Across the country, football practice will soon begin for high schools, colleges and even Pop Warner teams. Around 1.2 million kids, the vast majority being boys, but some girls too, will strap on their pads and head out into the summer heat to begin a season that won’t end until the fall air turns crisp. As impressive as that 1.2 million number sounds, it’s down by as much as 20 percent in some parts of the country.
Because football is in trouble.
You’ve no doubt heard about the concussion crisis, the lawsuits being brought by former NFL and college players alike and the truly tragic tales behind them that have trickled down to the youth level. Parents like you are concerned, even worried, and rightfully so. But there’s another side of the story and that’s what I want to share with you today.
My lifelong love affair with the game of football began thanks to a combination of a bicycle and a radio. I must’ve been eight or nine years old, maybe even younger. I was riding a bike, around the sidewalk in front of my house. It was right after the end of World War II and the radio was blaring from the front porch, while I made tracks over the pavement. And as I was pedaling about, mostly in circles, I heard the play-by-play man blare the name of Notre Dame’s famed quarterback, Angelo Bertelli, as he raced into the end zone for a touchdown.
I didn’t know anything about football in those days. But I was old enough to recognize an Italian name when I heard it. And if he could be a football player, I could be a football player. Then I became a football coach and went on to head up the National Football Foundation and the College Hall of Fame for fourteen years. The question we face now is why should your son or daughter be afforded the same opportunity to play football that I had?
First off, the game is safer than it’s ever been. Thanks to the emphasis being placed on proper tackling techniques, coupled with proactive actions taken by organizations like the AFCA (American Football Coaches Association), the NFF (National Football Foundation), and USA Football just to name a few, more attention is being paid to efforts aimed at protecting the safety and health of players at every level.
"It is a wonderful story of the incredible ability of the human spirit to overcome. And for people to overcome their prejudices and their history in favor of a common good. We are a better country for the role that football has played in bringing us together.” - Condoleezza Rice
A new emphasis has been placed on training techniques with full contact being curtailed or eliminated from practices, coaches and trainers alike educated to err on the side of caution when it comes to head injuries with players needing to pass an extensive concussion protocol if such an injury is suspected before they’re allowed to return to the field. Doctors and professional trainers can be found on the sidelines of games from youth leagues all the way through college, safety now made priority number one.
For a prime example of this trend, look no further than football-mad Texas, where, according to a March 28, 2018 article in Dallas-Fort Worth’s Star-Telegram, “The University Interscholastic League’s Legislative Council passed a rule in October that will require every Texas high school and junior high school football coach to become certified in teaching proper tackling techniques as a part of the official UIL Coaches Certification Program.”
Secondly, the concussion crisis is not limited to football. In fact, some studies have revealed quite the contrary. A study of high school athletes reported by the Winston Salem Journal in June of 2015 reported that, “In a population of 374,565 girls soccer players across the nation, there were an estimated 55,598 concussions — a rate of 14.8 percent. Football players suffered concussions at a rate of 13.5 percent in 1,094,949 players.” That reality is further illustrated by the increasing number of youth soccer leagues that have banned heading.
But there’s something deeper and more intrinsic in play here. It has been said that football is a measure of how far we’ve come as a country. At every level of competition, you see young men of varying backgrounds working together as a team, sharing a determination towards reaching a common goal. And in the process of reaching that goal having success, knowing failure, but most importantly have the chance to do so.
“As I watch young men of all backgrounds and all religions, of all races and all ethnicities pulling together, working together as teammates, loving each other, respecting each other, it is a reflection of America’s journey,” former U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice said in her remarks upon receiving the National Football Foundation’s highest and most prestigious award, the Gold Medal in 2015. “And it is a wonderful story of the incredible ability of the human spirit to overcome. And for people to overcome their prejudices and their history in favor of a common good. We are a better country for the role that football has played in bringing us together.”
I wrote my book “1st and Forever” because we need to promote just that, what I call “the good in the game,” because there’s so much of it; too much to squander and rob your sons and daughters of the experience that has helped build so many lives and usher so many young people on to great futures and careers. I’m not saying everyone should play the game, only that they should have the opportunity to do so.
Hopefully those young people will have their own stories to tell of their own experiences, how the game made a huge impact on their lives, too, even as it continues to leave its indelible mark on the fabric of American life. Because this isn’t the end of football, in my mind, it’s just the beginning. A metaphorical first down, with forever to go.