five.
In short, the modern game was born and flourished. There were still deaths — including the University of Cincinnati’s Jimmy Nippert in 1923 — but the pressure was off the game as a public safety hazard.
That fear might return — as well it should — a century later. Last week, former San Diego Charger and New England Patriot Junior Seau, a future Hall of Famer, committed suicide. Like former Chicago Bears safety Dave Duerson, the 42-year-old Seau shot himself in the chest. Last February, before shooting himself, Duerson sent a text to several family members. It said, “PLEASE, SEE THAT MY BRAIN IS GIVEN TO THE NFL’S BRAIN BANK.” Duerson’s family complied, giving his brain, which was intact because he chose to shoot himself in the chest rather than his head, to the Boston University School of Medicine’s Center for the Study of Traumatic Encephalopathy. Doctors at Boston University discovered Duerson suffered from chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE), a neurodegenerative disease linked to concussions and other head trauma. Seau’s brain will reportedly be sent to the same place.
I don’t remember exactly where I was the first time I read an article about concussions, but I do remember my exact reaction — I knew I’d suffered two in one high school football game. The confusion, dizziness, ringing in my ears, vomiting — they were all present both before and after a game in 1992 against Misawa High School. During warmups before the game, I hit Chris Churchill in a warm-up drill. I went sideways and saw stars. We laughed about it. Later in that game, I’ve been told that after being hit, I fell and had a knee hit my helmet. When asked a couple of questions, I answered them correctly — if it had been five years earlier. When asked my address, I not only got the street and city wrong, but also the country. And when our team got the ball back, I was back in the game.
We called it a “ding” or “getting my bell rung.” It was a concussion. It was an injury of the brain. You’ll hear on TV an announcer passing along that a player suffered a “minor concussion,” but with the brain, there’s no such thing as a “minor” injury.
Seau, a 20-year veteran of the NFL, was known as one of the game’s hardest hitters. The past week has been filled with former foes talking about how hard Seau hit them, how, in fact, he’d caused concussions. One former teammate estimated he’d suffered thousands of concussions in his career, a rate of four or five a game. A study by Purdue University showed minor hits — the type that happen on every play in the game or in practice — could do just as much damage to the brain as the big hits that are shown over and over on ESPN. A study of the brain of former Bengals receiver Chris Henry, who had never reported a concussion in his career, showed traces of CTE.
About this time last year, I found out my wife was pregnant, and it’s caused plenty of soul searching on my part about many things, football included. There’s no way I would let my child play football. Now, chances are my little girl won’t want to play football, but if she — or a future brother — did, there’s no way her father would allow it. And if I wouldn’t allow it for my own child, how can I support others participating in the sport, either by my patronage or even in my more active role as a sports reporter?
In my job, I’ve talked to many former football players, those who say their every step is painful, who can’t hold their fingers straight or have had more surgeries after they retired than during their playing career. Those are the easy type of injuries to detect; the brain is still largely an undiscovered country when it comes to our understanding of what happens with repeated head collisions. I know others who don’t show any of these symptoms. Of course, many supposedly close to Seau said the same thing.
There’s no evidence yet that Seau’s death is linked to his football career, but there is plenty of circumstantial evidence, and even if it turns out there’s no connection in his case, there have been plenty of others who have died as a result of their game — and apparently in the name of my entertainment and employment. How am I different than a spectator or even promoter of the Roman gladiators? I’m watching — and at times profiting — from the deterioration of other humans, and I just don’t know how that can be a good thing.