What My Mother Did For Me: A Football Story

I recently read an article about a class action lawsuit against the Pop Warner youth football league. The lawsuit claims that the Pop Warner football league knowingly ignored the risks of head trauma in football and failed to protect its players. The league is also accused of knowingly hiding from parents the dangers of repeated hits to the head.

These are the same claims made by former NFL players. It would certainly not shock me if those NFL claims were found to be true. But Pop Warner? Is Pop Warner willing to put children at risk?

I’m not saying that it’s not possible, but I’m finding it hard to believe or, perhaps, just finding it hard to understand. Why would they hide these facts–if, in fact, they knew it to be true?

I remember signing up for Pop Warner. I was around twelve years old at the time. Before I could even try out for the team they told me to step on a scale. They wrote down my weight and told me I didn’t meet the weight requirement. They told me to gain weight and come back next year.

That was the end of it. I never even had a chance to put on a helmet. I was disappointed but, since I was about to enter junior high, I figured I would just try out for the school team. Then I found out that 7th graders weren’t allowed to play. The reason? They said there was too much of a size difference between 7th graders and 9th graders. They didn’t want to risk injuries.

All of this happened back in the 1970s. But consider this: if they were that concerned about players’ safety back then, I would think they’d be even more safety-conscious today.

I’m not trying to make light of concussions or head-trauma injuries. As a lifelong fan of the game I’m as disturbed by these findings as anyone. I’m also trying to understand the root of the problem.

Can it be proven the trauma was from football and football alone? Perhaps it’s hard for me to grasp that concept because it was unheard of years ago. I don’t recall hearing former players complaining of severe headaches and memory loss. There may have been a few cases, but it was pretty rare. I remember when Roger Staubach and Al Toon retired from the NFL due, in part, to concussions. But I never heard about the problem in youth or high school football.

What has changed? Perhaps it has. If so, it’s likely because we know so much more today then we did years ago.

I’ve only had one bad concussion in my life, but it wasn’t from playing football. It was from playing kickball in grade school. I was trying to avoid being tagged out and lost my balance. I fell and hit my head on the pavement. I can recall being carried off to the Nurse’s Office. The rest of the day was a blur, but I recovered after a day or two and nothing more was made of it. No one was questioned. Nobody was sued.

I may have had some minor concussions playing football but, if I did, how would I have known? A minor concussion back then was called “Getting your bell rung.” You heard a buzzing noise between your ears and a slight aching in your head. You might go out of the game for a play or two or you might just ‘tough it out’ and keep playing. No one knew any better at that time.

Today the Pop Warner league has disallowed certain head-on blocking and tackling drills, and those changes have drastically reduced full-contact practice time. The NFL has created a clinic for youth called, Heads Up Football. The program teaches players blocking and tackling techniques designed to reduce helmet-to-helmet contact. The NFL also works with a group called, USA Football, which creates helmet safety standards.

Football, in general, has changed drastically since I last played in 1980. Rules have been changed to make the game safer. Changes have been made to equipment to make the game safer. I’m not sure what more can be done to decrease the risk of injuries and concussions in football.

I, for one, don’t want to see the game banned. I don’t believe we should become a nation where anything that might be deemed ‘dangerous’ or ‘may cause injury’ should be done away with. We are a free country and people should be able to do what they enjoy– even if there’s some risk, within reason, involved.

There may come a time soon when players will have to sign waivers to play football. It’s a waiver I would be willing to sign–for myself or my son. Why? I do not wish to live in fear, especially when it comes to doing something one enjoys. Having said that, I wouldn’t criticize a parent for choosing not to sign a waiver. We have to do what we feel is best for our children.

That’s what my mother did. I injured my knee playing football when I was 13 years old. I spent over a week in the hospital, in traction. Once it was time for me to leave the hospital, the doctor put me in a full leg cast and sent me home. He believed I was young enough and healthy enough to make a full recovery without the need for surgery. He was right. I recovered.

A year later I wanted to try out for my junior high football team. I knew my mother was afraid I might reinjure my knee. She might try to talk me out of it or just flat-out refuse to sign-off on my play. But she knew how much football meant to me and how much I loved playing the game. She knew it would break my heart to take away something that was such a big part of my life. So, with tears in her eyes, she signed the consent form.

I had a successful season and won a trophy for best defensive player the following year. Coming back from that knee injury and winning that award gave me confidence that I never had before. Playing football taught me about dedication, discipline, and teamwork. I’ve carried those values with me through life and I’ve passed them on to my son.

Some of my happiest memories in life are of playing football in junior high. Signing that consent form was a very difficult thing for my mother to do, but it was the best thing she could have done for me.

Sometimes the most loving thing a parent can do is let go.

MARK

I've always had a passion for sports. My favorite sport is football. I played and watched a lot of football during the 1970's (my favorite era) After graduating high school I began to compete in Olympic weightlifting. I competed from 1981-1989. I began competing in powerlifting in 2011 and currently hold some New Jersey and New York State records for my age group (50-54) This year I will be competing in the 55-59 age group and hope to break some more State records. I enjoy writing about weightlifting and football.

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