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

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

Mike Golic’s Optimism for Safe Football Is Pure Fantasy

BY BRIAN PATRICK HARMON

I know a youth league football coach who once duct-taped his 10-year-old son’s wrists together for an entire practice to stop the aspiring quarterback from separating his palms when taking the snap from the center.

I know another coach who admonished his crying, belly-aching 8-year-old boy by shouting, “Unless there’s throw-up dripping from your face mask, get back in the huddle!”

And I can recall dozens of pee wee coaches and fathers downplaying a head injury sustained by a child on the football field by saying something akin to this age-old gem: “You’ll be fine. You just got your bell rung.”

Forgive my pessimism, but as long as football continues to attract these types of “You hit like a girl!” gorillas to teach the game to children, no amount of Heads Up football is going to make the sport safer.

USA Football bills its “Heads Up Football” campaign as a national initiative to help make the game “better and safer.” While emphasizing proper equipment fitting, concussion awareness and heads up tackling, the program is woefully deficient in its understanding of two important elements of youth football:

  1. The typical youth pee wee football league relies on minimally qualified individuals to volunteer to coach its teams. Passing a criminal background check and being able to get off work by 5 p.m. are basically all it takes.
  2. With football, chaos is at hand in virtually every play. Tackling is a car wreck; it’s impossible to choreograph heads-up collisions involving children — never mind college or NFL players — running full speed at each other.
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Helmet to helmet hits are unavoidable at every level.                                Credit: Eileen Torres

USA Football advises coaches to limit live contact as much as possible at practice. Sadly, there are leagues allowing teams — with players as young as 5 and 6 — to practice in full equipment in the middle of July.These completely unnecessary sessions typically are justified by gung-ho coaches who get their players’ parents fired up with Vince Lombardi quotes and an exclamation to the boys that “This is what champions are made of.”

Dude, relax. They’re first graders.

Former NFL defensive lineman Mike Golic has used his nationally syndicated radio program as a platform to spread the good word that Heads Up is making the sport safer and that the youth coaches of today are instilling fundamentals that will drastically decrease the amount of head injuries suffered by future NCAA and NFL players.

When LeBron James told ESPN.com that he does not let his sons, LeBron Jr., 10, and Maximus Bryce, 7, play football, Golic, on a “Love it or Shove it” segment of ESPN Radio’s Mike & Mike, reacted with a rant about football safety.

“I completely shove it,” Golic said of James’ statement. “Football to me, especially at the youth league (level) is as safe as it’s ever been. There is such a premium on… concussion awareness, on equipment fitting, on proper tackling. Kids are learning to hit the right way. The next generation of our players are going to tackle better, and have better fundamentals, and have better technique… and hopefully not get hurt.”

This is pure fantasy. Considering that youth leagues and school districts cannot possibly afford what it takes to make the game safer — proper coaching training, certified medical personnel at every game and state of the art helmets and other equipment — Golic’s vision of a brighter and less injurious day for football is a pipe dream.

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Tackling is a car wreck. There is no way to choreograph it. Credit: Eileen Torres

And really, even if all of those measures are taken, tackle football, given its combative objectives, can never be deemed “safe.”

But that won’t stop the NFL — which has acknowledged in federal court papers thatone in three NFL players will develop neurological problems at “notably younger ages”— from trying to convince the populace that football is safe enough.

In what seems an obvious reaction to a recent decline in youth league participation, the league has held dozens of “Moms Football Safety Clinics” at NFL cities across the country. The clinics run mothers through tackling drills, provide concussion awareness education and deliver instruction on helmet fitting.

Golic talks about the clinics on his radio show, mentioning that his wife Christine speaks at the clinic as an ambassador for the NFL and the Heads Up initiative.

“We want to assure mothers that the game is safer and better than ever before. We want them to participate,” Christine Golic, whose two sons played football at Notre Dame, told the Detroit Free Press after speaking at a clinic hosted by the Detroit Lions.

Ignorance is bliss, and clearly the Golics are akin to it.

Cover Photo Credit: Steve Baker

Long Island Rail Road Moments That Tug At The Heartstrings

BY BRIAN PATRICK HARMON

The electrician and the sleepy attorney have commuted home on the train to the same station for some time — probably for years — but I doubt they had acknowledged each other before this moment:

“Hey, pal. We’re in Bay Shore,” the tough-looking contractor says in a soft but assertive tone while alerting the napping litigator with a gentle nudge on the arm.

For four years, I spent over three-and-a-half hours a day riding the Long Island Rail Road to work in Brooklyn. Riders always had plenty to whine about — what with the delays, the shutdowns and the steep ticket prices that always seemed on the verge of being hiked. But for those riders who pick their heads up from their smart phones now and then, there are plenty of feel-good moments to be seen and heard.

