I loved playing high school football.
But back in the ’70s, when I suited up, people didn’t worry about kids suffering concussions. They surely didn’t worry about kids dying from a hit on the field.
Yet, in recent years, more headlines about youth football involve the risks, not just the rewards.
Consider that five boys have died from football injuries just this fall, according to an article in Mother Jones. They include Cam’ron Matthews, a 16-year-old junior at Alton High School in East Texas, only about two hours from my home here in Dallas. He told his teammates in the huddle that he felt dizzy, before reaching the sidelines and collapsing. He suffered an aneurysm, doctors said, and died the next day.
The other players who have suffered fatal injuries this fall are:
- Kenny Bui of Burien, Wash., who died of blunt force trauma to the head. He previously had suffered a concussion but was cleared by doctors to play.
- Evan Murray of Warren County, N.J., who died from internal bleeding caused by a lacerated spleen. He suffered a hit to the stomach and collapsed on the sidelines.
- Ben Hamm of Bartlesville, Okla., who made a seemingly routine tackle on a kickoff return, yet suffered a head injury and underwent surgery. He died from a lack of oxygen to the brain.
- Tyrell Cameron of Winnsborgo, La., who broke his neck during a punt return. He died a short time later after being taken to a hospital.
More dangerous now?
Has high school football become more dangerous, with kids getting bigger, stronger and faster? Hard to tell. In 1931, the American Football Coaches Association conducted the first annual survey of football fatalities, according to a recent report from the National Center for Catastrophic Sport Injury Research. And every year since then, with the exception of 1990, at least one football-related death has occurred, the research center says.
“Fatalities in the sport of football are rare but tragic events,” according to its report.
With thousands and thousands of kids playing high school football nationwide, the risk of death is small on a percentage basis. But deaths aren’t the only concern. Some players suffer catastrophic head and neck injuries that can lead to paralysis.
Bottom line: Is the risk from playing youth football too great for responsible parents to accept? That’s a tough question that I haven’t have to face it. I have a 15-year-old son, but he’s never expressed an interest in playing organized, contact football.
Maybe I dodged a bullet. I’ve read of some former professional football players who let their sons play football and some who do not. Personally, I think I benefited greatly from playing high school football. I learned about hard work, dedication and teamwork — lessons that carry over to life.
I didn’t escape without injury, though. Shortly before the start of my senior year, I tore up my left knee in practice. It required major surgery, with the insertion of a pin to repair a ripped ligament, and I never played again. To this day, the knee bothers me occasionally, and I’m no longer able to jog.
Torn-up knees, unfortunately, are all-too-common in youth football. I used to think that was the worst injury a player could expect. But with the growing awareness of fatalities from the sport, my enthusiasm for football has waned. It’s an exciting sport to play and watch, but so are many other sports that don’t involve repetitive, jarring contact.
What can we do?
I saw a recent article in Time that calls for school officials to count the number of hits a kid suffers in football, just as they count the number of pitches a youth baseball player throws to avoid injury to his arm.
Researchers “increasingly believe that football-related head trauma is more likely to result from multiple — and often perfectly legal — hits, rather than a single shot,” the article says.
Scary stuff. Each hit that we celebrate during a frenzied Friday night game might actually be leading to serious head trauma. I still enjoy the excitement of high school football, but I watch games with growing ambivalence.