Like Chris Borland, Risk Not Worth Reward For Millions of Youth Players

BY BRIAN PATRICK HARMON

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When it comes to great sports moments, Hail Mary touchdowns can’t touch this. Walk-off home runs? Forget it. Even a March Madness buzzer-beater dulls in comparison.

Chris Borland’s retirement from the NFL blows them all away.

At 24, the San Francisco 49ers linebacker and budding superstar shocked his team and the league this week by retiring after his rookie season. Borland told ESPN’sOutside the Lines he is leaving the game to hopefully avoid the adverse health effects of repetitive head trauma.

Simply put, Borland has had his brain addled enough.

In looking out for himself, Borland has done a huge favor for the millions of youth and high school players banging their heads day in and day out, every fall across America. Perhaps, his retirement will tip the scales of awareness in favor of banning tackle football to children under 14 and away from letting the greedy NFL and NCAA continue to feast on the free minor league system that is youth football.

Research is increasingly showing that NFL players — 30 percent of whom will develop debilitating brain conditions according to a new study — do not have a monopoly on gridiron-related brain damage. Former pros who started playing tackle football before age 12 were significantly more likely to suffer with thinking and memory problems as adults, according to a Boston University study released in January.

Furthermore, scientists have discovered chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE) — a progressive degenerative disease of the brain found in people with a history of repetitive brain trauma — in deceased high school and college football players. Researchers at Boston University’s Center for the Study of Traumatic Encephalopathy say there is reason to believe CTE can begin when a child is very young.

Like virtually every NFL player, Borland’s success was built on the backs — and shaken brains — of hundreds of children, who didn’t measure up talent wise to Borland but whose participation was necessary for Borland to ply his trade as a hard-hitting, nose-on-the-ball wrecking machine.

To become great — and great he was in 2014, racking up more tackles per snap than any other player in the NFL — Borland needed high school teammates willing to be on the receiving end of his helmet-to-helmet strikes during practice and to “go to war” with him on game day.

And without opponents and organized leagues, Borland would not have had a stage to secure a football scholarship from Wisconsin and similar offers from other schools.

Very few players survive the football funnel through youth, high school and college to have the opportunity to play professionally on Sundays. But that doesn’t mean they all haven’t paid a dear price.

Walking away from millions of dollars, stardom and a dream job is nothing short of courageous. I consider Borland a hero.

Yet while his prudent decision is an effort to secure a healthy brain, there’s no guarantee that significant damage hasn’t already occurred deep inside Borland’s young skull.

Fortunately, Borland’s parents kept him out of football until he enrolled at Archbishop Alter High School in Kettering, Ohio. As a youth, Borland developed his athletic prowess playing what so many gorilla-minded youth football coaches label as “wussy” sports: tennis, soccer and baseball.

In a campaign funded by the NFL, USA Football’s “Heads Up Football” initiative aims to make football “better and safer” through concussion awareness, proper equipment fitting and heads up tackling.

There are two problems with this emphasis on heads up tackling. One is that it’s nothing new. Youth coaches have taught this for decades. Nowadays though, I suppose some dads just don’t cheer as hard for those loud ear-piercing cracks and pops caused by helmet-on-helmet contact.

The second issue I have with relying too much on heads up tackling lessons is that football is impossible to choreograph. At full speed and in the chaos that is football, heads duck and brains collide.

I suppose I suffer from buyer’s remorse when it comes to the game. I played youth, high school and college football and what I have to show for it are two herniated discs, a tendency to imagine myself clothesline tackling people who irk me and a nagging concern that my forgetfulness is connected to head trauma.

I also know that signing my son up to play tackle football a month before he entered kindergarten was foolish. How on Earth can a 5-year-old — or a child of any age up to 16 — make an informed decision to play football?

My son ended up playing 10 seasons — a decade’s worth of football. Every day, I hope the pounding he took and gave as a linebacker and fullback won’t affect his brain when he’s 20, 30 or at some point after I’m not around to witness it.