I once watched two riders team up to map out the quickest way to reach Jamaica via subway from Atlantic Terminal in Brooklyn, after word spread that railroad service west of Jamaica was shut down “indefinitely.” Believe me, I have tried this, and it’s no picnic.

The two men analyzed the giant subway grid on the wall, then weighed the friendly and a bit too ample advice of a disheveled passerby. Finally, they walked to the Lafayette Avenue subway station.

There, they chatted about work and commuting before catching an A train to Broadway Junction, where they ambled up the steps to the elevated platform and soon boarded a J train bound for Jamaica. The two stayed by each other’s side until they boarded a LIRR train in Jamaica.

Romance — depending on its form — is nice to witness on the train. One rainy evening commute home, I caught a glance of a smartly dressed middle-aged man standing under an umbrella on the Islip station platform.

My train crept to a stop and I got a little choked up as the train door slid open right in front of where the man was standing and a woman stepped out into a warm embrace with the man before the two clasped hands and walk down the platform stairs. As the train pulled away, I watched the man gently guide the woman to the passenger door of his car. In a flash, they were out of sight.

What made this so heartwarming was that it was clearly a daily routine. How else would the man know just where to stand on the platform to greet his lady friend?

On another commute home, it was sure nice to find a $20 bill on the floor of the train, even though I may have pounced on it a little too fast. Out of guilt, I asked the nearest person, “Does this belong to you?”

He said, “No.” That was good. Good to find the 20 bucks, good to keep it and good that the man was honest.

The train was always good for chance encounters with old friends. For me, it was bumping into a former Daily News colleague, a high school football teammate or a fellow parent from my time living in Bethpage.

It was always a pleasure bumping into the coach of my daughter’s soccer team on the ride into work. Bob and I boarded in Patchogue, but Bob would hop off the train 20 minutes later for work in Babylon.

Commutes with Coach Bob represent the best of both worlds for me. I get just enough stimulating conversation before Bob’s stop. Then, when he’s off, I’m able to kick back, read the paper and tinker with my iPhone.

It was a pleasure watching old friends meet and hug. And it was nice to see a young family board the train together, embarking on an exciting trip to The City. They worry about things most commuters don’t: Should we sit in a seat facing the direction we’re traveling in? Do we change in Jamaica? What time do we arrive at Penn Station?

I frequently saw regular riders switch their seats on the train to make room for a couple or a family to sit together.

It was wonderful to see a regular rider who speaks fluent Spanish step in to serve as translator between a conductor and an elderly Hispanic man who had boarded a train without a ticket. The Hispanic man clearly did not understand the conductor’s English – even when the conductor spoke very loud and very, very slow.

From what I could tell, the amateur interpreter asked the man in Spanish, “What station are you getting off at?” I was able to make out “qué estación.”

The man replied, “Jamaica.” Then she informed him — in Spanish of course — that if he didn’t have money for a ticket, the conductor needed to see “identificación.”

The man quickly dug up his I.D. and the last I saw of him, he was on the platform filling out paperwork.

It was especially good to see common sense prevail on the train, like when a regular rider realized it’s a new month, but was already on an evening train back to Long Island and hadn’t purchased his monthly ticket. When the conductor came around to check tickets, the rider barely uttered the syllable “for-” in the word “forgetting,” before the conductor recognized him and quietly agreed to give the guy a pass for the ride home.

What makes the LIRR good — even great — on many days are the riders. Sure, they can be cranky and gruff and want their quiet and their space, but given the opportunity to reveal their goodness, they rise to the occasion again and again.

*This an updated version of my column that ran in the Riverhead News-Review on April 7, 2012.*

Photo credit: Emmanuel Nicolas

Royals Run Recalls Memories of Rooting Against the Dreaded New York Yankees

BY BRIAN PATRICK HARMON

Their center fielder introduced me to the beauty of an inside-the-park home run. Their submarine closer seemed to scrape his knuckles on the mound with every pitch. And one of their shortstops played with a toothpick dangling from his mouth.

They were the Kansas City Royals of the late 1970s and early 1980s, a talented and character-laden team that hit, ran and pitched their way to six division crowns in a 10-year span, ultimately winning the franchise’s first World Series in 1985.

Often, these Royals were the last team standing in the way of yet another World Series appearance for the New York Yankees. And as such, in my family, they were a team worth rooting for.

It was a drag being a young diehard New York Mets fan during the Carter Administration – back when Joe Torre was cutting his eventual Hall of Fame skipper’s teeth as the Amazins’ manager. For seven consecutive seasons, the Mets finished last or next-to-last in the National League East.

