When I was in high school, it crossed my mind more than once that someday I’d have a son and he would play high school football. I thought about how proud I would be to see him suited up, helmet glistening in the sun. I thought about how excited he would be to play football “just like his old man.” I thought maybe he’d play the same position. Maybe he’d even have my number.
Now I spend a lot of days hoping that I don’t kill myself before I get to see him graduate high school or get married or have kids or whatever he does with his life.
I’ll back up a bit and say that I’m not suicidal. As I’m writing this piece, I’m not depressed. This is not a cry for help. On the contrary. I’m happily married and have two beautiful children. I’ve built a business around the things I’m passionate about.
I’ve had a lot of concussions over the years. What constitutes a lot? Well, it’s hard to say because I played football before concussions were a thing. You didn’t have a concussion. You “got your bell rung” and it was up to you, the peacocking 16-year-old kid, desperate to impress everyone around you, to decide whether or not you had the mental capacity to keep going.
When I’ve gone back and tracked my head trauma over the years, we’ve come to the conclusion that I have suffered somewhere between 8 and 13 concussions.
I should stress that not all of them have been suffered playing football. My most recent one was a result of being pushed into the boards during a hockey game. I “woke up” at a few exits from home, driving my car and listening to the radio.
I’ve also suffered concussions that had nothing to do with sports. I slid down a hill and hit a brick wall when I was a kid. I wasn’t diagnosed with a concussion but I don’t remember much from that day and I have a dent in my head, so…we’re going to make a bold assumption.
Why am I worried about suicide? Enter CTE.
Chronic traumatic encephalopathy is a neurological disorder that develops after multiple head traumas. Head trauma, in football and in many sports, can happen a lot. While there has been no confirmed link between CTE and suicide, there have been a number of high profile cases that would lead an educated individual to believe that the gradual onset of depression that CTE does involve can lead to this final act.
For me the terrifying part of CTE lies in the fact that it develops years after the “events” with no rhyme or reason as to how or why. There are stories of high school football players living perfectly normal lives throughout their 20s and 30s, only to commit suicide or suffer deep depression in their 40s and 50s.
These are “normal” “happy” people.
My son is six years old and loves football. He loves throwing the football around and has recently told me that when he gets a little older, he wants to play “just like his old man.”
And I’m terrified. I’m terrified that my son will make the same dumb decisions that I’ve made throughout my athletic career, sacrificing his body and potentially his future, to make that big play.
I love high school football. The lessons that I learned about work ethic, leadership, and teamwork were invaluable. My high school football career helped build the foundation upon which I’ve built much of my life and my career.
But I don’t want my son anywhere near that world.
Players are being taught to hit better. They’re being taught to be more cognisant of their bodies, how to use them, and how to protect them.
But week after week professionals who know all the risks get concussions and neck and spine damage and I just don’t want that for my son.
In grade 12, practicing with the provincial team, I suffered a horrific neck injury. To this day, almost 20 years later I still suffer from headaches and a neck twitch that takes all of my effort to control. I couldn’t move my arms and legs for longer than you want to experience the feeling of not being able to move your arms and legs.
I just don’t want that for my son.
I would not describe my injuries as typical. But they certainly weren’t rare. I played with individuals who suffered career-ending injuries during their high school careers. I was interviewed after a local college player was paralyzed. At the time I said that there’s as much of a chance of being paralyzed walking across the street and that I couldn’t afford to think about those types of things because it would distract me, and then I’d get hurt.
I stand by the second part of that statement (and some days the drivers in my city make me believe the first part as well) but that doesn’t mean I think it’s a good idea to keep playing.
So how can I convince my son that football is not the path for him?
Well, I could forbid it. I could refuse to sign the forms necessary to allow him to play the sport. When I look back at my relationship with my own father, this path is not appealing to me.
I could push him into other things. Right now, my son doesn’t play organized sports except for a community-run soccer league once a week during the summer. His athletic experience is mostly confined to gymnastics. So I could push him into the sports that I want him to play. When I look back at my relationship with my own mother, this path doesn’t appeal to me either.
So what do I do?
Well when the time comes to make a decision on my son’s future as a football player, we will have a frank conversation about the nature of the sport and the concerns that we have. And then I will trust that I’ve done a good enough job raising him for him to make the right decision for himself.
Maybe that means he plays high school football. I’ll still go to all his games. You will not find a bigger cheerleader for him than me. I’ll root for him and I’ll cheer for him and I’ll encourage him, as we do in all things, to do his best work.
I will let him make his own, informed decision about the sport that both gave me so much and took so much away.
I will always love football.
I just don’t want that for my son.