Boy, it’s hard being a U of M football fan. No, not because we’ve been so awful the past seven years. That’s hard enough, trust me.
It’s hard being such a football fan every college football Saturday when, for most of the rest of every week, I’m such a staunch cheerleader for the survivors of brain injury and for the prevention of it.
Virtually even Saturday since 1974 I’ve watched my beloved Wolverines race through that banner at the Big House or take the field on the road. As a kid, my Mom let me draw block M’s on Sociables crackers with canned cheese whiz. She’d make her chili and we’d gather as a family and cheer on our Maize and Blue.
Those are some of my fondest family memories as a kid.
Today I don’t want my nephew to play football.
It’s hard to juggle this love/hate relationship when so much is on the line.
It used to be that head injuries acquired in football were seemingly rare. Rare because we dumbed them down by saying a kid “got his bell rung” or was “seeing stars.”
Football players, by their very nature, are tough buggers. Their coaches are tough. Their fans’ expectations are tough, also.
Today we know so much more about concussion and head injury. It has been proven that linemen repeatedly alter their brains IN PRACTICE. We also know that people who sustain a concussion are both more likely to sustain another one and are extremely vulnerable to a worse second if they return to action before they have healed entirely.
And I can’t wait for the season to start.
Beyond the University of Michigan football, the Detroit Lions are looking promising this season and I work part-time as a public address announcer for football at my old high school.
I love the sport.
So I tell myself things. I tell myself that football has always been and will always be. I tell myself that I acquired my brain injury driving and I haven’t given up driving or encouraged people to stop getting behind the wheel. I pump myself up with reassurances that trainers are better aware and helmets are better equipped and laws are now scaling back on helmet-to-helmet hits.
And I pray a lot.
I pray that every person who is even remotely in charge of a young person’s future and cognitive health will take a moment before each practice and game to remind him or herself of just what’s at stake here.
Coaches, trainers, athletic directors, officials, parents….
The game we must win this season has nothing to do with the score on the scoreboard. The winning numbers will be in the head injuries avoided and well-identified and cautiously-treated. Those are the numbers we have to take aim at. Those are the numbers which have to improve.
Football colors the landscapes of Autumn all across our country. From Pee Wee to Pro, some would consider it a sacred tradition. One that unites families, teammates, schools, fan bases and entire states.
As we buy tickets and new sweatshirts and grab a hot dog and file into the stands, let’s all prepare a little more. Let’s take it one step further.
Parents and family members, let’s teach our kids the importance of fair play, safe hits, concussion awareness and self-reporting. Talk to the coaches and trainers and athletic directors to find out what type of understanding and awareness and precaution and protocols are in place. Rally for baseline tests and, if your school cannot afford them, design one at home. Suffer the player’s shrugged shoulders and rolling eyes and drill it into him or her over and over until there is a new perspective and a new priority.
Let’s not worry so much about how fancy their socks and, instead, really take a good look at their gear. Booster Clubs and parents’ football clubs…rally to raise money for the best brain-protective helmets on the market and standard, baseline testing for all football and soccer players.
These are our kids we’re talking about here.
The repercussions of concussions….
Make no mistake, the hits to the head of a fifteen-year-old kid could potentially affect everything about his life going forward. Maybe not in glaring ways. Maybe not as obvious as the cast and crutches of a player who blows out his ACL.
But in often subtle ways that may sneak in and steal milliseconds of reaction time, percentages on test scores, higher ranges of motor skills and cognitive processing speeds, fractions of abilities that govern judgment and behavior…
And that’s for the survivors who are fortunate.
This hypocrite is going to be the public address announcer when my high school’s football team takes the field Thursday. I’m going to don my University of Michigan sweatshirt when my Wolverines kick off their season against Utah next week.
But before I call that first kick off, that first return, that first tackle, I will say a prayer for the safety of all those athletes. Young and old, my team and yours. I’ll pray that every parent who reads this will keep the conversation going and, when needed, have the guts to start it.
Taking care of our players. Making their brain health a priority. Changing a climate that has, for so long, belittled concussion….
That doesn’t make football any less than better. It doesn’t take away the toughness that so many people love. It doesn’t make a player soft or slight.
But it just might save more of these kids so that they have an experience they can actually remember fondly. Or remember at all.
They are our future. These deserve to have all their ammunition as they head out into their lives.
Let’s do what we can to help them. It’s our responsibility when they bring so much joy.
There’s no bigger win for any of them. Or for any of us.