So come October – certainly if I wanted to stay in the good graces of my grandfather – the team to pull for was whichever team was facing the Yankees in the playoffs.

It certainly didn’t seem like such a good idea in 1976. That was when I watched with my little mouth agape as Yankees first-baseman Chris Chambliss slugged a walk-off homer in the decisive Game 5 win over the Royals in the American League Championship and somehow made it around the bases in spite of the thousands of frenzied fans that had stormed the field at Yankee Stadium.

It didn’t get better in 1977 or 1978. The Yankees eliminated the Royals in the playoffs those seasons too. Kansas City finally defeated the Yankees in a playoff series in 1980 and reached its first World Series.

So embarrassed by the loss was Yankees owner George Steinbrenner that he fired his manager Dick Howser, even after the team won 103 games during the regular season. Stuff like that made it easy to root against the Yanks.

A bit of irony: Howser managed Kansas City when they defeated cross-state rival St. Louis in the 1985 World Series.

I certainly hadn’t given those Royals teams much thought over the last three decades, not with the Royals holding court at the bottom of the American League standings season after season. But the team’s rocket ride through the playoffs this season got me thinking about the players on those consistently good Royals teams.

At the top of the list is Willie Wilson, the Royals fleet-footed center fielder from 1977 to 1986, whose blinding speed turned some games into track meets. I still see him in my mind lacing one in the gap at the then-Royals Stadium and whirling around the bases for a game-winning inside-the-park home run in an extra-inning game with the Yankees. He hit a total of 13 inside-the-park homers.

It’s easy to recall watching reliever Dan Quisenberry – the perennial Rolaids Relief Man in the American League – closing win after win with his submarine delivery.

U.L. Washington was the Royals shortstop who played with a toothpick in the corner of his mouth at the plate and in the field. He switched to a Q-tip when parents of youth players complained.

But who can forget that? I still have baseball cards with U.L. slyly grinning and chomping on a toothpick.

I challenged myself to remember the regulars from the 1976 team. I came up with seven of the nine regulars and managed to accurately name four starting pitchers, Paul Splitorff, Dennis Leonard, Doug Bird and Andy Hassler.

I thought for sure that Darrell Porter was the Royals catcher that season, but my research at mlb.com revealed he didn’t arrive in Kansas City until 1977. As it turned out, Buck Martinez and Bob Stinson shared time behind the plate in 1976.

Right field was the only other gap in my memory for the starters on that 1976 team. Al Cowens, who finished second in voting for the American League MVP award in 1977 was Kansas City’s regular right fielder from 1974 to 1979. Missing his name smarted.

Of course, it was easy to remember George Brett — who hit .390 in 1980 and seemed to win the American League batting title every year Twins and Angels star Rod Carew didn’t — being the heart and soul of the team. He was Kansas City’s third-baseman for 21 seasons.

The 1976 team was solid up the middle with center fielder Amos Otis; shortstop Freddie Patek, who standing 5-foot-five was the shortest player of his time; and longtime Royals second-baseman Frank White.

Big John Mayberry was the slugging first-baseman, Hal McRae was the clutch-hitting DH and Tom Poquette was the journey-man leftfielder for the 1976 squad.

Brett, White, McRae and Wilson, who played sparingly as a rookie in 1976, were still key contributors on the 1985 team that won it all.

Here’s hoping their re-appearance in the World Series this year is an omen of things to come in the 2015 season for my Mets, who won the World Series in 1986.

High School Football Deaths Stir Disturbing Memories of Youth Football

BY BRIAN PATRICK HARMON

What follows is a true American football moment. It happened on Long Island.

“Break his leg! Break his f—ing leg!”

It was the waning moments of a damp September fourth quarter, and football, as it often does, had brought out the ugly side of one of its fans. In this case, the red-faced rooter was a 30-something dad imploring his son, an outside linebacker, to maim the opposition’s running back.

The boys playing were nine and 10. Fifth grade. Pee wees.

The father wasn’t a coach. Nor was he one of the three volunteers holding the yard markers. But there he was, stomping along the sideline, ensuring junior could hear dad’s commands.

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Credit: Eileen Torres


I can only surmise that this man’s sideline presence and profanity were permitted because his place of business hosted end-of-season award parties for teams in the local pee-wee league. Perhaps, his bulging biceps and the veins popping from his neck also played a role.

Similarly boorish was the head coach of the team this father was pulling for. His own son had an intense fear of football’s most basic requirement – hitting. To remedy this lack of meanness, the coach took several drastic measures.

Two were especially disturbing.

