The tough decision football parents face

My nephew reports that his son, 12, will be trying out for his school’s football team this fall.

He and his wife are ambivalent. At every level, football is a rough game that demands willingness to impose and endure pain, and injury, for the sake of victory.

What’s a concerned parent to do? On one hand, you can’t swaddle your child in “bubble wrap.” On the other, he really could suffer a life-changing injury. Yet from Pee Wee League to the NFL, our culture assigns the highest status to the football hero, an aspiration that a 12-year-old boy has trouble resisting. I suspect that many parents do what my nephew is doing: Hoping that good coaching and modern equipment will somehow protect their sons.

The dilemma reminds me of my brief football career. My parents were reluctant to give their approval, but eventually they relented. My mother’s concern took a blow when a kid named Ronnie broke his leg in the first game.

In eighth grade, Freddie broke his arm. I was good, but a sophomore year knee injury brought my career to an end. I had a “bad” knee for years.

I mention this brief history not because it’s extraordinary. Ronnie, Freddie and I were the lucky ones. We left the game with injuries that have modest lifelong effects. Consider Alex Pierscionek. One day he blacked out after a hard collision. A couple of years later he’s still suffering from headaches, anxiety and suicidal thoughts and his educational opportunities are limited.

But there’s nothing extraordinary about Alex, either. His was one of 60,000 concussions that occur in high school football every year. And a recent study from Purdue University indicates players can suffer significant mental impairment from “sub-concussive” injuries – the ordinary wear and tear on the brain from getting hit in the head a lot.

So, parents, you face a tough decision. The game isn’t going to change in any meaningful way, and efforts toward better equipment and trainers are mostly window dressing. But if you’re still on the fence, consider the story of John McClamrock.

In 1973 McClamrock, 17, made an ordinary tackle on opening kickoff for his high school in Dallas. From that moment until he died 35 years later, he never moved another muscle below his broken neck.

Unfortunately, his story isn’t unusual, either. Diehard football fans will not be dissuaded by McClamrock. But read his story before you decide whether your son should play.

John M. Crisp is a columnist for Tribune News Service.