I blog about a lot of controversial things and receive my share of flak for it, but I anticipate today’s article will top them all. Today we are diving deep into the heart of America to shine some light on the one and only:
You would be hard pressed to find a bigger fan of football than me during the first 33 years of my life. I was born into a Packer and Badger family in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. While as a youngster I always pulled for these teams, my independence sprouted at age 5 when my family moved to Kentucky and I started liking the teams that were on TV, namely the Philadelphia Eagles and the Michigan Wolverines. I’ve owned an extensive wardrobe of Eagle and Wolverine garb throughout my life and can pretty much name you every player and stat line from these teams from the past 25 years.
I started playing John Madden Football for Super Nintendo when it came out in 1991, with steady doses of Tecmo Bowl and Tecmo Super Bowl prior to that–and I’ll still whip any of your tails at any of the above.
We moved to Ohio when I was in 3rd grade. I soon began idolizing Troy High School football, as most of my town did. I played at Troy from grades 7-12, my sophomore year getting to be on the roster with the 1998 Mr. Ohio Football (best player in Ohio) Ryan Brewer, who went on to be Outback Bowl MVP at the University of South Carolina, and Kris Dielman, a 2x NFL All-Pro and 4x NFL Pro-Bowler with the Chargers.
After high school, I played as much flag football as I could, continued my Madden addiction, and dominated* my friends in fantasy football (which I began playing in 8th grade).
*ok, the dominated memory is a little foggy…
In 2012 I took a summer work sabbatical and strapped the pads on one last time, playing for Lansing’s semi-pro team, the Capital City Stealth. I played safety, was a team-captain and had 7 interceptions prior to re-tearing my ACL.
I was a man completely in love with football.
Another important point I need to make at this time is that, naturally, many of my friendships are from football connections. As I write on, I want to particularly acknowledge my former teammates and coaches from the Stealth, many of whom I still have strong bonds with. Football is such a unique sport in how it bonds teammates together. I’m not writing this to criticize anyone who played or is still playing football at any level. Football is a magical game to play. Some continue to play because they don’t know, some know and are taking their chances, some know and don’t care because the moment and its benefits are needed and worth it.
In early 2013 as I rehabbed my 3rd torn ACL, preparing myself for season 2 with the Stealth, I read an article in ESPN Magazine that was the beginning of the end of football for me. I’ve tracked down that exact article and encourage you to read it: “Football is Dead. Long Live Football.” by J.R. Moehringer.
Things I remember from the article:
- The brain is like an egg yolk, you aren’t supposed to jiggle it. No helmet will protect the brain from smashing into the skull during football. You’d have to add protection in-between the brain and the skull to accomplish this. Good luck with that.
- Football is a multi-billion dollar industry so the NFL and NCAA have tons of interest in lying about what’s actually happening to players’ brains, which they’ve done very effectively for a long time.
- There’s a bizarre class and racial component to what’s happening in football. As more white middle & upper class families stop allowing their kids to play football because of the brain damage it causes, professional players are becoming predominantly poorer people of color. But as football becomes a bigger and bigger business due to fans’ obsession with it (and tickets get more expensive), the stands are predominantly filled with middle & upper class white people who can afford these high ticket prices. Wealthy white people cheering on black and brown people who are getting brain damage which will eventually kill them. Strange. Moehringer compares this to the Roman Coliseum where elite Roman citizens would gather to to be entertained as the enslaved gladiators killed one another. Now that’s some strong coffee.
- Football causes brain damage, which often causes players to go crazy and many times kill themselves. Period. When we cheer for football, we cheer for this.
Talk about a glass of cold water to the face! This article had power to it for me. Enough power that I retired from football. I didn’t want this type of brain damage, and began to be legitimately scared about what kind of brain damage I might already have, thinking about the previous concussions I’d sustained throughout my life and recently with the Stealth, and all the scientists saying it’s not just the concussions, but the accumulation of all of the smaller hits piled up over time. Every time I can’t remember something, I began to worry if it’s from CTE.
Next for me was the PBS documentary League of Denial. You need to watch it. It’s essentially the factual account that Will Smith’s Concussion movie is based on. Here’s the trailer:
The final nail in the coffin was Will Smith’s Concussion movie. It took the story lines, deception and suicides that were chronicled in League of Denial and put them into gripping drama:
So many of the players I grew up collecting football cards of were now shooting themselves (often in the heart, so their brains could be studied for CTE). Others simply can’t remember much of anything and fear the worst.
Most recently it was Rashaan Salaam, the 1994 Heisman Trophy winner from the University of Colorado and NFL 1st round draft pick. I was in middle school during his hey day–busy being Salaam in video games and watching him and his teammates Kordell Stewart and Michael Westbrook beat my Wolverines with the famous “Miracle at Michigan” hail mary. Cheering on football and pouring out my money to the economic football machine as Salaam’s brain got beat to bits, leading to his 2016 suicide in a Boulder, Colorado park.
Jovan Belcher (25-years-old!)
Tyler Sash (27-years-old)
These are just a handful of the NFL who have committed suicide because of CTE, along with Salaam. Not to mention Cullen Finnerty, the 3-time national champion quarterback for Division II Grand Valley State University who, at age 30 and married with kids, randomly killed himself in the woods a couple hours from where I live. He was the quarterback for Curt Wright, co-pastor with me at Crossroads. This is real stuff. This is scary stuff.
We shouldn’t be rooting for this stuff.
In 2015, 87 of 91 former NFL players who have been tested have CTE (brain damage). That’s 95%. A new list released in November 2016 mentions CTE in 90 of 94 brains of former and deceased NFL players. This includes 33 out of 34 clear cases in deceased players tested (97%).
Ken Stabler, Bubba Smith, Frank Gifford, Justin Strzelczyk, Mike Webster, Adrian Robinson.
The following living players have publicly acknowledged either having been diagnosed with likely CTE or having suffered symptoms, such as dementia or unusual memory loss, consistent with CTE. (No definitive CTE test is available for living persons.):
Brett Favre, Mark Duper, Dorsey Levens, Jamal Lewis, Bernie Kosar, Tony Dorsett, Jim McMahon, Antwaan Randle El, Darryl Talley, Kyle Turley, Frank Wycheck, Sean Morey, Ricardo McDonald, and many more.
Check out Colts’ Super Bowl winning TE Ben Utecht’sbook
They never told us this. We all thought helmets would protect us. If you got your bell rung, you didn’t dare tell your coach because he’d put someone else in your place and label you as soft. You just sucked it up and played through the headache. Do you really think that has changed or will change? Do you really believe the NFL’s propaganda about how safe football is, so its elite can continue to rake in billions?
And if you know, how can you honestly support football anymore? How can you look at it the same as you once did?
With the exception of supporting a personal friend who was a senior on Michigan State’s team this year, I did not watch a down of football this entire season. I did not click on a single NFL or NCAA football web link, and I won’t ever again.
I never set out to evangelize against football, I just want to make you think. I can’t help thinking about it, praising God I still have the ability to do so.
Is your favorite team’s next touchdown really worth another suicide (and/or dementia, memory loss, depression) to you?
It wasn’t for me.
Author of Beyond the Battle: A man's guide to his identity in Christ in an oversexualized world
Host of the The Flip Side Podcast
Join an online men's small group led by Noah and team at BeyondTheBattle.net
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