By Brian Gotta, President of CoachDeck (Originally published December 22, 2010):
I have three sons who played football, and the last one just took off his pads for the final time. I am relieved. I have lived in fear of serious injury since the day they began playing the sport. But then I started doing research on some of the other sports my kids still play. Maybe I’m not out of the worrying woods just yet.
As a football dad, I’d cringe every time I’d watch an NFL game and see a violent, helmet-to-helmet collision. Sometimes the players wouldn’t get up. Some would be carried off the field, immobilized on a stretcher. Occasionally I’d read in the sports page about a college or high school player who was tragically paralyzed during a game – a young athlete with everything going for him whose life now was going to be substantially different than he’d hoped and imagined. And then I’d think about what could, heaven forbid, happen this afternoon at my sons’ football practices.
So this year, in his Senior year, my final, football-playing son earned a starting spot at corner. It was great for him, but still I fretted. “Just let him get through this season,” I thought. Before the first game, he sustained a broken finger that cost him the first three contests of the year. That was devastating to him, but nothing of the life-changing variety. When he got his cast off, he had to earn his starting position all over again. He also plays baseball – the sport he intends to pursue in college – and we wondered if maybe it wasn’t a sign that he should just call it a career and focus on his spring sport.
But he hung in there, the team and he had a great season, and they made it to the city semi-finals. If they won, they would play for the city championship on an NFL field. My son had a great game, including an interception with the score tied in the third quarter that caused the packed stadium to go berserk. He also made some hard tackles. There was definitely some helmet contact. Yet each time he got up.
We lost that game by a field goal which meant the season, his career, and my life as a football dad came to an end. On the field after the game, all the Seniors had tears in their eyes. I hurt deeply for my boy who knew he’d never play another game. But I have to admit, I also felt like someone who had just barely made it across eight lanes of a busy freeway. I was glad I didn’t have to go back over it again.
Yes, football is a dangerous sport. According to a study done by SAFE KIDS USA, the highest percentage of players injured (28%) are hurt in football. But baseball (25%) is not that far behind, followed by 22% of soccer players, (my daughter’s main sport), 18% in basketball and 15% in softball. Another son of mine sustained two concussions during his Pop Warner career, but my youngest boy once took a bad hop to the chin on the baseball field and got a freak concussion as well.
The study reports that more than 3.5 million children ages 14 and under receive medical treatment for sports injuries each year. And the rate and severity of injury increases with the player’s age. Most organized sports-related injuries (62 percent) occur during practices rather than games. Despite this fact, the study contends, a third of parents often don’t take the same safety precautions during their child’s practices as they would for a game.
Chillingly, according to the National Center for Catastrophic Sport Injury Research Twentieth Annual Report: From 1982-2002, the total numbers of direct and indirect fatalities among high school athletes were:
o Baseball — 17
o Basketball — 88
o Cheerleading — 21
o Cross Country — 14
o Football — 22
o Soccer — 31
o Track & Field — 47
o Wrestling — 16
You’ll notice that football only ranks fourth on this list. So does this mean that kids are in peril playing sports? I don’t think so. In fact, statistics show that more kids are in danger from inactivity, in the form of childhood obesity and its related health effects. We all know sports are, by and large, healthy and valuable activities that teach life-lessons while building strong bodies.
I have a friend whose son and mine played on a travel baseball team together when they were 13 and 14. He would tell me how his boy would beg him to let him play football, but he held firm in not allowing it. He felt his son had a great future in baseball and, so far, he’s right. Last year, the kid was a high school All-American and is now on scholarship at one of the best DI college programs in the county. Had he played football, would he have sustained an injury that would have cut short his baseball career? We’ll never know. But the price is that this young man will never watch NFL or college football games with the same understanding, insight and appreciation as those who actually played the game. Unless he makes it to the Major Leagues, he’ll never know what it is like to be under the lights on Friday night hearing the roar of a capacity crowd after making a great play for his team. It is a decision I’m sure the father doesn’t regret one bit. I don’t know about the son.
So yes, I dodged the cars and finally made it across the freeway last weekend. But the reality is, when we have kids, we’re never really off that freeway. We’ll always worry and, if it’s not about football, it will be about something else. Imagine families whose children are in the military. Worry about getting through a high school football season? Try getting through a deployment. All we can do is make the decisions we feel are best for our kids, hope things turn out the way we want, and help them rebound if and when they don’t.
I remember a commercial that aired several years ago for a popular mini-van. At the end we see a mom drop off her son at football practice covered from head to toe in bubble wrap. He was so constricted, he could barely move. And I guess that is an analogy for the way we raise our children. We want desperately for them to be safe, but we also know we have to take risks to enjoy life. So we live every day trying to find the middle ground between caring too much, and not caring at all.