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Padecky: Know the risks before letting your boys play football

By BOB PADECKY
THE PRESS DEMOCRAT

The other day my preteen son told me he wanted to play football. What did I tell him? Do I tell him what I remember back in 1975?

Back then I was covering the Miami Dolphins for a south Florida newspaper. At practice during training camp, I found myself standing next to linebacker Nick Buoniconti.

“Come on, Jeris, lay him out!” Buoniconti screamed at cornerback Jeris White. White was a big-time hitter. He could deliver a blow. A wide receiver was crossing into White’s territory. He never saw White. He should have.

“Yeah, Jeris, knock him out!” I thought to myself. I could feel my gooseflesh. I was feeling it all right. Get him, Jeris. Get him, I said to myself quietly.

White did. Knocked the guy flat. I looked at Jeris in admiration. I looked at Buoniconti. I saw the same look on his face. And I never thought anymore about it. The guy got his bell rung all right. Hoo-yahhh!

I could tell my son how I felt that day.

A week ago Friday I felt something else. I was on the Montgomery sideline at the Clayton Valley game. On a Montgomery running play that ended up on the Montgomery sideline, Clayton Valley’s middle linebacker, Michael Protheroe, crunched the runner. It was an Oooo-hit all the way. Protheroe will play college football. My guess is Protheroe has more hits like that in his future.

This time I didn’t feel Hoo-yahhhh! This time I looked to see if the Montgomery kid was getting up. He did.

So what did I tell my son?

“Let’s see how you feel when you get to be a freshman in high school,” I said. “It’ll take you that long to read what I have assembled.”

I have a stack of articles, about five inches high, about concussions and injuries and the violent nature of football. I want my son to read all of them, some of them written by me. Not to scare him away. I want him to be educated about a game simple to understand, and I apologize if that appears like a self-canceling phrase.

In football, you are either the hammer or the nail. There’s no in-between.

Son, if you play, be the hammer. Play hard. Don’t try to avoid contact because it will find you anyway. Better you are prepared and ready to deliver. This is football, not checkers. Jerry Robinson, the former Cardinal Newman, UCLA and Raiders linebacker, told me once that the way to become a starter on any team, to stand out so the coaches notice you, is to make a hit (quarterbacks notwithstanding). A big hit. Attract attention. With violence.

Otherwise, you’re the nail.

Once, especially back in the ’70s, I snickered at a football player who didn’t want to be violent. I looked down at him, like he was an inferior product. Baby. Momma’s boy. Stuff like that.

I don’t feel that way anymore. All those years, all those players, on all those levels, getting your bell rung is not a cutesy euphemism to me anymore. To read all the concussion stories, that’s sad enough. But to know that we are years away from truly understanding everything football does to the human body, that’s sadder still.

Remember, once they played football without facemasks, mouth guards. Once players were allowed to horse collar a tackle, yank on a helmet and slap an ear hole. Once when a player got his bell rung, trainers would stick some ammonia gas, aka smelling salts, under the nose, and the player would perk right up, as if he was overcaffeinated. Once tacklers led with their helmets.

What will we learn in the next 20 years that shouldn’t be done on the football field now?

I was just e-mailed a story by a research company studying helmets. They claim the helmet does little to protect the head from a sideways collision. They studied and charted all the top makers. Are they right? Who knows. But what we do know is that football safety has sprung up like the latest cottage industry.

Wives are suing the NFL for what has happened to their husbands. You can’t throw a football without hitting someone who is doing a concussion study. Headlines are being written that would have been considered blasphemous 30 years ago (or in Texas now). Headlines like one that appeared over a Chicago Tribune op-ed piece by Ken Reed, sports policy director of a group called League of Fans: “It’s Time To Ban High School Football.”

High school football won’t be banned but every father who lets his son play needs to be educated. Don’t cloud the vision with college scholarships or NFL money and fame for your kids. Rather, live in the moment because that’s all we have with our children. Know football will never be safe. Know there is a proper way to block and tackle. Know, and this is a big one, life is full of risks.

Having read and accepted all that, weighing all the pros and cons, a father gives his eager son the go-ahead? Good for them. Go for it. Rock ’em like Jeris White.

But, when the time comes, if my son decides he doesn’t want to play because he’s too small or he just met a girl or he is not that violent, I won’t call him a baby and tell him to man up. I’ll just call him my son, with no strings attached.

You can reach Staff Columnist Bob Padecky at 521-5223 or bob.padecky [at] pressdemocrat [dot] com.