Pope: At what point will we realize how dangerous football is?

Keegan Pope

Football Reporter Keegan Pope

Football scares the living hell out of me.

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I have played the sport for nearly my entire life, whether it was in my parents’ backyard throwing myself touchdowns while pretending to be my idol John Elway, or playing with my teammates at Rocky Mountain High School four years ago. The sport is in my blood, like it is for so many people who are around it.

I was the kid who, instead of watching cartoons every Saturday morning, picked up the newspaper’s sports section and read alongside my dad before watching college football all day. Some of my fondest memories over the last 22 years have come around the game of football, and it has taught me more life lessons than any other sport I’ve competed in or activity I’ve done. There’s something about football that is so different than any other, and it’s almost impossible to explain unless you’ve experienced it.

But it terrifies me, and it should terrify you, too.

Monday morning marked the fourth time in the last month that a high school football player has died from on-field injuries sustained during a game. Kenney Bui, a senior at Evergreen (Wash.) High School passed away Monday morning after undergoing surgery for a traumatic brain injury suffered Friday night. Just a week before, Evan Murray, a quarterback at Warren Hills (N.J.) Regional High School, died because of “massive internal bleeding” after suffering a lacerated spleen during a game that night.

I love the game of football, and I have since my dad painted lines and yard markers in our backyard for my seventh birthday. But at what point will we realize just how dangerous this game is?

As I said, I played football. I was by no means a great player, and I’ll be the first to admit that. I played two seasons of varsity football – an experience I wouldn’t trade for anything. But that doesn’t mean I don’t have some battle scars. Scattered across my body are bumps and scars from my playing days, and I have a few crooked fingers that never healed quite right. I partially tore my hamstring during my senior year, and my ankles still ache from time to time after severely spraining them in between my junior and senior seasons. I am by no means special. I know a number of my friends and teammates who had it much worse than I did – torn ACLs, broken bones and even facial fractures.  

But what scares me are the bumps and bruises we can’t see. The ones on our brains and other vital organs. During my time playing, I suffered a handful of mild concussions. I was only knocked out of a game once, but a lot of that was due to the fact that I didn’t tell anyone about the symptoms. I was ultra-competitive, and I didn’t want to be seen by my teammates and coaches as anything less than that. Looking back, it was foolish. But in the moment, it was just something you did. You got hit, and you got up.

I saw two of my high school teammates get knocked unconscious momentarily, and one of them had to be carried off the field on a stretcher. Luckily, that was never my fate. But it just as easily could’ve been.

I wake up with headaches every now and again, and this past Thursday I suffered my most recent bout of dizziness and blurred vision. I chalked it up to a lack of sleep, mostly because the thought of it being the result of anything else scares me too much to think about.

If I have these symptoms after playing seven years of tackle football, what are the men who have been playing for 10, 15 or even 20 years suffering from? It’s not something anyone wants to talk about – almost taboo-esque – because it isn’t cool to be the guy sitting out of practice or a game because his head hurts.

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But it can’t be ignored. As more athletes are posthumously diagnosed with CTE, or chronic traumatic encephalopathy, more and more people are joining the conversation. Former NFL players are suing the very league that employed them for not warning them about the risks associated with football. A major motion picture starring Will Smith will hit theaters soon, opening the Pandora’s Box of concussions for the whole world to see. Steps have been taken to limit helmet-to-helmet hits in the NFL. But at what point does football, at least the way we’ve come to know it, cease to exist?

I hope that day never comes, because the life lessons that come along with it are irreplaceable. But there’s a reason the number of kids playing youth football is at an all-time low. And I understand why.

Someday – hopefully – I’ll have kids of my own to teach the game of football. But like many parents currently are, I’ll have a decision to make. The odds of my future son playing college or professional football are slim, mostly because if he inherits my lack of speed, he may not be able to outrun his offensive linemen. Okay, maybe that’s a bit of an exaggeration. Not every kid who plays football ends up like Kenney Bui, but if even one does, is it worth it? Is football a game worth giving your life for?

Will I prevent my (hopefully) future son from playing football? Absolutely not. But might I steer him toward basketball instead? We’ll see. I’ll tell you this, though, I don’t want to be the father on every national news channel telling the story of my son, the one who won’t get to go to his high school prom because he was too stubborn to tell anyone that his head hurt.

Collegian Senior Sports Reporter Keegan Pope can be reached at kpope@collegian.com and on Twitter @ByKeeganPope.