Chris Borland’s announcement can help spark an epiphany that leads to a ban on tackle football for children under 14 and removal of the sport from high school. Such progress will take litigation, legislation and perhaps educators and taxpayers asking, “What is the educational value of a sport that makes its participants less intelligent?”

Feature photo credit: Steve Schar

@theharmonizer

HBO Exec Receives Kidney Donation From College Friend

Originally published at stonybrook.edu  on March 10, 2015

BY BRIAN PATRICK HARMON

cropped-bph.jpgRobert Roth was on his back, staring up at fluorescent lights. His kidney transplant surgery was just moments away.

The HBO executive’s thoughts volleyed between his mom, who died three decades earlier from complications related to a kidney transplant, and his best friend, Stuart, who at the moment was across the hall having his left kidney harvested.

“It was almost one of those out-of-body experiences,” Roth, 58, said, “where you know what’s happening is real, but you can’t come to grips with the fact that momentarily, you will be cut open and your best friend’s organ will be placed inside of you.”

Roth met Stuart Zeitlin – the man who saved his life in December – during their first week as freshmen at Stony Brook University, back in 1973 when construction of the hospital and the Health Sciences Center was kicking off on the other side of Nicolls Road.

Zeitlin, then of Manhasset Hills, quickly struck up a friendship with Roth during his visits to see a high school pal a few doors down from Roth’s room in Irving College. Together with another freshman in the same residence hall – Kenny Cohen from Coney Island – Zeitlin and Roth formed a trio that remains intact today.

The three spent that fall sharing common interests, while pushing each other down the hall in shopping carts and rooting their hearts out for the New York Mets in the World Series. They then spent their lives cultivating their bond – graduating together from Stony Brook in 1977, serving as groomsmen in each other’s wedding parties, celebrating the births of each of their children, and making sure to routinely meet at Ben’s Kosher Deli in Greenvale for lunch or dinner.

“We had similar interests and similar backgrounds,” recalled Cohen, 59, who went on to medical school and is now a cardiologist in Lake Success. “We were part of the Stony Brook experience – when much of the campus was still being constructed and we had to walk through the mud and around piles of dirt to get to class. And we loved it.”

Cohen is credited with paving the way for Zeitlin, 59, to donate a kidney to Roth on December 18 at Yale-New Haven Hospital.

“Stu could hardly stand having blood drawn. The sight of blood had always made him queasy,” said Roth, who returned to work as Executive Vice President and CFO at HBO eight weeks after the operation.

“Stu was initially reluctant. Kenny was instrumental in getting Stu to realize that if there was any chance of finding a donor, he might be my best shot,” continued Roth, who personally and through HBO has generously supported Stony Brook and the Stony Brook Film Festival.

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Robert Roth

Roth, who lives in Weston, Connecticut with his wife Linda, would not consider accepting a kidney donation from either of his two adult children. He said the risk would be too high for them, considering his type of kidney disease was hereditary.

Roth’s mother Blanche died at 59 within weeks of receiving a kidney transplant from a cadaver in 1985, and his brother Richard, a CNN correspondent, is living with a kidney transplanted 17 years ago from a deceased donor.

Cohen believed it was important to get the message across to Zeitlin – who like Roth has Type O blood – that donating a kidney is a low-risk procedure.

“You have to be by definition extremely healthy to donate a kidney,” said the heart doctor, who lives in Glen Head with his wife Hilari. “It’s absolutely proven that your lifespan is not affected at all. There are even some reports that say patients live longer because the donor feels so altruistic that it actually improves their health.”

Roth said it wasn’t long before Zeitlin, who has three adult children with his wife Judy and five grandchildren under 4, became “gung-ho” in his zeal to move ahead with the surgery.

On the day of the surgery, Roth and Zeitlin declined a ride to the hospital and instead made the short walk from their hotel.

