The Fencing Response

Since I graduated from high school, I have not attended a high school sporting event I wasn’t paid to cover. This fall, that will probably change.

Although I am out of the writing game, so to speak, I’d like to drop by a stadium on a Friday night or Saturday morning, because watching football is fun. Despite the deadlines and dreary weather, I enjoyed my weekends covering football. If the weather holds, I’ll find my way to Sal Maglie Stadium in Niagara Falls, or Masters Field in Grand Island at some point this season.

There is an undercurrent to football that’s getting more difficult to ignore these days. The way we look at injuries is changing, and as more and more damaged brains get thin-sliced in laboratories, it becomes tough to look past the crumpled bodies left on the turf after big hits.

When you read a piece entitled Did Football Kill Austin Trenum? it gets even tougher to ignore. When Starpoint, a school I’ve covered many times, loses its best linebacker in a team camp it’s unfortunate. When you read he can never lift more than 14 pounds with his right arm again, it’s downright tragic.

I’ve written my own stories about concussions, about schools that are finally coming around on baseline testing and properly educating students and parents about concussion symptoms.

That piece could have been a few thousand words words longer; there is just so much we still get wrong about brain injuries. How much rest to give someone. When it’s safe to go back to class or the football field. Where the line between paranoia and prevention lies.

One quote from the story, though, shows just how far we’ve already come over the last few years.

“We’re definitely missing more game time because of (concussions),” Grand Island football coach Dean Santorio said. “Usually a concussion was one week at the most, so if you got hit on a Tuesday, by the next Tuesday you were back. Now we’re seeing two to three or four weeks now no matter what.”

“The game is changing a little bit in some ways,” Santorio said. “I guess we have to adapt to it.”

My two seasons on the sidelines were far from perfect, medically speaking. I’ve watched a coach send his wobbly teenage son, the quarterback, back on the field after a crushing blow near his own sideline. One series later he was out of the game. In a postgame interview, while his dazed signal caller son meandering towards the locker room, he called it a “leg” injury. He played the next week.

I’ve talked to a coach on the verge of tears because one of his players was carted off in an ambulance after a special teams collision. No one seemed to know what happened on the field, but the fear in that coach’s eyes was all I needed to see. Thankfully, his player would walk out of the hospital the next day.

I know the climate of the game is changing, but the brain injury is still taboo. Getting hurt is inevitable in football, or so the thinking goes. Physical injuries, the ones that bring casts and crutches, visually explain why you’re in street clothes during practice. There is no cast for your brain; just missed games and frustrated parents, coaches and players. No one wants to see teenagers get hurt, but few truly comprehend how to make things better, or how they become worse.

This is not the part where I will make a wild claim about football, about why it is on the verge of extinction. Football will continue to evolve, as it has from the sport that routinely left players dead on the field, not decades later, of their own accord. It must get safer. Absolutely, and it will, but it will not disappear.

This is also not where I tell you what sports my future children will play, or suggest what you do with your own offspring. You can, and will, do whatever you like. This is, however, the part where I tell you to read the things linked above. None of us have to abandon football altogether, but we should understand the risks involved when our friends and family take the field.

If you have a son playing football, get to know the coaching staff and athletic trainers. Know what protocols they have in place and why. Don’t be overbearing, don’t suggest a better trap play for the offense, but do make them aware of you and that you’ll be in the bleachers if something goes wrong.

Better yet, if your child plays any contact sport, understand the risks. Lacrosse balls can concuss. Soccer collisions are always dangerous. Taking a charge on the basketball court, or an unseen screen that sends someone flying, can be just as dangerous as a helmet hitting another helmet.

It will take something drastic to get people to stop playing football. It’s the simple things in the sport, however, that can cause the most harm. The legislation and rules will come in time, but the knowledge and understanding can come now. I say make the pre-snap adjustments while you can.

One Comment

  1. Mike

    Wow. This all hits close to home. I know one of the people quoted in the Buffalo News piece well. I also lived maybe 20 minutes away from Austin Trenum when he died in 2010 but I never heard of this story until now. I could add a little bit about Brentsville District, lovingly called “Cow-Pie High” complete with its own rebus bumper sticker, means to the community. But I could never do it the justice that the Washingtonian piece did.
    I think it was Chuck Klosterman who wrote something I read recently where football was basically developed in the Ivy League as a game that loosely emulated war, and it was the first sport that was so dangerous, with death happening somewhat routinely, that Teddy Roosevelt called for reform. It seems that money and notoriety that comes with football hasn’t necessarily changed all that much.
    If you haven’t read it, Nick Mendola wrote a great piece about this very subject from the first hand, about his own emotions after a concussion and how confused and terrified it made him. I’m not sure what kind of societal reevaluation will go on, but I suspect little, which says a lot.