Tuesday, September 18, 2012

Go Steelers... or maybe not

I have to admit, I'm a Steelers fan.  Growing up in Pittsburgh, football is religion and the Steelers are at the top of the Pantheon with the Pitt Panthers and high school football teams trailing behind.  When other boys wanted to grow up to be fire fighters or police officers, I wanted to be a defensive lineman.  When my nephew played on the AAA State High School championship team, I was soooo proud.  I have my Steelers jersey and my Terrible Towel.

In 9th grade my son was recruited to play high school football.  He was big and strong and quick.  I was a little nervous.  I knew the possibility of injury but he was the stuff of a serious football player.  The coach decided to make him a center and he began to learn the position.  They had a scrimmage on the final day of practice before the season was to start and down he went.  When I got to him, lying on the field, I could see that his knee cap was on the side of his leg.  Off to the hospital and his football career ended, but not the recruiting.  He got bigger, stronger and faster and is built like a stereotypical defensive lineman.  He went to city college and his first day on campus was seen by the football coach.  "Wouldn't you like to play on the football team?  You'd make a perfect nose guard."  John said, "No" and all of my Pittsburgh formation sighed.  He often worked out in the weight room with the football team and the pressure went up.  "You know, if you worked hard, you could probably play division one football after two years at City College... and get a serious scholarship."  John remembered his knee and a statement from the orthopedic surgeon, "Next time, and there will be a next time if you play football, it will be worse."  John said, "no."  Two years later, he walked onto Allan Hancock College campus and the football coach saw him walking across the lawn... "wouldn't you like to be on the football team?"  He sometimes works out at a gym owned by two retired NFL players... "John, you should be playing football."  We were visiting Pittsburgh and walking down Penn Ave. in the Strip District, the crowds parted like Moses parted the seas and you could read their minds - "What team does he play for?"  My very attractive daughter mused as we ate in a little diner - "The guys here don't know whether to look at John or at me."

I still have fantasies of him on the gridiron with me living my childhood dream vicariously but I'm glad John was smart enough and strong enough to keep saying, "no."  Of course, there is no telling that he actually would have been a good player as it takes more than size, speed, and strength.  There has to be a kind of aggression that I'm not sure he has.  I'm glad I never found out. 

I heard that during the opening week of the NFL, there were 120 players injured.  It is no wonder.  I look at my 300+ pound, 6'3" baby and imagine him running at someone full tilt and I can feel the bones cracking.  The thought of two of him colliding at a full run makes me shudder.  That happens in virtually every play in every game.  Even as a senior in high school he wrestled at 285 and there were guys on the football team at least as big.   Players are bigger, faster, and stronger than they ever were before and the likelihood of serious injury seems to go up every year.  When I read of brain injuries of retired players, I have to wonder what will become of the current generation of players who get hit harder every week.  And the injuries are not limited to pro players.  A running back on John's high school team had a significant brain injury and his life and the lives of those who love him will never be the same again.

When I allow it, I feel a sense of responsibility.  I support this game that will leave most of its players in pain, possibly crippled, and with a significant chance of brain injury.  I know the argument that the players enter into the game aware of the possibilities... but that doesn't fly.  What 21 year old athlete as big and strong as a horse does not see themselves as being invincible?  The other guy might get hurt, but not me.  Plus they began playing long before that.  And I can't imagine a way to really make the game safer... maybe if they didn't wear helmets they'd be more careful about their heads? 

So I'll watch the Steelers this year but at some point during every game, I'll feel responsible for the bodies of those men and for their futures and for all of the little boys dreaming of being a football player.

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