“Rob and I laughed that it reminded us of the walks to the lecture center at Stony Brook or to the Light Engineering Building, where we took our calculus exams in 1973,” said Zeitlin, a sales manager with Big City/Danken Auto Parts in Brooklyn. “This time, however, the stakes were different and larger.”

Shortly after they were admitted at the hospital, Roth and Zeitlin were separated.

“We never had a chance to say goodbye or good luck,” said Zeitlin, whose operation began about 40 minutes before Roth’s.

In the moments before Zeitlin was wheeled into surgery, the North Bellmore grandfather said he felt relief that the operation was at hand because the “countdown to surgery” had become exhausting. But he was also very scared.

“I had never had surgery before – the nurse informed me that a bris, or circumcision, didn’t count,” quipped Zeitlin, the jokester of the three Stony Brook alums, before turning serious. “I was experiencing fear – fear of not waking up and fear of my kidney not taking in Rob.”

Four hours after the pensive pre-surgery moments for Zeitlin and Roth, they were both in recovery. Roth’s body was immediately adjusting to his friend’s kidney. The surgery was a success.

“I have a new lease on life because I had been living with a dark cloud over my head, knowing this was a degenerative condition and that I had very limited options,” said Roth. “Having Stu agree to do this was really like having a knight in shining armor. It is something I am eternally grateful for.”

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Stony Brook University alums (L to R) Dr. Ken Cohen, Stuart Zeitlin and Robert Roth at Yale-New Haven Hospital after Zeitlin donated a kidney to Roth. The three met as freshmen in 1973 at Stony Brook Univ.

Cohen calls Zeitlin, “a bona fide hero.”

“Stu was a guy afraid to give blood. Imagine the bravery it took to donate his kidney,” Cohen said. “Rob is blessed to have him as a friend. I’m blessed to have them both as friends.”

The three Stony Brook alums hope their kidney transplant story will inspire others to volunteer to be living organ donors.

“There is a tremendous shortage of kidneys. If we can get people to donate … you’re talking about thousands and thousands of lives to be saved,” Cohen said. “People who receive live kidneys do much better than those who receive one from a cadaver. We want to make people understand that it really can be done; that it is not as scary as it seems.”

STONY BROOK ALUM ‘ROCKS’ – AS AUTHOR AND SPORTS AGENT

BY BRIAN PATRICK HARMON

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He was a sick little boy pressing the hold button on real life.

Burton Rocks, then just 8, was alone on a stage at Stony Brook University’s Staller Center, performing the “Mickey Mouse March” on the piano and savoring a two-hour furlough from the hospital.

“It’s my earliest memory of Stony Brook and I’ll never forget it,” said the New York Times best-selling author who suffered severe childhood asthma before earning a history degree from the university in 1994.

“I was in the hospital that morning. My doctor said he’d release me and that if I didn’t feel well after the recital, he’d wait for me at the hospital,” continued Rocks, now 42. “I played my piece, wheezing the whole time, and finished to the cheers of my proud parents. Then, I went back to the hospital.”

Such was the routine for Rocks, whose chronic condition – he suffered three code blues before he turned 5 – landed him in hospitals throughout his time growing up on Seville Lane in Stony Brook.

At Stony Brook University, Rocks enrolled in the Honors College, where he began to cultivate his writing talents. His thesis project examining the effects of weight training on professional baseball served him well in his career endeavors as a writer and now, as a sports agent representing Major League Baseball managers, coaches, players and broadcasters.

“The Honors College was truly a catalyst for my writing career,” said Rocks, who wrote the 2003 bestseller “Me and My Dad: A Baseball Memoir” with retired New York Yankee Paul O’Neill. “Stony Brook was the perfect fit for me.”rocksoneill

“Hi. I’m Burton Rocks”

Jim Riggleman was the bench coach for the Washington Nationals and on a road trip in New York in 2009 when he received his first Burton Rocks call.