During practice, he routinely would sic the two most aggressive players on the team against his son during full-contact drills. “Again,” he shouted, each time his son wound up on the wrong end of a ferocious pummeling. Yes, some 10-year-old’s hits are ferocious.

“Don’t help him up,” the coach would add. Only after the tears flowed from his son’s eyes did this moronic exercise cease.

As if this wasn’t enough to encourage his son to hate him (and football), the coach had the same two boys come to his home to engage in hitting drills with his son in the backyard. This time – the coach bragged to me – the drills continued in spite of his son’s crying.

The coach wasn’t much nicer to the rest of his players. Random and nonsensical screaming were the norm during practices. And his sideline griping at games was legendary in its filth, particularly those times when his team fell a “c— hair” short of reaching a first-down.

Taught and played correctly, football is an incredibly violent game, where the threat of serious injury hovers over every single play. Even the kookiest football parents – the ones that spew blood-curdling screams and howl like wolves when their sons do them proud with big hits and long runs – fear the worst during games and are thankful after every play that their son doesn’t need to be carried off the field.

So when you add irresponsible parents masquerading as coaches to the sport, the results are frightening.

From youth leagues to the National Football League, inspiring, compassionate and sensible coaches are abundant at every level of the grid-iron food chain. But so are the ignorant, selfish and immoral ones.

Coach Brady Hoke at the University of Michigan has been widely criticized for allowing his wobbly sophomore quarterback Shane Morris to remain in the Wolverines’ home game Saturday, Sept. 27, against Minnesota after a crushing hit that left him stumbling, dazed and obviously concussed.

Students and other fans are calling for Hoke’s job. Though, sadly, they really want Hoke axed more because his team is lousy than because of the way he handled his quarterback. Still, a team as big as Michigan’s has dozens of coaches and trainers. Someone should have acted fiercely enough to keep the injured Morris off the field.

When the news flashed on my phone Wednesday night that 16-year-old Tom Cutinelladied after a violent collision playing football for Shoreham-Wading River High Schoolin Long Island, New York, I was horrified. My thoughts quickly raced to my teenage son, sleeping in the bedroom down the hall. He wasn’t yet five and barely 40 pounds when he started playing tackle football.

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Credit: Eileen Torres

Outwardly, he enjoyed the game, getting high praise for wild touchdown runs and earning monikers like “assassin” and “terminator” for big hits. But after 10 seasons in helmet and pads, this summer he asserted he would not be playing this fall.

I was quite concerned with what he’d do with his time after school, but my gut reaction was relief – intense relief. Join the golf team, I suggested.

I helped coach my son’s youth league teams and I shake my head at some of the tackling and blocking drills I ran my players through. Looking to instill a toughness in little kids who wanted no part of colliding full speed with another child, I reasoned that I was protecting them – that they would be more likely to get injured if they played with fear.

I should have suggested their parents pull them from football and ask for their money back from the league.

Many people are reasoning that deaths like Tom Cutinella’s are random. But can it really be a surprise that now and then a child is killed playing a sport where players are dressed like modern day gladiators and success is predicated on which team hits harder? Also, consider that NFL teams erect statues of legends who were essentially paid concussionists, i.e. the Baltimore Ravens’ Ray Lewis.

There’s a magic in playing football. The game offers discipline and serves up powerful lessons in perseverance. And then there’s the camaraderie that you cherish for a lifetime. There’s a one-of-a-kind adrenaline rush that comes from battling with all you have alongside your teammates.

Whether we won or lost, I wouldn’t trade my football teammates from high school or college for anyone else.

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This is from 1990 when I was a senior outside linebacker for Buffalo State College. I am #48 chasing down the Hobart quarterback. Source: Buffalo State College

As a player and as a coach, I was under football’s spell for a long time. But the mounting data documenting the sport’s adverse health effects, along with the NFL’s handling of domestic abuse cases and the fact that college athletes still get no share of college sports’ $11 billion in annual revenue has broken the enchantment.

Clearly, with hundreds and hundreds of billions tied up in television contracts for college and pro football and with millions of fans attending games at all levels each week, football doesn’t need me.

But for the sake of its players, young and old, it needs some change. Here are some suggestions:

  • Mandatory training for youth football coaches.
  • Be certain youth players have properly fitting equipment, including a molded mouthpiece.
  • Require that certified trainers be present at every game played.
  • Ban tackle football to children under 12.
  • Eliminate for-profit youth football leagues.
  • Compensate college players financially – with at least something. Whether they’re a practice squad player or a Heisman Trophy winner, they’re all sacrificing blood, sweat and untold physical damage, while their coaches earn millions in salaries and endorsements and their schools rake in billions in revenue.

