I have been a sports lover for as long as I can remember. As a young kid, I played soccer, baseball and basketball. When I was three years old, my dad started taking me to the Philadelphia Eagles home games, and I fell in love with the competitiveness of football.
Wrapped up as I was in other sports, I started playing football only in the seventh grade, when I decided to join my middle school team. Over the years I began to see football as an opportunity for a college scholarship. I made it onto my high school football team as a kicker, and I used the sport as my ticket to Temple University, where I majored in biology.
At the high school level, the words of wisdom from our coaches were to “keep your head up, and see what you hit.” At the time, I had no reason to question that level of guidance. Yet as the emerging data on the dangers of repeated brain traumas make clear, we need to do far more to educate young players.
Attitudes toward athlete safety have changed radically during my career on the field. As little as two years ago players were far more likely than they are today to play through a concussion, driven as they were by the will to win. Now players and the coaching staff are more inclined to speak up if a concussion occurs. And last fall Pop Warner, the largest youth football league, partnered with the NFL and USA Football, the organization that governs the sport at the nonprofessional level, to train coaches in ways to prevent concussions.
Tackling technique is only one factor influencing safety on the field. In middle school, for example, a tight budget meant that our helmets and shoulder pads came out of an aging pool of gear. We wore old, oversized T-shirts as jerseys over our pads during practice. In high school we had better equipment and, more important, we started training to increase upper-body and neck muscles—critical to a player's ability to withstand impacts. An equipment manager (in our case, a janitor who worked with our team part-time) gave every player what he considered the best-fitting helmet and shoulder pads from the existing stockpile.
All that changed at the college level. Every year before workouts began for the new season, I was fitted by a trained equipment manager for my helmet and pads. Not only did we have professional strength coaches, we also had an experienced training staff familiar with spotting and handling head injuries, even if a player tries to hide symptoms to remain in the game.
Because these resources are often not available to younger players, parents may wonder whether their children are more vulnerable to head injuries. The answer is not so simple, as the risks differ by age group.
Of greatest concern is that a child's brain is not fully developed until adulthood. Namely, the axons of their neurons are not fully coated in myelin, the protective insulation that comes under stress in some of the most harmful brain injuries [see box]. Thus, a head impact has the potential to inflict more damage than a concussion later in life. Moreover, a child's weak neck and torso muscles—as compared with a burly pro whose neck is the size of a milk jug—permit the head to whip around precariously. Yet weaker muscles also mean softer tackles, as children are unlikely to deliver the crushing blows that can cause bones to crumple at other levels of play.
High school is when proper technique starts to make the most difference, especially because seniors can dwarf freshmen in size. Building up neck and shoulder muscles and rehearsing safe technique (such as keeping the head up, rather than letting it drop into an injury-prone position) become paramount—high schools need to embrace these practices if they have not already.
Collegiate football, in which such measures are routine, also comes with its own set of risks: with players still refining their skills, full-contact practice is more common than in the NFL. As a result, collegiate players may encounter more dangerous situations than professionals. Ultimately, though, the greatest risk factor is simply the number of years a person stays in the sport. The more seasons a player devotes to football, the greater the chances of sustaining multiple traumatic brain injuries.
I first learned about chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE) in the fall of 2012, when several former NFL players committed suicide, and players and their families sued the league. Although awareness has spread throughout the NFL, I estimate that as many as 80 percent of college players still do not know about CTE. This needs to change.
Even though I have now educated myself about CTE, I have no second thoughts about going pro. I signed with the Indianapolis Colts last spring and remain excited about being a part of the NFL. My position as a kicker means that I run a low risk of experiencing a traumatic brain injury during a game. Yet if I felt at risk of CTE because of multiple head impacts, I would leave the game and encourage others to do the same. My fellow athletes should have the same opportunity to make a well-informed decision about their future.