“I was sitting in my hotel room when he called to introduce himself,” Riggleman said. “He told me he knew people in broadcasting and that if I was interested in changing my career, he could represent me. You got to be thick-skinned to call out of the blue like that.”

The following summer, Rocks dialed up Riggleman again in his New York City hotel room.

“This time we were in town to play the Mets and I had become the Nationals’ interim manager,” Riggleman, 62, said. “A few months later, when the Nationals wanted to hire me as their permanent manager, I hired Burton and he negotiated an attractive contract for me.”

Rocks, who earned a law degree in 1997, scored his first big break in writing in 1999 when he collaborated with Clyde King, the longtime trusted baseball advisor to legendary New York Yankees owner George Steinbrenner, to co-author “A King’s Legacy: The Clyde King Story.”

He ventured away from sports in 2005, teaming with “Odd Couple” actor and sports fanatic Jack Klugman on “Tony and Me: A Story of Friendship.” It was Klugman’s tribute to his co-star, the late Tony Randall.

By the time Rocks had turned the page on his writing career and had committed to solely being a sports agent in 2007, Rocks had written eight books.

“Players who signed on with me said ‘If you were good enough to be Paul O’Neill’s teammate in writing his book, then you’re good enough to be on my team as an agent,’” said Rocks, recently hired as an adjunct business professor at Stony Brook.

Rocks will teach Business 391 – Management of Sports Organizations on Monday and Wednesday afternoons this fall.

“A good heart and spirit”

Retired Cincinnati Reds catcher Joe Oliver said it was Rocks’ “go get ’em’” attitude that sold him on the agent.

“He has a very positive outlook and a good heart and spirit,” added Oliver, 49, who Rocks helped get back into baseball as a minor league baseball manager after being away from baseball for over a decade.

Norma King, wife of the late Clyde King, praised Rocks for his perseverance. The Kings were close friends with Rocks’ parents and witnessed Burton Rocks’ struggle with asthma. As a favor to Rocks’ father, King gave Rocks an informal pitching tryout at King’s home in North Carolina while Rocks was in law school in 1995.

“Clyde always said ‘When one door closes, another door opens.’ Burton is living proof of that expression,” she said. “He threw for Clyde here (in Goldsboro, North Carolina). But his health precluded him from playing professionally. When that door closed, he turned to writing.”

Rocks credits his mother Marlene, a retired New York City schools Spanish teacher who serves as a translator for Rocks’ Spanish-speaking clients, and his father Lawrence, an acclaimed chemist and author of the 1973 tome “The Energy Crisis,” for helping inspire his success.

“It was very unique to see an agent show up with his mother,” said Todd Hankins, 24, a Cleveland Indians prospect who Rocks helped land a six-figure signing bonus in 2011. “Burton isn’t just worried about me making it to the big leagues and making money. He actually cares about me and my family.”

Staying Connected With Stony Brook

These days, Rocks enjoys visiting his alma mater, particularly for basketball games at Stony Brook’s new Island Federal Credit Union Arena.rocksbasketball

“I love attending the basketball games as an alum,” said Rocks, who brings his mother to some contests. “Seeing what (Stony Brook men’s basketball coach) Steve Pikiell and the basketball team have done to revitalize school spirit at Stony Brook is incredible.”

Rocks equated the jubilant atmosphere at the arena – including the “see of red” in the stands – to “a mini Madison Square Garden.”

“Seeing that would make any alum feel proud,” he added.

Rocks wants his story to inspire other Stony Brook alums and students in pursuit of their career dreams.

“I tell students that the road to being a sports agent can start many different ways and take many different turns,” he said. “My advice is to make yourself as unique as possible and to not let anybody discourage you. If you want to do something and have a passion for it, keep at it. Don’t get discouraged.”

Photo Credits: Feature photo, John Griffin. Secondary photo, Steve Pikiell twitter.

Story originally published at stonybrook.edu on March 4, 2015