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We Can’t Ignore Kids and Concussions

BY BRIAN PATRICK HARMON

cropped-bph.jpgA few weeks ago, my dad apologized for all the smoking he did in the house back when I was a kid.

“We just didn’t realize,” he said as we watched the little girl on the anti-smoking commercial cough into a room thick with secondhand smoke.

I’ve heard that refrain many times through the years. From my parents. From my aunts. From a ton of reformed smokers. That excuse — the lack of awareness of the dangers of secondhand smoke — has always rung hollow with me. As if my bloodshot eyes and hacking cough weren’t strong enough hints that breathing that stuff in was detrimental.

These days, I am beginning to seriously ponder if I will someday make a similar mea culpa to my son. Dan is 12 and has already played eight seasons of tackle football. He was an aggressive little guy, loved roughhousing, jumping around and knocking into stuff, so as he was heading into kindergarten — and a few months shy of turning 5 — I signed him up for peewee football.

In terms of catching, running and throwing, Danny has done some amazing things playing football. But he is particularly noted for his “pancake” blocks and bone-crushing tackles, the type of hitting that led to such scary nicknames as “Terminator” and “Assassin” from his coaches. My son’s ego feeds off the attention he receives for his warrior mentality.

Junior Seau was a force on the grid iron. Credit: Flickr

Junior Seau was a force on the grid iron.
Credit: Flickr

I imagine Junior Seau experienced the same motivation while growing up menacing whoever crossed his path on the football field. Seau was the warrior’s warrior. The fire in his eyes alone was enough to lead his teammates into battle. In a game dependent on violence for fan interest, Seau was as fierce as they come. He hit — and was hit — for 20 seasons as an NFL linebacker.

Seau’s suicide last week should be a wake-up call for any father who pressures his son to play football and for any coach who pressures his players to play with a head injury. Seau shot himself in the heart. Like fellow NFL great Dave Duerson, who similarly killed himself in 2011, Seau — who suffered multiple concussions playing football — clearly wanted researchers to study his brain for trauma. It’s been documented that Seau had been suffering from depression in recent years. It would be irresponsible not to suggest that his depression was influenced by repeated blows to the head.

Among the institutions in line to study Seau’s brain is Boston University’s Center for the Study of Traumatic Encephalopathy, the research center that found Duerson, a longtime Chicago Bears safety, suffered from chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE) — brain damage — due to repeated hits to his head. CTE is not exclusive to NFL players. Boston University researchers found CTE in the brain of an 18-year-old athlete who had sustained multiple concussions.

This memorial to Junior Seau shows the outpouring  of love and support that came in wake of the linebacker's 2012 suicide. He donated his brain to science.  Credit: Tejas Califas

This memorial to Junior Seau shows the outpouring of love and support that came in wake of the linebacker’s 2012 suicide. He donated his brain to science.
Credit: Tejas Califas

Pain tolerance is among the core values of football. It’s a game where you’re rewarded for how much you can tolerate. Players — not just those getting paid or on scholarship — will go through anything to stay on the field.

I am certain that I played the last game of my junior season of college football with a concussion I had suffered days earlier during practice. My motivation: I wasn’t going to jeopardize my starting position by letting a headache and some dizziness keep me out of the game.

Awareness of the dangers of head injuries has increased on the youth football level. But there is still precious little medical oversight at practices and games.

Youth leagues need a trainer on-site to evaluate head and other injuries — to determine if it’s safe for a child to continue playing. It is worth the increase in registration fees.

Furthermore, leagues, coaches and parents should limit the amount of full-contact football a child plays during the year. Too many kids on Long Island play tackle football eight months a year.

youthball

Youth football leagues across the country fall woefully short in monitoring head injuries. Photo from Flickr

Ridiculously, coaches begin full equipment practices for the fall season in July. Then, when the fall season ends in November, the indoor football season begins in December with teams registering to compete in for-profit youth leagues that schedule playoff games deep into February.

Hundreds of retired players — including Hall of Famer Tony Dorsett — are suing the NFL for negligence, accusing the league of deception and denial in failing to properly inform players of the link between head injuries and long-term cognitive brain damage.

If players have a solid case against the NFL, then how strong of a case would former youth and high school players have against their leagues, or worse, their dads?

I recall hearing about the first case of ailing smokers suing Big Tobacco in the 1990s and thinking that the smokers had no case, that they should hold themselves accountable for willingly embracing the risks of smoking cigarettes. How completely wrong I was.

Is it so far-fetched to imagine non-NFL players suing the league for selling a product that influenced them to make poor health decisions on the playing field?

Originally published in the Riverhead News-Review on May 12, 2012.