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.

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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.

Fearing she’ll be parked behind bars. . . Lizzie drops the bawl

Originally published in the Daily News on July 19, 2002

BY BRIAN PATRICK HARMON

Lizzie Grubman became the Princess of Wails yesterday, crying for forgiveness outside a Long Island courtroom.

Amid heaving sobs, she broke a year-long silence in the Hamptons crash that now has the poor little rich girl headed for a criminal trial.

“I just want to say how absolutely sorry I am that innocent people got hurt that night,” Grubman, 31, told a crushing throng of reporters at the Suffolk County Court in Riverhead. “Please tell them and please tell their families how terrible I feel. I’ve felt this way since this happened. I’m so sorry.”

At that point, her words collapsed into heaving sobs, and she continued to bawl as her lawyers and new media adviser led her to an elevator and out of the courthouse to a waiting chauffeured car.

But Grubman’s weepy display seemed like crocodile tears to lawyers representing some of those who were injured when she backed her Mercedes SUV into a Hamptons nightclub crowd in July 2001.

Coached to cry?

One plaintiff’s lawyer suggested Grubman likely had been coached by her recently hired public relations guru, Dan Klores, who represented Sean (Puffy) Combs during his criminal trial last year. Another said he believes the apology – her first since her mea culpa in the days immediately after the July 7, 2001, crash – was an attempt to soften Grubman’s image, as well as a show of remorse for potential jurors on Long Island’s East End.

“It’s interesting her apology was made at the time a plea deal falls apart and she knows she’s going to trial,” said Anthony Gair, whose client Adam Wacht suffered a serious leg injury in the crash outside Southampton’s Conscience Point Inn.

“You’ll notice in her words that there is no taking of responsibility for an act that was absolutely her fault,” Gair said. “I wonder whether it’s directed to the victims of her actions or to a potential jury pool.”

Nassau County Assistant District Attorney Joy Watson, the special prosecutor handling the case, also was unimpressed by the apology.

“The time to express her concern was that night. She should have stuck around and rendered assistance to the victims,” Watson said.

Grubman is charged with backing the SUV into a crowd of clubgoers, injuring 16 people. She pleaded not guilty in September to a 26-count indictment that included second- and third-degree assault, vehicular assault, leaving the scene of an accident – all felonies – and operating a motor vehicle while under the influence of alcohol, a misdemeanor. She faces up to eight years in prison if convicted.

For months, her lawyers tried to arrange a plea bargain that would result in little or no jail time. Judge John Mullin said yesterday he will set a trial date when Grubman returns to his courtroom Aug. 16. But he noted that he is retiring before the year ends and expects to hand the case off to a different judge, which means the trial is unlikely to begin until January.

Anxious in court

Grubman, whose long blond hair cascaded over a powder blue pants suit, seemed unnerved from the time she arrived at court with an entourage of lawyers, bodyguards and friends yesterday. She was a tense figure in Mullin’s packed courtroom, waiting for her case to be called. Her lead attorney, Stephen Scaring, repeatedly urged her to relax. When she left the courtroom, Grubman, the daughter of entertainment lawyer Allen Grubman, pleaded with Scaring to let her make a statement to the press.

“Lizzie, no,” Scaring said. But Grubman persisted: “I’d like to say something, please.”

Scaring appeared uncomfortable, but said, “Okay.”

Then Grubman addressed the media, a task she normally would handle with ease in her job, and began crying.